Living with an Inscrutable God


Franz Kafka (1883-1924) wrote his powerful, enigmatic short story “The Judgment” during a single all-night session on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1912. An acculturated Czech Jew who was not observant in any traditional sense (though drawn to Zionism, the Yiddish theater, modern Hebrew, and mysticism), Kafka described the writing session as if it had been his own private ritual of atonement. In his diary the next day, he wrote that it was like “advancing through a body of water… [a] complete unfolding of the body and soul.” These images suggest that for Kafka writing had become a form of devotion, an occasion for unburdening and renewing the self.

The story itself presents a less hopeful view of atonement, however. A mild-mannered young merchant, Georg Bendemann, is living with his elderly father and looking forward to his own imminent wedding. Coming across his father in the latter’s darkened room one night, Bendemann is verbally assaulted by what seems more an irrational force than an actual human being. The father accuses the son of disgracing the memory of his dead mother, of trying to usurp the father’s position in the family firm, and finally of being simply a “devilish human being.” His tirade concluded, the father announces that he is sentencing his son to death by drowning, at which point Bendemann runs outside and hurls himself into the river. It is striking how many of the traditional themes of Yom Kippur are brought into “The Judgment” (i.e., sin, guilt, mourning, and punishment), though these have become random and brutal afflictions for Kafka’s protagonist rather than aspects of an annual ritual. Kafka's Bendemann might be read as an emblem for the spiritually shipwrecked modern Jew, someone for whom the only remnant of traditional Judaism is a vengeful, punishing God.

Other works by Kafka play out different scenarios involving an encounter between a hapless individual and some inscrutable figure (or figures) of authority. In The Trial, Josef K. has been arrested under mysterious circumstances and must spend the rest of his life trying to exonerate himself; in The Castle, a character named K. is summoned to a town but can never reach the authorities to receive his mandate; in “The Imperial Messenger,” a letter has been sent by the emperor to one of his subjects, but the latter must wait forever as the messenger fights through an endless throng. In all of these works, which beg to be read as theological allegories, the lines of communication between the Godlike force(s) that reign on high and in the world below have been severed. Messages are sent, decrees announced, rulings and judgments delivered. But there is no blueprint for living in accordance with the divine will, no halakhah to observe, not even any accumulated human wisdom transmitted by the elders. Even worse, the blueprints these characters think they possess turn out not to work. It is as though the sacred scriptures have all turned to gibberish, leaving humanity in the predicament of K. when he tries to communicate with the Castle authorities by telephone: all he hears on the other end is an unintelligible buzzing. This might not be quite so disconcerting, perhaps, if the Gods simply left us alone, but the point is that in Kafka’s universe we are forever being implicated in schemes engineered from above. And so we redouble our efforts at comprehension though we meet with absurdity, maliciousness, and sheer whim.

There is perhaps a way to respond to this situation, which Kafka hints at but which his characters themselves never seem fully to grasp: we might answer the inscrutable universe by abandoning the effort to comprehend it altogether. We might strive to cultivate a heroically durable form of patience, a suspension of the very will to extricate ourselves from our predicament. Throughout Kafka’s writings there are recurrent scenes where characters find a temporary respite sitting by their windows idly dreaming. They are released not so much from their sentence of guilt but from the burden of resisting it. And this explains, perhaps, why a supremely insightful literary Jew who thought deeply about Judaism but who never observed the commandments would spend Yom Kippur eve writing about an unalterable sentence of death. There was no way to speak to a God who had grown infinitely distant, but the terrible grip of anxiety and free-floating guilt brought on by this failure could be temporarily loosened through an act of acceptance. The act of writing could not bring expiation, but it could offer a way to endure the possibly endless wait for that moment when the true divine plan would announce itself.