Login to MyLSU

Spiritual Bindings: LSU professor emeritus publishes book comparing Jewish mystic Rabbi Nachman and literary icon Franz Kafka

Born in different centuries and on different sides of central Europe, Jewish storyteller and mystic Rabbi Nachman and modern literary icon Franz Kafka are brought together in LSU professor emeritus Rodger Kamenetz's most recent book, "Burnt Books."

Kamenetz, who recently retired from LSU after 29 years of teaching, held a dual appointment in the Departments of English and Religious Studies that helped him produced a dual biography of Kafka, the literary writer, and Nachman, the religious teacher. The book explores extraordinary parallels in their lives and works.

"Kafka and Nachman speak to each other in a way that is mysterious; reading them side by side is an enriching experience," said Kamenetz.

Born in 1772 in Ukraine, Nachman was the great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov – the founder of Hasidism, a mystical pious Jewish revival movement. Nachman's teachings revived the fervor of his great-grandfather, while expressing a desire for a deeper, more meaningful connection with God.

"Rabbi Nachman created a method of personal prayer where you go into the woods and speak to God directly. You speak from your heart in your own language," said Kamenetz. "Rabbi Nachman said, 'It is very good to pour out your heart to God as you would to a true, good friend.'"

Kafka, born more than 100 years after Nachman, was a secular Jew made internationally famous after his death for "The Metamorphosis," and "The Trial." The poet W.H. Auden said that Kafka was to the modern age what Dante or Shakespeare were to their ages. Kafka's enigmatic work has given rise to multiple scholarly interpretations, but he has also become a popular icon, and "the Kafkaesque" has become a widely used synonym for the absurd.

According to Kamenetz, while Kafka was a secular Jew, the scholar Gershom Scholem called him a kabbalist for our time, saying in order to understand modern Kabbalah one would first need to read Kafka.


Rodger Kamenetz (right), LSU professor emeritus, visits with a decorated war veteran in Uman, Ukraine during Rosh Hashanah.

"Kabbalah is the Jewish mystical tradition, so you could say that Scholem means Kafka, at heart, was a Jewish mystic," said Kamenetz. This mystical belief connects Kafka to Nachman, who wrote kabbalistic tales.

"Kafka represents a kind of radical doubt about whether there is any justice in the world, ultimately whether there is a God," said Kamenetz.

One of Kafka's more famous works, "The Trial" tells of Joseph K., who is arrested by a mysterious court for reasons he does not understand. Nachman has a similar tale, "The Wise Man and the King." Both stories can be seen as commentaries on the book of Job.

"I taught these two stories side by side in my course at LSU, 'Kabbalah and Literature,' and that experience is at the core of why I became so engaged with these two writers. There are many parallels in their lives and stories, so that I came to believe they were twin souls, even perhaps that one was a gilgul, or reincarnation of the other," Kamenetz said.

For instance, Nachman and Kafka both died young of tuberculosis, and both gained prominence with the posthumous publication of their writing. Most intriguing of all, both left strict instructions that their unpublished writings were to be burned after they died.

It was this last connection that inspired the title of Kamenetz's book.

In an attempt to further understand the life of Nachman, Kamenetz journeyed in the fall of 2008 to Uman in Ukraine, joining thousands of pilgrims who visit Nachman's grave each Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. LSU's Office of Research & Economic Development made this journey possible through a faculty research grant.

"That tens of thousands of people are still journeying to be with him, shows the enduring power of his teachings and his tales," said Kamenetz "I was humbled. It was both a confusing and energizing experience."


To research "Burnt Books," Kamenetz went to Uman in Ukraine, joining thousands of pilgrims who visit Rabbi Nachman's grave each Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

In "Burnt Books," Kamenetz, using vivid detail and emotional language, relates the experience of being surrounded by hundreds of Jews from all over the world as they crowded around Nachman's granite tomb.

The pilgrims recited a collection of 10 psalms assembled by Nachman, known as the "Complete Healing" or Tikkun ha-Klali. At one point Kamenetz noticed a father teaching his five-year-old son how to say the psalms syllable-by-syllable.

"The father and son had a bond of love. This is important in understanding how faith gets transmitted," Kamenetz said.

Kamenetz was not alone on his pilgrimage to Nachman's burial site. He brought Kafka with him, in the form of a coffee mug. Kafka's immense fame has spawned numerous souvenirs with his likeness, such as key chains, mouse pads and coffee mugs. Kamenetz brought his Kafka mug to metaphorically introduce the two men whose lives never intersected.

"Sometimes you see that two souls are so much in conversation that you feel a connection between them and this is one way of expressing that," said Kamenetz.

"Burnt Books" is published by Shocken, the original publisher of Kafka in the U.S. It is part of the distinguished Jewish Encounters series, which includes well known authors such as Elie Wiesel and David Mamet. It is Kamenetz's 10th book, following an illustrious series of non-fiction and poetry books including "The Jew in the Lotus," "The History of Last Night's Dream" and "The Lowercase Jew." Look for "Burnt Books" on shelves Oct. 19 or at http://nextbookpress.com/books/265/.