The lives, works and achievements of Franz Kafka of Prague and the far less well known 19th-century Jewish mystic Reb Nachman of Bratslav would seem at first glance to have nothing in common: It is only the first of the many virtues of this engrossing and wonderful book that Rodger Kamenetz, a highly experienced and masterful writer on modern Jewish mysticism, that the truly eerie parallels between their lives, drives and visions become clear.
Yet once Mr. Kamenetz points out the parallels, they are impossible to dismiss or forget.
Kafka in Prague came from a highly assimilated enclave of German-Jewish culture. He was a product and expression of modernism; yet we learn here he was also absorbed by Jewish mysticism, for which Prague had long been a stronghold.
Where Kafka was urban and secular, Reb Nachman was the product of the most obscure rural superstitions and anti-Enlightenment forces of the Jewish Pale of Settlement across Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania in the vast Russian Empire. No attraction to the forces of science, modernity or reason for him.
Indeed, if Mr. Kamenetz’s book has one serious shortcoming, it is that, as most admirers of Reb Nachman tend to do, it takes him far too seriously without documenting the extraordinary ignorance, superstitions, physical and intellectual ineptitude and sheer religious mania that shaped his life. Arthur Green’s magisterial biography of Reb Nachman is a useful balance and corrective to this overidealization of him.
Kafka’s spiritual worldview is one of confusion, horror and ultimately despair. Reb Nachman, by contrast, teaches of rejoicing, happiness and thanksgiving: He unleashed tremendous energies of hope and overcoming in the face of every adversity in the souls of his disciples.
Kafka, however, shares with Reb Nachman the phenomenon of being a storytelling spiritual genius, whose concepts and metaphors are as haunting and resonant as anything out of Yeats or Tolstoy. Both men led private lives that were (to the secluded outsider) highly entertaining and ludicrous, but also horrifying shambles. Kafka’s romantic life was so repressed that the very touch of an imagined loved one’s hand or flutter of her eye was enough to send him into reveries of ecstasy and/or despair (usually both) for years at a time.
Reb Nachman was at the other extreme. He married at age 13. His wife, Sashia, died of exhaustion in her mid-30s after giving birth to eight children, including both their sons, one of whom he fantasized ought to be the Messiah. Reb Nachman forbade her to have any effective medical treatment. His own medical remedies, Mr. Green documents, included making women with menstrual problems simply stare obsessively at the surface of a glass of wine. Within a month of Sashia’s death, Reb Nachman got engaged to remarry.
Both men were afflicted by tuberculosis (TB) in an age when there was no cure for it, and both died while still in their 30s.
Kafka was in fact by far the more practical of the two: He held down a secure civil service job competently and reliably in the Republic of Czechoslovakia.
Both men were obsessed with the mysteries of the vanishing of divine justice, or, in Kafka’s case, the arbitrary workings of an unjust fate in a chaotic, apparently meaningless world. Both of them failed to make the marks on their times that they clearly dreamed of doing. Add to that Reb Nachman’s financial ineptitude and their obsession with God’s lack of immanence and blessing in their lives becomes readily understandable.
But both men were also literary pioneers and visionaries. Hapless failures in this life, they retreated to become masters of their own imagined worlds. They both created entirely novel fictional formats to convey their messages. Kafka did so with painstaking dedication, patience, discipline and literary skill. Reb Nachman literally stumbled, apparently entirely unselfconsciously and instinctively, into his.
Both of them were virtually unknown in their own lifetimes, but both rapidly became the subject of enormous and adoring readerships after they died. Like Elvis and Michael Jackson, for both of them, death was the best career move.
In every practical consideration, they were both total losers right through to their deaths. They only became posthumous winners because those closest to them refused to carry out their dearest and most important wishes. Our obsessions about them reveal our own inner emptiness and cravings for guidance. Mr. Kamenetz’s wonderful, sympathetic book is the best of places to start.