Kafka’s Yom Kippur Appeal
A century ago this High Holiday, Franz Kafka composed two masterworks, both informed by his Jewish heritage
The High Holidays of 2012 mark the centenary of one of Franz Kafka’s most inspired feats of writing—the personal, affective moment of creation of two tales of familial guilt, judgment, and quasi-ritual killing. One day after Yom Kippur in 1912 (which fell that year on Sept. 20-21), Franz Kafka composed his short story “The Judgment” (“Das Urteil”) in a single, feverish night.
The story relates the bizarre, “Kafkaesque” situation of Georg Bendemann, who cares for his elderly father and corresponds with a strangely sketchy friend in Russia; in turn, Georg’s father is unaccountably suspicious of virtually everything Georg says or does. Ultimately, his father condemns Georg to death by drowning, which the son promptly and filially enacts by falling off a bridge.
During the weeks that followed this intense feat of writing—more precisely, from the second half of November to the first days of December 1912—Kafka went on to compose the masterpiece, The Metamorphosis (Die Vervandlung). An uncanny articulation of “sacrificial logic” links “The Judgment” and The Metamorphosis with the Akedah, the command to Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, which is read every year in the Torah service on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Their juxtaposition reveals profound differences between Jews as both “the people of the book” and “the people of the body.” In this connection between texts, readers can discover a distinct, anti-sacrificial, Kafkaesque Judaism for the 20th century.
All of which poses the question: What, if anything, does the close proximity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mean to these narratives? The straightforward, chronological question implies a second, more vexing one: How did Kafka’s Jewish heritage inform his writing?
For decades, literary critics and historians have argued over this issue. “To claim Kafka as the continuator of the Jewish religion and Jewish theology is completely and absolutely off the mark,” said Günther Anders, writing in German in 1951. “Kafka thinks Jewish,” disagreed Karl Erich Grözinger, a critic writing in German in the early 1990s, who went so far as to connect much of Kafka’s oeuvre directly to the High Holidays. “Kafka was always keenly aware of the significance of these days [Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur], and frequently dealt with it in his works on the judgment theme,” wrote Grözinger. “This fact leads to the obvious conclusion that … whenever Kafka speaks in them of judgment, sin, atonement and justification, he is working from the direct context of a Jewish theology.”
Other critics, notably Russell Berman, Stanley Corngold, and Ritchie Robertson, in the indispensable, more recent volume A Companion to the Works of Franz Kafka (2002), have taken this kind of diametrical disagreement as a starting point, neither irrelevant nor determinate.
Biographically, there is no doubt that “The Judgment” and The Metamorphosis, these two stories of filial shame, ineradicable guilt, and parental condemnation, reveal signs of the author’s renewed interest in his Jewish heritage. (Up to this point in his life, Kafka had criticized his family’s, and in particular his father’s, knowledge and practice of Judaism as superficial and uninformed.) Taken together, they also reveal a social, even tribal problem confronted by Judaism that was reshaped by Kafka’s uncanny insight into a stumbling block central to all cultures and religions—that is, blood sacrifice.
Ever since Genesis, Jews have explored this problem repeatedly, prescriptively, and narratively, most notably in the Akedah (“the binding”), the story of the aborted blood sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham in Genesis 22. Unlike Abraham, who desists on the verge of ritually killing his own first-born, the modern fathers in “The Judgment” and The Metamorphosis remain intractable. They paternalistically compel their respective sons, who share near-anagrammatic names (Georg and Gregor), toward comparable fates. Georg hears his father pronounce his death sentence to him loudly, as: “An innocent child, yes, that you were, truly, but still more truly have you been a devilish human being!—And therefore take note: I sentence you now to death by drowning!”
Gregor Samsa’s father, in The Metamorphosis, seems more subtly complicit in the sudden, inexplicable transformation of his son into a “monstrous vermin.” The reader learns that this change has occurred overnight as an uncanny consequence of Gregor’s assumption of his parents’ debt. Jurg Schubiger a critic writing in German after World War II, explains succinctly that Gregor pays it off “by embodying as a vermin everything crawling and base, which in a concealed and unacknowledged way determines the behavior of the whole family.”
The foundational question of why God would demand the sacrifice of a child by his own father is eclipsed by a second, even more troubling mystery: Why would a father acquiesce to a death sentence for his own son? Where Abraham wordlessly, even gently misleads Isaac on their trek to Mt. Moriah, in secret complicity with God’s sacrificial plot, Georg’s father in “The Judgment” openly criticizes his son and frankly disbelieves his modest claim to have “a friend in Saint Petersburg.” When Georg rebuts his father, he feels a piercing stab of guilt. Tasked then with undressing his father for bed, he glimpses the “not particularly clean appearance of his underclothes,” which “made him reproach himself for having been neglectful.”
Unlike guilt-plagued Georg, however, Isaac exhibits perfect innocence even to the point of the knife; guileless, he says “Father! … Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7). The angel of the Lord finally tells Abraham to stop the imminent, needless bloodletting, explaining that Abraham’s determination to slay Isaac has shown the extent of his fear of God, meaning that he has passed the test. Immediately, as if in a revelation, the substitution-by-discovery of Isaac’s surrogate takes place: “When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.”
An excerpt from a dramatic new account of the young Jews behind the Warsaw Ghetto Underground