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Judaism in Kafka
The highly allegorical language Kafka uses in his literary work is leading the reader into looking for clues as to their interpretation in Kafka's real world. Looking into the history of the Jews of Prague, one will find traces of their ancient struggles with themselves as well as with the rest of the world in Kafkian stories and characters like Odradek, in "The Cares of A Family Man," the half kitten half lamb pet, "a legacy from my father" in the short story "A Crossbreed," the Arabs in the story "Jackals and Arabs," or "the man from the country" who prays for admittance to the law in the story "Before the Law." There are however, limitations when it comes to incorporating in one allegory or character the single meaning of the idea of the German-Jewish situation in Prague at the dawn of the twentieth century.
There is no doubt that the inner conflict of the Jew who left his home in the countryside and came to live in the city, for example, will be recognized in the latter shorter story. The almost miraculous way the Jews resisted to millennia of attempted destruction of their identity and culture, their Judaism, also became their doom. Jews are bound to preserve their ancient culture at the cost of transcendentalism. Evolution is, after all, the consequence of transcending of traditionalism, the brake of ancient laws, and the clash between old and new.
In Kafka's Letter to his father, he points out that as a child and a young man, "I was not fundamentally disturbed in my boredom"(Letter to His Father, Kafka, p. 147). He appears to questions the usefulness of his baggage cultural and religious heritage and emphasizes the loss of meaning for the rituals that are so dearly kept and transferred from generation to generation in the name of Judaism.
Before finding the symbols for the conflicts between the German Jews and Nationalist Jews, Judaism and Christianity, Jews and the Nazis, first, the Judaism is found to generate a whole array of conflicts within the Jew him or herself. Kafka's preoccupation with state of mind and the fate of those definitively caught into the trap of their own family legacy is mirrored in the stories about non-human characters like the half kitten, half lamb pet or Odradek.
In an overwhelmingly hopeless Kafkian world, Benjamin uses Kafka's vision he shared with Max Brod in one of their conversations, to explain why some characters, like "those extremely strange figures in Kafka, the only ones who have escaped from the family circle" are those "for whom there may be hope" (Benjamin, p. 799). However, even if Kafka's view of the world is acutely reflected in his literary work, his artistic genius has created the illusion that his symbols and allegories are easily deciphered with the lenses of philosophical, social or historic context when, in fact, the writer has left them open to countless interpretations, depending on the interpreter's own imagination and knowledge.
While some meanings remain partially hidden, even after countless analysis, others are easier to trace from fiction to Kafka's own life. For example, in his letter to his father, Kafka places him among "a large section of this transitional section of Jews, which had migrated from the still comparatively devout countryside to the cities" ("Letter to Hiss Father," Kafka, p. 149). And thus, one is able to find him hopelessly standing before the gate to the law in the story "Before the law." The gap between fathers and sons is acutely observed by an oversensitive young man who was taught that the only way was his ancestor's way. He lived thus with the awareness that he had no hope of escaping the enclosed walls erected through his fatherly love. This merciless refusal of any trace of sympathy for the attempt to manifest oneself outside them is following him closely and there appears to be no deliverance, not even in his death.
Kafka's Letter to His Father should thus make things easier to interpret in the short story "Before the Law." The man who prays and never enters the gate of Law is his father and those like him. The writer is even pointing out that the man who becomes obsessed with the doorkeeper who would not let him in until the end is "from the country." He becomes stuck in his own obsession and his impossibility to transcend the legacy of his origins. But, as in most of his stories, Kafka leaves the mystery unsolved. The old dying man eventually finds out the secret of the gate before it definitively closes, but if it means that he wasted his whole life preoccupied to enter a world he was denying accessed to himself is another question. The allegory of the man from the country could also stand for all those who are caught in their own one-dimensional vision of the universe, regardless of their religion. People have always tried to come to terms with their gods, but in the case of Judaism, the Jews' ability to keep their laws unchanged until modern times has made them invincible as well as it has provided them with a source of eternal persecution. In another interpretation, Kafka himself may be the one spending his whole life "Before the Law," blocked by his limitations and unable to see another path for his redemption. To the one standing before the Law and waiting for permission to enter, it "should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone," yet he is stuck there, alone, before the gate, his whole life. The gate is wide open and he does not dare to enter even if the doorkeeper invites him to disregard his veto and go ahead anyway.
The doorkeepers of one's own mind reign supreme over one's will and that freezes them in the impossibility to risk anything to get ahead.
Aside from Judaism and its laws, Kafka the man accustomed with the implacable laws of justice, could have also meant for the allegory of the man from the countryside to be one of the human beings who built laws and transferred them from generation to generation, leaving them in the end void of meaning and thus making the new generations victims of laws they are no longer able to grasp.
Considering the Holocaust, the intellectual conflicts between the middle class German Jews and the Nationalist Jews from Prague at the beginning of the twentieth century appears as futile and overrides with guilt all those who have no other fault but that of not being Jews. Kafka died before the Nazi concentration camps appeared on the face of what should have been a modern Europe, but he wrote as if he was able to sense the paradox of Jews clinging to their German cultural heritage living in Prague.
The story "Jackals and Arabs" is another allegorical view of the ancient conflicts between cultures. Kafka's choice of the Arabs as symbols for the Jews may not be random. The Jackals, despicable animals feeding on dead bodies, symbols of the anti-Semitic feelings haunting Europe since ancient history, may also be the symbol of any manifestation of hatred between races, peoples, communities, since the beginning of the world. So, aside from the ancient conflict generated by Judaism or Zionism and those who perceive them as a threat to their own existence, any other attempt of the human race to remove a part of its own as a result of the struggle to keep a limb at the cost of another is to be reflected in this Kafkian symbolism. Jackals feed on the carcass left behind by the Arabs and they forget for a while that their enemies are close to them. They also know the carcass will not last them for ever. They need predators in order to be able to feed themselves. The symbiosis between these two ancestral enemies may be the key to the survival of them both. The German Jews living in Prague are fighting their co-nationals and those sharing the same religion with them while the Jackals, the Nazi propaganda, are preparing their utter destruction.
At the beginning of their settlement in Prague, the Jews were living in a ghetto, a neighborhood they willingly shared separated from the rest of the city. At some point in history, a part of them spread into the city. The Jews coming out of their enclosure started a process of assimilation. But they became influential in their new society and some of them even leaders of the cultural life. Kafka's father sent his boy to German schools, proving his wish to make him a part of the German as well as of the Jewish community in Prague. The latter became thus the hybrid animal, part kitten, part lamb.
The "crossbreed" may represent the universal Jew who, in spite of his "countless step-relations in the world, has perhaps not a single blood relation" (A Crossbreed, Kafka, p. 427). After a long history…[continue]
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