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Kafka and the Bible


Bible as a source of literature

Franz Kafka was commonly considered to be an assimilated Jew, and, at face value, his writings have nothing to do with Judaism. However, on closer examination, even though one would not necessarily look upon Kafka as a religious writer, many Jewish ideas can be seen in his work.


Franz Kafka was commonly considered to be an assimilated Jew, and, at face value, his writings have nothing to do with Judaism. However, on closer examination, even though one would not necessarily look upon Kafka as a religious writer, many Jewish ideas can be seen in his work. "In endlessly complex ways, nearly everything Kafka wrote turns on his relation to Jews and to Jewish traditions."   Perhaps his friendship with Georg Langer who was heavily influenced by Chassidism - a movement which stresses the mystical and anti-rational elements of Judaism - acted as a focal point for his Jewish identity. Perhaps it was the pervasive antisemitism, which he would have encountered in Prague during his early years, which was the catalyst for his 'Jewish writing'. Whatever the case may be, mystical impulses "still retain an enormous force in the books of Franz Kafka."   Kafka's writings, especially his unfinished works, are not to be taken literally, and call for interpretation. It is this interpretation which has been likened to Biblical exegesis. His closest friend Max Brod "convinced several generations of scholars that his parables were part of an elaborate quest for an unreachable God."   One can see a clear link between Kafka's writings and Jewish tradition, particularly the mystical tradition in Judaism. In this essay, I will examine the parallels between a text of the Merkavah  stream of mysticism (throne, or chariot, mysticism) and Kafka's story Before the Law, as well as the similarities between the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, and Kafka's text The City Coat of Arms.

Merkava Mysticism and "Before the Law"

Mysticism: An introduction

Religious mysticism is an attempt to gain direct experience of, and, even union with God. This is achieved not through an intellectual process of studying canonical texts, but by mystical processes, which are not rational. Thus, a mystic may attempt to achieve oneness with God through a process of contemplation. The mystic may also attempt to interpret the words of the holy texts, not on their face value, but on the assumption that they contain hidden meanings. The mystic's aim is to uncover the true meaning of the text, which is regarded as symbolical rather than a literal revelation of God's purpose. And so, the mystic attempts to reveal God's true purpose, and in so doing, come closer to, or even into direct contact with God.

Merkavah mysticism

The first phase of Jewish mysticism (from the first century B.C.E. to the tenth century C.E.) is known as merkavah  mysticism. Most of the works associated with this tradition were produced in the fifth and sixth centuries. Already from the time of the Second Temple one can find esoteric writings based on Ma'aseh Bereshit  (the story of Creation) and the book of Ezekiel. It is in Ezekiel that the imagery of the Divine throne as a chariot (merkavah) is first mentioned. This chariot was drawn by four chayot  - living animals, each with four faces. This is the basis of the Jewish mystical tradition which lasted until the beginning of the German chassidut  movement of the twelfth century. It is this imagery which serves as the central motif of contemplation for the mystic. For followers of the Ma'aseh Merkavah tradition, the animals in Ezekiel's vision were viewed as angels. Although this mystical tradition is basically not followed today, much of Jewish liturgy has its origins in this period. The kedushah of the Amidah prayer, which is based on Isaiah Chapter 6, Verse 3, is the best example of this. This mystical tradition stresses the transcendent attributes of God, rather than his immanence.  As is common with many mystical movements, there were periods of backlash from the 'Orthodox' establishment: "He who multiplies the praise of God to excess shall be torn from the world." 

