Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka
By Rodger Kamenetz
Nextbook/Schocken, 361 pages
Students of Gershom Scholem liked to quote the great and intransigent 20th-century scholar of Jewish mysticism as saying that anyone who hoped to understand the Kabbalah had better read Franz Kafka first. Scholem himself could not remember saying any such thing, and never said anything like it again. On the very first page of his new book comparing Kafka to the mystical sage Nachman of Bratslav, though, Rodger Kamenetz cites the remark to defend his own approach. “Perhaps in a certain sly way,” he says, “Scho-lem meant to change not our evalua-tion of Kafka, but what we mean by kabbalah in our time.” It is unlikely that that is what he meant at all, since he insisted that the Kabbalah be understood in its own terms—not as a woolly metaphor for new fashions in Jewish thought and practice. But the pseudo-Scholemism suits Kamenetz’s purpose in Burnt Books, which is nothing like scholarship.
Kamenetz, a poet who recently retired after a 25-year teaching career at Louisiana State University, came to prominence in 1994 with The Jew in the Lotus, a first-person account of Jews who wanted to blend their own religion with Tibetan Buddhism. “The house of Judaism in North America has not been satisfactorily built,” he wrote. “It does not have a spiritual dimension for many Jews. Too many Jews are like me: our Jewishness has been an inchoate mixture of nostalgia, family feeling, group identification, a smattering of Hebrew, concern for Israel, and so forth.”
Since its publication, Kamenetz has been the leading voice of Jewish religious syncretism in America. A generation of young Jews, eagerly agreeing with him that “the bank account of Judaism had been empty for them when they came to make a withdrawal,” has tried to reformat the religion of their birth by mixing it with hip postmodern fashions. Burnt Books is merely the latest example of Kamenetz’s public quest to create a hybrid of Jewish symbols and meanings abuzz with currency and mind-expanding possibilities.
Although it is billed as a dual biography of the 18th-century Ukrainian Hasidic tzaddik and the 20th-century German modernist novelist, Burnt Books is mainly about Kamenetz and his “sacred journey” to “deepen” himself. He begins with an account of his visit to Kamenetz-Podolsk, a city of about 100,000 in western Ukraine (the standard transliteration is Kamianets-Podilskyi). Why? “Not knowing for certain,” he explains, “I consider that town the homeland of my name.” On the Jewish Ideas Daily website, the historian Allan Nadler took him to task for failing to consider the Lithuanian town of Kamenetz-Litovsk, now in Belarus, as the more likely homeland of his name. The more pertinent question is what, except for a side trip Nachman once took to the Ukrainian city, either place has to do with the mystic or with Kafka.
The answer is not much. But neither is much of anything that Kamenetz finds to say about the two subjects of his book. Here he is, for example, on Nachman’s tale “The Loss of the Princess,” in which the courtier who is dispatched to rescue the king’s daughter falls asleep for 70 years after drinking from a river of wine:
What does it mean to sleep for seventy years? In Psalm 90, seventy years is the length of a person’s life. By “sleep,” Nachman means a consciousness wholly given over to the material world and lacking a spiritual dimension. To fall asleep one’s whole life means to live entirely in a constricted consciousness. The lost soul of Kafka’s letter to Felice, who is like a dog with imploring eyes, is asleep in just this way, unable to have a relationship to the infinite depth of the divine.
Kamenetz’s method, fully on display in this short passage, is that of free association, uncorroborated assertion, and a theological vocabulary in which “infinite depth” is an illusion achieved by vagueness. When Walter Benjamin compared his own writing to the Kabbalah, Scholem suggested that the notoriously mystifying critic only did so to spare himself the “reproach of incomprehensibility.” In Burnt Books, incomprehensibility might be a welcome relief from the pervasive intellectual laxness.
Kamenetz is drawn to Nachman and Kafka because “they both believed deeply in the imagination, in the power of stories to waken the soul.” (He dwells almost exclusively on the 13 mystical tales that were attributed to Nachman and published posthumously, ignoring most of what the rebbe taught about rigorous study and adherence to Jewish law.) Both wanted their books to be burned after their deaths (hence Kamenetz’s title). Both struggled with doubt and depression, “as if living out an intense story, or a deep dream.” Both were thin. Both quarreled with their fathers. Both died of tuberculosis. For that matter, both were Jews, both were European, although they lived a hundred years and 600 miles apart. “I see two men reaching for each other across space and time,” Kamenetz writes. “But they don’t quite touch. That near miss intrigues me.”
Why it should intrigue anyone else, or what exactly generates the intrigue, is unclear. For the reader who wishes to learn something about Nachman or Kafka, Burnt Books is practically worthless. Although it includes a beginner’s bibliography and a chronology that attempts to span two millennia of Jewish history (from the fall of the Second Temple to the 200th anniversary of Nachman’s death) in just 13 pages, Kamenetz’s book lacks an index or a clear and explicit factual structure.
Burnt Books is valuable, though, as a period piece. Ten years (or maybe six months) from now, observers will look back on it as representative of a generation and a movement, quickly fading, that preferred near misses to actual Jewish learning or Jewish living.