Kafka and the Rebbe

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When secular Jewish intellectuals find Orthodox Judaism fascinating, we Orthodox Jews in turn find their interest fascinating. Presumably they do not see the truth of the fundamental teachings, but do they recognize the beauty of tradition or merely exhibit curiosity at the remarkably different community? In this case, Franz Kafka’s interest in the Belzer Rebbe’s behavior and treatment is a fascination Misnagdim would not share other than as a curiosity. If anything, this royal treatment would be a subject of scorn.

On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War , pp. 131-132:

Enlightened central European Jews regarded Hasidism with a mixture of horrified repulsion and yet, often in the early twentieth century, fascinated attraction. In the German-speaking lands, most became acquainted with it only indirectly through the medium of the writings of Martin Buber, whose foggy, volkisch romanticism briefly attracted even the future Marxist Georg Lukacs.

An unusually far-reaching case of such attraction was that of the Czech-Jewish writer Jiri Langer, who embraced Hasidism wholeheartedly and for a time lived in Belz at the court of the rebbe. In Marienbad in 1916 Langer introduced his friend Franz Kafka to the Belzer rebbe. Introduced is perhaps the wrong word, since the rebbe was a virtually unapproachable figure, but Kafka was permitted to accompany the rebbe‘s entourage as the great man went for his constitutional in the woods, all the while reciting to himself the Talmud (he too was said to know the entire work by heart). Every now and again, the rebbe paused to chat with ornamental wodden gnomes. Kafka was amused by the almost royal decorum that was enforced in the rebbe‘s presence. He was fascinated by this encounter with Hasidic Judaism and talked and wrote about it extensively. The rebbe reminded Kafka of a sultan in a Gustav Dore illustration of the adventures of Baron Munchhausen.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

8 comments

  1. Chatting with wooden gnomes???

  2. Lawrence Kaplan

    Also see the fascinating article on Langer himself in the YIVO Encyclopedia. Perhaps one should compare Langer’s homo-erotic poetry with that of Jacob De Haan.

  3. The most recent book that covers this ground is: http://www.amazon.com/Burnt-Books-Nachman-Bratslav-Encounters/dp/0805242570/ref=sr_1_1

    Various reviews can be found online.

  4. Presumably they do not see the truth of the fundamental teachings, but do they recognize the beauty of tradition or merely exhibit curiosity at the remarkably different community?

    “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

  5. “Franz Kafka’s interest in the Belzer Rebbe’s behavior and treatment is a fascination Misnagdim would not share other than as a curiosity. If anything, this royal treatment would be a subject of scorn.”

    Not if the Misnaged saw an Indian Maharaja. For Kafka,the Rebbe was equally exotic – in his dress, language and religious practices. Read Langer’s Nine Gates.

  6. ” For Kafka,the Rebbe was equally exotic – in his dress, language and religious practices. ”

    I am not sure if this is entirely true. Kafka had a great interest in traditional Judasim and from what I understand, Hasidism in general. I suspect that hgis interest in the rebbe was not mere orientalism.

  7. Moshe Shoshan,

    Kafka’s interest in Chasidism is of a later date, and was triggered by the same Jiri Mordechai Langer, after he (JML) calmed a bit down after his Belz years. Also, his (FK) knowledge of traditional Judaism is often overstated.

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