Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka
By Rodger Kamenetz
Schocken/Nextbook, 384 pages, $25.
In “Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka,” Rodger Kamenetz has set for himself the ambitious task of bringing about a meeting of sorts between two great men who lived 100 years and hundreds of miles apart. Kafka was a literary genius and a secular Jew fascinated by the world of Kabbalah; Nachman was a spiritual leader and Jewish mystic who spent the last years of his life reaching out to assimilated, enlightened Jews. To effect this meeting, Kamenetz must initiate the reader into the world of Jewish mysticism and explain the often elusive teachings of the Hasidic rabbi, while exploring the ubiquitous but enigmatic literary works of the novelist. The two make for compelling subjects, and “Burnt Books” is, indeed, a fascinating account of Kafka and Nachman — their lives, works and existential struggles.
But let us begin at the beginning — with the book’s title, which seems at least somewhat misleading. While Kamenetz makes much of the fact that both men asked their closest friends to destroy their unpublished works after they died, this, surprisingly, proves to be one of the book’s less salient attempts at establishing a link between Kafka and Nachman. After all, Nabokov, too, requested that his final, unpublished novel be destroyed. More compelling are the author’s descriptions of the two as men who struggled with questions of meaning, both consumed with intense feelings of longing, both acutely, painfully aware of the world’s injustices and of their own relative insignificance.
Still, Kamenetz raises interesting questions about the meaning of books — writing, reading and burning them — to these two authors of tales. For Kafka, the act of writing was a “religious experience.” For Nachman, to write was “profoundly important” in and of itself, even if the work would never be read. To read, on the other hand, presented potential dangers. Indeed, Nachman feared that his books could be ruined, that the messages they sought to communicate could be undermined, distorted, destroyed if read by the wrong person, by a heretic, say, or indeed by anyone other than himself.
Kafka’s request of Max Brod, that he destroy many of his works, may have been motivated less by a fear of his works being corrupted by readers than by his own misgivings about the value of his writing — indeed, a fear that his writing was, as Kamenetz puts it, “poison.” Still, there is a shared sense among these two that the act of writing is what matters most and that, anathema though it may be to the literary and philosophic mindset, there are circumstances that call for the destruction of books.
As for the book’s subtitle, a more apt choice might have been “Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Franz Kafka and Rodger Kamenetz,” for, as Kamenetz makes clear in his introduction, this is as much a tale about a mythic or mystical encounter between two deceased men as it is about the author’s personal journey. Geographically, Kamenetz travels to Kafka’s Prague, and later to the Ukrainian cities of Kamenets-Podolsky (also known by the author’s preferred usage of ‘Kamenetz’), which Nachman had visited, and to Uman, where he is buried. Spiritually, the author explores his roots as a second-generation assimilated American Jew whose fascination with Kafka leads him to Jewish mysticism and the teachings of Nachman. For Kamenetz, in the end, it is Nachman who understands the meaning of existence as Kafka never could.
In Kafka’s parable, “Before the Law,” a man seeking entry to the law through a doorway is forbidden from entering. He waits for many years, and just before his death he asks the gatekeeper why it is that nobody has tried to enter the doorway for so long. In response, the gatekeeper tells him: “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.” For Kafka, Kamenetz explains, “the gate becomes the obstacle.” But Nachman saw all obstacles as signs from heaven, or divine challenges to be overcome or transformed; for him, the “the obstacle becomes the gate.”
One senses that, like the tens of thousands of Jews who flock to Nachman’s gravesite in Uman each year, Kamenetz is very much under the spell of the Hasidic leader, whose legacy has increased exponentially since he died more than 200 years ago. This has its advantages: The book often reads more like a personal diary than like a work of highbrow nonfiction, which means that while the writing is not quite polished or smooth, it does feel real and genuinely inspired. At times, it is as if Kamenetz has taken to heart Nachman’s teaching that “the greatest sophistication… is to avoid sophistication.”
And yet, there are moments in the book when the author’s reverence for Nachman seems to compromise the seriousness of his quest. Indeed, the book lacks a certain critical distance from its subject, and the author never questions Nachman’s sometimes jarring behavior — his arrogant proclamations of himself as the tzaddik, or righteous person, of his generation; his belief that a book he wrote led to the deaths of his wife and child (this is the same book that he burns only when he thinks his own life is in danger). Kamenetz is amazed and awed by Nachman’s teachings; he is so inspired by his experience in Uman that he imbues an interaction that he observes between a father and son at the rabbi’s gravesite with layers of hidden meaning.
The mystic sees hidden meanings everywhere, and in this sense Kafka was very much a mystic. Gershom Scholem, widely regarded as the founder of modern-day study of Kabbalah, saw Kabbalah in a Kafka who lived with intense feelings of guilt and “unremitting anxiety,” and who, as Scholem put it, provided a “secularized description for the contemporary person of the feeling of the kabbalistic world.” Both Kafka and Nachman knew that “no event is without meaning.” In a particularly evocative passage, Kamenetz writes of the two that “their stories reveal the struggles of an intensely lived life, in which every moment and every gesture aches with meaning.”
Nachman taught that brokenness is essential to the Jew’s service of God in this world. To break oneself is to tear down the walls of irony and distance, of numbness and skepticism, that separate the Jew from God, so that one reaches a state of utter humility, of pure nothingness. Kafka experienced some of this nothingness, as he attested in his (unsent) “Letter to His Father,” but while he acknowledges that the experience could be “noble and fruitful,” for him it is strictly paralyzing. For Nachman, however, it is this experience of nothingness that makes possible an encounter with the divine, which is itself, as one of Nachman’s more cryptic parables illustrates, a kind of nothingness.
Aching, brokenness, melancholy, these are the shared traits of Nachman and Kafka — and what draws Kamenetz to explore these mysterious men. But where Kafka believes that there is no hope for man, Nachman insists that “there is no such thing as despair.” Kamenetz’s journey is, in many ways, a quest for meaning, and in the end what he wants is to find a gate through which he might approach the answers that he seeks. For Kamenetz, Nachman is that gate. And perhaps Kafka is the gatekeeper.
Shoshana Olidort is a freelance writer and editor based in New York.