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Burnt Books
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka
(Jewish Encounters)
By Roger Kamenetz
Schocken - Nextbook, 2010, 361 pages ISBN 978-0-8052-4257-7

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - December 13, 2010

Professor Roger Kamenetz tries to show the connections between Rabbi Nachman (1772-1844) and Franz Kafka (1883-1924). Both burnt some of their writings. Kafka felt his writings were not as good as they should be. Nachman thought the opposite, that his writings were too lofty and not fit for his generation. Both had ample opportunity to burn all of their writings themselves, but requested others to do it after their death. No one knows why they did not burn the writings themselves. The people to whom they entrusted them interpreted this bizarre behavior to mean that they really wanted them preserved. Both wrote unusual tales. Kamenetz argues that Kafka's writings show the influence of mysticism, specifically the Kabbala, just as Nachman's. Both died young of tuberculosis.

Kamenetz recognizes that Kafka had an outstanding literary ability, while Nachman did not. Nachman's stories are "crude," "lack polish," "deformed," "distorted," "confused," "verbose," and "ignoble in form." His stories had to be rewritten by Martin Buber and Nachman's disciple.

Kamenetz's comparisons are interesting, but not persuasive. For example, there is no evidence that Kafka's writings reflect Kabbala. Suggestions of Kabbala can only be found by reading it into words whose plain meaning says something else. Even Kamenetz admits that many of Kafka's tales reflect the terrible cruel destructive relationship that he had with his father. And, as previously stated, Nachman lacked Kafka's writing ability, and both wanted their books burnt for opposite reasons. Both appear to be psychologically damaged. But Nachman was manic-depressive, while Kafka was unable to break with his domineering abusive father. More significantly, the goals of the pair were radically different.

Kafka's stories reflect frustration. This is seen in The Imperial Message where a letter is sent to a man by a dying king, which never reaches him. Similarly, in Before the Law, a man sits before a door leading to the law hoping that he can enter and learn what he seeks, but he is unable to enter, and dies before the door. Nachman's tales, in contrast, are designed to teach lessons. When a message is sent, it is received. His stories are comforting. They stress that there is no need for frustration; God can communicate with people and people with God.

Kamenetz also reads mysticism into Nachman's tales that may not be present. He states that they hint at the Sefirot, the ten layers of God. It appears however that Nachman wrote most of his stories to teach moral lessons, how to behave, and how to relate to God. Even if they hint of the Sefirot, they do not reveal the inner workings of these layers.

Over 20,000 male pilgrims swarm into Uman to visit Rabbi Nachman's grave around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year holiday. It is no surprise that these people are so diverse Hasidic Jews with disheveled beards, secularists, and seekers after life's meaning because each sees something else in the rabbi's tales, even things the rabbi never intended, as Professor Kamenetz.


Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of seventeen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides. The Orthodox Union (OU) and Yeshiva University publish weekly chapters of Drazin and Wagner's book Let's Study Onkelos on www.ou.org/torah and on www.yutorah@yutorah.org. His website is http://booksnthoughts.com.

The views expressed in this review/article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Eye.
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