Absurdism, Judaism, and Human Agency: Kafka on the Parsha

The Torah tries to accomplish, through its institution of laws and teachings—to bring us even a fraction closer to making sense out of a world that seems humanistically subjective, elusive in meaning, and endlessly confounding.

Shlomit Ovadia

Judaism Three forbidden questions
Three forbidden questions
INN:SO

As the infamously abstruse theorist and author Kranz Kafka once said, “man cannot live without a permanent trust in something indestructible in himself, and at the same time that indestructible something as well as his trust in it may remain permanently concealed from him.” Kafka’s life was plagued by a personal battle with Absurdism, caught between understanding the human will and mind to be inherently weak and limited, and a wishful but incomplete faith in an incomprehensible transcendental force driving the world and everyone in it.

It is this dichotomy that characterizes the Jewish ideas about the yetzer hara and yetzer hatov, the evil and good inclinations, respectively. While Kafka’s life and writings may appear convoluted at a glance, at a closer look they reflect a natural struggle to grasp a belief that at times seems logical, simple, and accepting, and at other times appears to remain beyond comprehension.

This is what the Jews experienced when they sinned with the golden calf by Mount Sinai in this week’s parsha, Ki Tisa.

It can be speculated that this struggle to understand how nature and G-d are one and the same predates to the sin in the Garden of Eden, during which Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge before the Tree of Life, thereby prematurely receiving one type of knowledge before being prepared by the latter. (Ovadia, 2) Having this understanding of human limitations and G-dly limitlessness should not serve as a scapegoat to excuse people from accepting responsibility for their actions, however. The purpose of it should be to remain kind to oneself, as it is clear from many instances in the Torah, specifically the sin of the golden calf, that all people experience similar fears, insecurities, and hopes, and struggle to understand life and the workings of the universe.

In Kafka’s piece, Metamorphosis, the main character awakens one day to discover that he is trapped in the body of a cockroach, and while he tries to resume his daily normal life, finds himself constantly being thrown back into bed, imprisoned in a strange body, and locked in a room by a family who continues to distance themselves from him. In The Trial, the protagonist is arrested for a crime that is revealed neither to the characters in the book nor to the reader, making it impossible to avoid his impending execution. The Castle is also a Kafka story that follows a similar theme: the main character is summoned to a castle for an appointment of sorts, the purpose of which is never revealed to him, and all the characters he meets within the castle walls express similar predicaments.   

Many of Kafka’s works, including others not mentioned above, are about “a narrator who’s not in control of his own destiny and is launched into a vast and indistinct world that he does not understand.” (Roth, “Franz Kafka: The 20th Century’s Realest Surrealist,” p. 2) This is the crux of human nature and what the Torah tries to accomplish through its institution of laws and teachings—to bring us even a fraction closer to making sense out of a world that seems humanistically subjective, elusive in meaning, and endlessly confounding.

This draws the question as to how much of our individual identities belong to us and how much are consequences of our good and evil inclinations’ reactions to experiences? Does our low level of agency serve as a significant driving force in the grand scheme of things?

Similar to the obscurity with which Kafka describes his characters’ behaviors and thoughts in his writings, there is no straight answer.

Even when it was clear that G-d was giving Moses the Ten Commandments and that Moses would return down momentarily, the hope of the Jews still waned with the extended passing of time, and they sinned because of their struggle to trust in the process. When they saw that it had been a while since Moses ascended the mountain, “the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “come, make us a god who shall go before us, for than man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” (Exodus 32:1)

Instead of simply critiquing their lack of belief in something that seemed so obvious, we can use this instance to reflect on the human psyche and its concomitant vices. It is comforting to know that people struggle with this concept at all different levels of observance, even those who were at the foot of the mountain where G-d’s presence rested!

Similar to Kafka’s grievances, as well as those in this week’s parsha, we are all in somewhat of an identity crisis, which can be examined through the lens of the good and evil inclinations—both are driving forces stemming from a desire to grow closer to G-d in some capacity (Likutei Amarim, 26).


Kafka describes his meager exposure to religion as a child as being an “insignificant scrap of Judaism” that he disdained; however, shifts his response later in life, expressing a passion for Judaism, Zionism, and a desire to move to Israel with his late love interest, an Orthodox Jewish woman.
It says in Psalms, “Cast your burden on the Lord, and He will bear you; He shall never allow a righteous man to falter” (Psalms, 55:23). This encouragement, in conjunction with an effort to grow close to G-d by observing Jewish practices, is the best we can do with our limited understanding of the world, as Kafka grapples with many a time.

Kafka describes his meager exposure to religion as a child as being an “insignificant scrap of Judaism” that he disdained; however, shifts his response later in life, expressing a passion for Judaism, Zionism, and a desire to move to Israel with his late love interest, an Orthodox Jewish woman. Everyone is capable of change, and repentance, which is what is so wonderful about the world. Even the Jews who blatantly disobeyed G-d and constructed an idol right beneath where Moses was transcribing the word of G-d, were able to do teshuvah, and repent. Similarly, we should take this as a lesson about the constant opportunity for personal growth that the world presents us with.

The best way to approach repentance, then, should be acceptance that oftentimes the true meaning of events is “not apparent and visible to mortal eyes, for it stems from the “hidden (spiritual) world,” which is higher than the “revealed (spiritual) world” and come to peace with the idea of our inability to fathom everything based on our limited human perspectives, as Kafka so often writes of (Likutei Amaraim, 26).





top