NOTE: Jonathan Rosen, the novelist and editor of Nextbook, passes along the following letter, which he received the other day. “I had it typed and am sending it more as a curiosity,” he says. His private opinion is that the letter was written by Kafka pretending to be Nachman, and he could kick himself now for not saving the original handwritten copy. “I could have made a fortune at Sotheby’s,” he says.
Order Burnt Books
Dear Professor Myers,
I have sent this letter to Jonathan Rosen in the hope that he will forward it to you.
I am writing about your review of Rodger Kamenetz’s Burnt Books, a review which depressed me very much, and believe me I was depressed to begin with, even before I died 200 years ago—though since dying I am no longer so manic as I used to be. Also I’ve learned English.
Before you stop reading let me say quickly that this is not the letter of a crazy person. You will be happy to know that death has rendered me completely sane. I am no longer Chasidic—which is a form of madness all its own; I now go to a Conservadox shul, which is very easy in olam habah since nobody drives anyway. Also you cannot die of boredom because, thank God, you are already dead.
Briefly, I want to congratulate you on your review in Commentary. For Burnt Books is a dangerous book that deserves destruction! And you did an admirable job.
Quoting from Kamenetz’s seventeen-year-old book The Jew in the Lotus a passage voicing disappointment in American traditional Judaism was a masterstroke. I admire the way you make it seem as though Kamenetz’s disaffection is a sign of bad faith and evil intention. Nobody considering major Jewish institutions twenty years ago could ever have believed they did not address the spiritual concerns of young American Jews. One might as well say that about religious institutions today! They are on a solid spiritual footing, even if they are no longer getting twelve percent annually because they fell, out of a desire to nourish the wellsprings of Torah, for the seductions of that monster Madoff and who could ever have seen through that?
Ridiculous to allow Kamenetz his fanciful approach just because his orthodox grandparents came to America and stripped faster than Gypsy Rose Lee (who funny enough is here too) and is now groping his way back, having the Chutzpah even to create a Jewish studies department in Louisiana. A man who does not know his right hand from his left, not to mention the town of Kamenetz-Litevsk from Kamenetz-Podolsk? True his reference to his name and the town of Kamenetz is intentionally fanciful, like the talking Kafka mug in the first chapter, but I am glad that Professor Nadler (Shlita) set the record straight—he must be a wonderful teacher, one of those men who lead lives of piety, faith and learning, using what they know as a lever to lift up the world and never, as the evil urge prompts, as a crowbar to beat down the ignorant.
Anyway, it is important to make Kamenetz’s seventeen-year-old criticism of Jewish institutions, which doesn’t appear in Burnt Books, seem like a modern American phenomenon born of ill will and ignorance and not part of the self-examination that is as old as the Prophets and really even older. But even if people saw it as prophetic, what kind of idiot would want all the people to be prophets? Only the very very learned can be critical of the very very unlearned. Dr. Johnson—who I’ve become quite friendly with here in the afterlife (what a head for Talmud!)—was wrong when he said you don’t have to be a carpenter to criticize a table. You do have to be a carpenter to criticize a table.
Also, I’m of the opinion that the prophets could really be quite anti-Semitic.
It is important to fault Kamenetz—may his name be blotted out!—for situating Kafka inside of a Jewish context. Who would want to put a writer so assimilated, dark and Germanic inside a Jewish framework? His pathetic gropings after Chasidic tales, his stabs at learning Hebrew, his messianic doubts and yearnings? His confusion of the personal and psychological with the currents of Jewish history? That would make Judaism a game any Jew could play. And Judaism is not a game!
Kamenetz—but let me just call him Rodger K. so I don’t have to write his full name—Rodger K., by suggesting that a modern Jewish writer like Kafka felt incomplete without a figure of traditional Judaism emblematized by me, is giving Kafka far too much Jewish credit. Readers who love Kafka must not now suddenly find that they have a reason for studying Judaism too for that is the wrong way to come to Judaism. And there are wrong ways as well as right ways to come to Judaism! Martin Buber, that numbskull, mistranslated all my tales and my tales were themselves mistranslations of Torah Judaism. I’m lucky they let me into paradise.
In any event, the religious stumblings of modern Jewish writers are the wrong way!
How embarrassing that Rodger K. should laud me for my stories and not for my Torah commentary, which is the true essence of my being and will light real fires of return in Jewish souls instead of the bad techno music of a few drug addicts I mostly inspire. I have in fact stopped telling stories altogether.
I agree that it is dangerous and misleading to suggest that I, a Chassidic rebbe, was fascinated with the wayward children of the enlightenment, and that Kafka, assimilated ignoramous that he was, was meanwhile looking back past the Enlightenment for inspiration from a Chasidic writer. As if these two figures needed each other to feel whole and might suggest a larger pairing of tradition and new creation. Empty metaphors! You did well to ignore this.
I’m also glad you didn’t mention in your excellent review the part of the book where Rodger K. feels shame at his own inability to read aloud from the psalms in Hebrew. Shrewd not to reveal his own dissatisfaction with his Jewish education, his own desire to know more, just as Kafka desired to know more and to learn more in a literal straightforward way alongside all his deeper spiritual struggles. It would only have stirred up misplaced sympathy for the author, who is describing his book as if it were the beginning of the journey and not the end of the journey—and what kind of guide admits he doesn’t really know the way? Sure Dante got lost in a dark wood, but he was Catholic.
I’m also glad that you did not bother with the larger framework of the book, based on my belief that a burnt book still has meaning and value. Rodger K’s mushy implication that lost lives are still present, and by extension that the traditional Jewish world—that can seem to ignorant American Jews so fully removed by physical distance, by time, and by tragedy—is nevertheless worth recovering and maybe even in some form has left invisible traces—is really quite pernicious because it makes of the lost world a metaphor and fosters cheap identification. It is rigor that will speak to the young, not vague promises of recovery and spiritual connectedness!
In short what I most admire is your recognition of the utterly destructive nature of metaphors themselves when it comes to Judaism. Christianity made Judaism a metaphor and where did that get us? If metaphors raised out of Jewish context were allowed to dominate, then Theodore Hezl, that secular ignoramus, would be considered a hero, even though he became a dramaturge of Jewish history because he was such a lousy playwright and really didn’t know squat about the Torah.
It doesn’t surprise me that the book was edited by Jonathan Rosen, whom I don’t actually know – —I only sent my letter to him because his address was in God’s rolodex, I hope this won’t make him hesitate to forward my letter—but he is, let’s face it, a heretic whose book The Talmud and the Internet argued, I believe, that Mark Zuckerberg is just as good as Rabbi Akiva. Or so I imagine—I have not actually read it; I was going to read it but it was trashed by Commentary and since they were right about the Cold War and the Middle East I figured they must be right about literature too.
I have to stop now. Even the dead have high blood pressure (go figure) and besides, I have other work to do, and coffee with Eliezer Berkowitz [sic].
So let me just end by expressing once again my gratitude and admiration.
Nachman of Bratslav (peace be upon me).