Pirkei Heichalot

Pirkei Heichalot  (The Chapters of the Chambers, or Halls) serves as an excellent example of a Merkavah text. In the seventeenth chapter of the text the reader discovers that Havayah (God) "dwells in the seventh palace, in the innermost room thereof" on his throne, or chariot.   At the entrance to each of the seven palaces stand eight guards - four to the left of the gate and four to the right. For the soul to pass the guards without danger, it must possess magical 'seals', which consist of secret names. These act as both a weapon and a defense against demons and evil angels. The mystic also intones special hymns, which enables him to reach a state of ecstasy, as he passes through the gates from one palace to the next. One does not find a description of these guards, only their names are mentioned. As each of their names ends with the suffix el  (God), the merkavah mystics conceived them as angels of God. The guards who stand at the final gate are described vividly: "they stand angry and war-like, strong, harsh, fearful, terrifying, taller than mountains and sharper than peaks..."   As the text continues, one finds imagery of fierce and armed soldiers. Clearly, the guards are there to block the way of the mystic who wishes to enter. Indeed, "the guards of the sixth palace make a practice of killing those who "go and do not go down on the Merkabah without permission. They hover over them, strike them, and burn them." 

The imagery presented in the text is quite frightening. The central metaphor which permeates the text is that of the omnipotence of God and the dangers and difficulties of trying to reach Him. It appears strange, to say the least, that such an all-powerful God requires the protection of fifty-six guards, the final eight of whom are described in the most frightening terms. There are a number of possible explanations for the appearance of the guards in the text. The first is that the guards are not, in fact, protecting God Himself, but rather, that they are protecting the Jewish mystic who attempts to reach God, who resides in the innermost chamber of the seventh palace. For it is clear that the mystic stands in great danger, as can be ascertained from a study of the story 'Arba'a Nichnesu LePardes', which is found in the Talmudic tractate of Hagigah. It recounts the story of four rabbis who try to enter 'Paradise,' three of whom end up by losing their lives. A second possible explanation of this parable is that man lives in an inherently hostile and dangerous world, one which is filled with barriers and obstacles, as symbolized by the guards, which stand in the way of God and the human soul. The text teaches us that our role is to persevere and surmount these obstacles in order to reach God. It acts as a test, challenging the will and commitment of the mystic to ultimately reach God. Alternatively, the existence of the guards, especially the fierce ones which appear in the final verse of the chapter, is a statement about the existence of evil in the world.  To reach God, man must vanquish the evil in the world as represented by the guards. The fact that the guards become fiercer and crueler the closer that man gets to God (as he approaches the seventh palace) emphasizes the difficulty and dangers of the quest. The closer that the human soul gets to God the more difficult the quest to ultimately reach God actually becomes.

Before the Law

There are similarities between the Merkava  text which we have examined and the Kafka parable Before the Law. In the Kafka text the reader finds a man who "prays for admittance to the Law."   The doorkeeper who stands at the entrance refuses him entry. He tells the man that even if he were to pass this gate, many more halls exist which are guarded by gatekeepers "each more powerful than the last."   The man is perturbed by the inaccessibility of the Law, but does not disobey the doorkeeper. He takes his place on a chair for many years, engages in discourse with the doorkeeper, yet his attempts to enter the gate are always rebuffed. Finally, before his death, he asks the gatekeeper why nobody else has requested to enter the gate. The gatekeeper replies: "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it."  

A comparative view

While the Law is not defined by Kafka, it has obvious parallels with the Bible, the source of all Jewish Law. Just as the goal of the Jewish mystic is to reach God, so does Kafka's character hold a need to achieve a knowledge of the Law. However, while Jewish belief suggests that the goal of attaining a greater understanding of God is achievable, Kafka seems to believe that the attempt is futile.  Thus, in the Merkava text, the obstacles standing between man and God are there to be overcome and are capable of being overcome. In contrast, Kafka's character, while having a need to know the Law, seems to be overcome by a complete sense of passivity in pursuing this goal. He obediently accepts the doorkeeper's refusal to admit him to the Law until he eventually dies. Kafka seems to be saying that while man apparently has an overwhelming need to find meaning in the world, his quest for meaning is doomed from the outset, and there is hardly any point in even beginning the quest. In this sense Jewish mysticism has an inherently more optimistic view of life and man's relationship with God than Kafka.

