Timing is everything: Given this year’s High Holy Days schedule, along with the renewed rush that arrives after Labor Day, coordinating a Sunday evening in September for our first synagogue Book Group meeting of the season proved more challenging than choosing what we would read, which we’d discussed before our summer break. Thus it happened that the only Sunday available was the one that fell between the Ten Days, after Rosh HaShanah and two evenings prior to Yom Kippur. Our reading selection: “Metamorphosis” and other stories by Franz Kafka.
If you did a double take at that, you would not be the only one who found this a rather — er — Kafakesque choice. And if I had actually thought about the timing (hey, shofar, I could use a wake-up Tekiah call here!) I would not have been surprised to receive a concerned e-mail from one of our book group members saying she found a distinct and disturbing disconnect between Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and her own pre-holiday preparation and thoughts of teshuva.
Well, as co-leader of our book group, I immediately felt a sharp pang of Jewish guilt for not being sufficiently sensitive to what we’d be asking people to read at a time of year when The Book of Life commands our deepest attention. No use in saying that last summer, with the date of our literary discussion still to be decided, this had seemed like a good idea, particularly in the wake of the recent publication of several books about Kafka’s connection to Judaism and reading his work through the lens of his Jewish upbringing in particular and Jewish history in general. (Many of these books are discussed in an essay in The Jewish Review of Books.)
But I also began to wonder: Is there a message in Kafka’s work that we can also apply to thoughts of — well — change and metamorphosis, of turning in one direction rather than another? Do the intense interrogations and questionings that Kafka’s characters undergo have no purpose — or do they, like the constant repetitions of the sins we have committed, lead us to ask ourselves tough questions about purpose, meaning, the choices we make (or don’t make), what’s true or authentic in our lives? Throughout his work, Kafka poses unanswerable questions, posits situations where characters suddenly, without explanation or expectation, find themselves inhabiting an inexplicable nightmare world, not knowing the who or what or how or why of what the next day, much less the next year, will bring. And anyone who faces a medical crisis, for instance, knows all too well how Kafkaesque that world feels — and how brutally urgent the “who shall live, who shall die” questions of the Unetanneh Tokef prayer resound.
We can leave the synagogue unchanged, internally. And we can accept the plight of Kafka’s characters as proof of our inability to take action or make a difference in the world. Or we can allow the message of the High Holy Days to begin to penetrate our minds. We can assert we do have free will, we do possess the power to act, to effect change in our own lives, perhaps in the universe? Are we doomed to always accept “no” for an answer to the entrance to Kafka’s “Castle”; or will we make our own way to a different entrance or a different castle altogether?
These are among the existential concerns that make Kafka, for me, a very powerful and provocative writer at any time of year. Maybe Kafka is not such an absurd (or absurdist) guest for the holidays, after all.