There are also interesting similarities in the use of literary devices and language in the Merkava text and Kafka.  The second sentence of Before the Law begins: "To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country..."   The term 'man from the country' in the original German in which the text was written is mann von lande, which means 'man from the land'. If one were to translate this German term into Hebrew, it would read as am haArets  (literally, 'man of the land'). In religious terminology, am haAretz  refers to 'everyman'. Kafka is therefore suggesting that his story does not merely concern the experience of a particular individual, but has universal significance, just as the Merkava text finds divine meaning in a simple story.

There is also a similarity in the imagery that is used in both texts. The 'doorkeeper' in the Kafka text is clearly a parallel to the guards in the Merkava mystical text. The imagery of the strong and powerful guards who stand at the gate of the seventh palace in the mystical text serves as a reminder of the fear evoked in the Kafka character when he looks closely at the doorkeeper with "his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tartar beard."   Both the Merkava text and Kafka seem to be saying that any attempt to approach the source of ultimate wisdom, whether it is God or 'the Law',  is bound to be a terrifying and fearful experience.

As noted, Kafka does not describe the content of The Law, which is guarded by the gatekeeper. It may represent a general religious belief in a metaphysical being or a belief in a traditional type of God. The Merkava text clearly refers to God in the traditional Jewish sense. This is the God of Israel and the Jewish people. The traditional Jewish belief holds that Revelation and Redemption has the same meaning for all Jews and that the Jews are a collectivity. In contrast to this, the message which one derives from reading Before the Law is that Kafka believes that man is alone in the world and must deal with religion in his own way, and according to his own conscience. The quest for meaning is an experience unique to each individual. As implied in the Kafka story, each person has his own gate to the Law and no person can gain access to the Law through somebody else's gate. Once again one can see the pessimism is the Kafka piece. Redemption appears to be unattainable. After waiting patiently and passively for the doorkeeper to open 'his gate' to the Law without result, the gatekeeper, when the Kafka character is about to die, shuts 'his gate'. This suggests that not only is knowledge of the Law, but also redemption itself, is unattainable. Man will continue to try, yet his efforts are doomed to fail.

The Tower of Babel and The City Coat of Arms

The Tower of Babel

The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel is related in the book of Genesis. According to the aggadic midrash, six hundred thousand men, under the command of Nimrod, began to build a tower in order to reach the heavens and raise a rebellion against God. The midrash tells us that there were three types of builders: the first group wished to engage in war with the deity, the second were pagans who wished to set up idols to worship, and the third wished to "ascend into the heavens, and ruin them with... bows and spears."   The story recounts that so intent were the builders on their goal that they placed greater value on the building process than on basic human values. The midrash relates that the loss of a single brick - but not that of a human life - was the cause of great grief amongst the builders. When the arrows which the workers shot towards heaven returned to them bloodied, they  believed that they had slain the deity. At this point, God said to His angels "Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech."   Many killed their friend in frustration at the lack of communication. For others, their punishment was meted out by God. The first group of builders were scattered across the earth, the second were turned into apes and phantoms and God set the third group against each other, in order that they be killed. The midrash concludes by telling us that a third of the tower sank into the ground, a third was burned and the final third remained standing.     

The City Coat of Arms: A comparative view

The Biblical story of Babel begins as follows: "And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech."   These words imply that from the beginning mankind lived together in harmony and purity. This was achieved through the unity which they held by speaking the same language and sharing the same goals. The Kafka text, however, begins very differently: "At first all the arrangements for the building of The Tower of Babel were characterized by fairly good order; indeed the order was perhaps too perfect."   As opposed to the Biblical text, the beginning of The City Coat of Arms gives the reader a sense of the disharmony and impurity from which mankind suffers. The 'guides and interpreters' indicate the existence of a language barrier which is complicated by the fact that man was following too strict and rigid a plan.

The second difference, when examining the two texts, is in the outcome. At the end of the Biblical story of Babel, the builders' endeavors end in absolute defeat; according to the Biblical text they cannot communicate and therefore cannot work together, and the midrash tells us that many of them were killed. This is not the case in The City Coat of Arms. In this story, the builders are merely sidetracked from their cause for "the idea... can never vanish again; so long as there are men on the earth there will be also the irresistible desire to complete the building." 

Both texts begin with the people working together in pursuit of something constructive. Yet, whereas in the Bible the story ends with the destruction of the tower and the punishment of the builders, in Kafka's story there is a an implicit understanding that the whole city needed to be destroyed in order to bring redemption. The story concludes: "All the legends and songs that came to birth in that city are filled with longing for a prophesied day when the city would be destroyed by five successive blows from a gigantic fist. It is for that reason too that the city has a closed fist on its coat of arms."   From a Jewish viewpoint the gigantic fist represents the imagery of the zroah netuyah (outstretched arm) with which God redeemed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Continuing with the theme of Redemption, we can view the destruction of the city by the gigantic fist to represent ultimate Messianic Redemption. In the Kafka text destruction represents freedom from the disorder and disintegration of society. There exists a religious view that widespread destruction will precede the coming of the Messiah. This view has its basis in the writings of the Prophets. For example: "For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle; and the city shall be taken, and the houses rifled, and the women raped; and half the city shall go into exile..."   Here, one can see a link between the theme of destruction and Redemption in the City Coat of Arms and traditional religious views.

The view of history which the reader finds in The City Coat of Arms differs starkly from that which forms the basis of Orthodox Jewish belief. Kafka writes:

Human knowledge is increasing, the art of building has made progress, a piece of  work which takes us a year may perhaps be done in half the time in another  hundred years, and better done, too, more enduringly... It is far more likely that the  next generation with their perfected knowledge will find the work of their  predecessors bad, and tear down what has been built so as to build anew.  

According to this view, civilization and technology progress with each generation. Within history, each succeeding generation is at a higher level than the preceding generation and the present generation is higher than past generations. However, one must realize that Kafka is not referring to the moral qualities of mankind. On the other hand, Jewish tradition places great emphasis on the moral issue. Also, according to tradition, Judaism views history within the context of a belief in yeridat haDorot ('a decline in generations'). This notion holds that as time passes from Revelation at Sinai, the holiness of each generation declines, and with this decline, their ability to make changes to the law decreases. "Since the chain of tradition stretches back to the revelation at Sinai, the further back in time a source goes, the greater legal authority attributed to that source. This means that the Amoraim cannot reject a ruling of the sages of the Mishnah."   This is a fundamental precept of traditional Rabbinic belief.  

Although Franz Kafka is commonly  considered to have been a completely assimilated Jew, his works can be seen as incorporating and reinterpreting many Jewish religious themes. One must understand that Kafka had a positive relationship vis--vis his Judaism - it was not one of rejection or apathy. He had a strong Jewish identity, albeit a highly troubled one, and in his writings one can see a Jewish influence: "For all his uneasiness with Judaism, [Kafka] seemed the Jewish writer, more than any other since the Hebrew Bible."   Whether Kafka wrote as a Jew because of the influence of Chassidism or Czech-German anti-semitism remains unknown. Whatever the case, even though one can initially read Kafka outside the context of Jewish or religious thought, it is clear that there exists an undeniable link between Kafka and Judaism, especially Jewish mysticism.



Bloom, H., "Kafka: Canonical Patience and "Indestructibility" in Bloom, H., The Western Canon, Harcourt Brace, New York, 1994.

Crumb, R. and Mairowitz, D. Z., Kafka For Beginners, Icon Books and Allen and Unwin, Cambridge and Sydney, 1993.

Ginzberg, L., Legends of the Bible, The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1975.

Gray, R., Franz Kafka, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1973.

Kafka, F., "Before the Law" in Kafka, F., The Complete Short Stories, Minerva, London, 1992, pp. 3-4.

_______, "The City Coat of Arms" in Kafka, F., The Complete Short Stories, Minerva, London, 1992, pp. 433-4.

Pirkei Heichalot (The Chapters of the Halls, or Chambers), selected chapters.  

Scholem, G. G., Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Thames and Hudson, London, 1955.

Tamari, M., "With All Your Possessions": Jewish Ethics and Economic Life, Free Press, New York, 1987, p. 16.

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