Timely Thoughts

Playing Dreidel with Kafka and Rabbi Nahman

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Joey Rosenfeld

Sometimes, two great souls, separated on the pages of Jewish history by great distances in time, space, and disposition, are shown to have a certain closeness at their root and enter into dialogue with one another. One need not establish a historical or even theoretical relationship in order to discern a point of convergence between two witnesses to the particularly Jewish experience.

Two such souls are Rabbi Nahman of Breslov (1772-1810) and Franz Kafka (1883-1924), whose narrow bridge of similarity has not been traced outside of overzealous attempts at biographical parallelism or reductive comparisons of certain themes. However, as Rabbi Nahman writes, at times one tzaddik asks a question without an answer only to be answered by another tzaddik from a distant time and place. Their dreamlike correspondence across the void of time is written in air, neither one knowing that their questioning and answering relates to the other. In this essay, I would like to imagine a dialogue between Rabbi Nahman and Kafka about the dreidel, the spinning top that gyrates at the edge of the abyss in the dim Hanukkah candlelight.

In the rabbinic imagination, the celebration of the Jewish triumph over Greece goes beyond the historical Hasmoneans and their war against the Seleucids to commemorate the distinction between Judaism and Hellenism, between the analytic tradition of Athens and the non-rational tradition of Jerusalem.

In the eyes of the rabbis, the transient triumph of Hanukkah represented much more than the military, political victory emphasized by history. The war was over more than the right to practice Judaism openly, more than a resistance to the temptations of Hellas; it was a battle for a particularly rabbinic way of thinking, for knowledge that cannot be tested by logic because it lies beyond the limits of logic and reason.

Described by Maharal of Prague as the “interiority” of thought (“pnimiyut ha-sekhel”), the rabbis’ attention to the contradictions and paradoxes at the heart of logical thinking led them beyond Greece’s dependence on observation of empirical reality, which typifies what he calls the “exteriority” of thought (“hitzoniyut ha-sekhel”).

In an attempt to occupy a middle path excluded by Aristotelian logic, rabbinic thinking attunes itself to the gaps and breaks that disrupt the absolutist pretensions of a thinking that self-assuredly claims to grasp the absolute. Human reason contains a violent, reductionist impulse, which seeks to view everything through the lens of the empirically knowable and dismiss all else as nonsense. It denies the existence of the transcendent and attempts to demonstrate that beyond the immanent order stands nothing but the immanent itself. The supernatural is domesticated by the laws of nature; rational thought is confined to the measurable and observable. It believes only in what it sees, reducing all else to the realm of illusion, imagination, and the irrational.

Operating outside the laws of non-contradiction, the rabbinic mind can occupy the non-place where opposites coexist in their mutual opposition. In contrast to the Platonic mind, wherein external identity veils an inner duality of form and matter, the rabbinic mind hears the murmuring of an internal unity within an external duality.

Instead of the static space of Greek truth we find the dynamic unfolding of “these and those” (“eilu va-eilu”) perpetually spoken in the sustained utterance of revelation. If the Greek quest of Odysseus is the nostalgic homecoming to some originary truth, the Jewish wandering of Abraham is a movement towards the ever-receding limit of thought where faith is born.

Something happens, however, when reason breaks down. The origins of philosophical thought can be said to lie in the human subject’s effort to know, with absolute clarity, the nature and identity of that which is perceived. Knowledge, thus defined, provides thinking subjects the necessary grounds to engage reality with certainty and self-assuredness. Rational categorizations demarcating the boundaries between one thing and the other create the semblance of an ordered world in which the laws of logic dictate the true and the possible. When the internal limits of rationalism are exposed, the ordered nature of things is undermined, throwing the thinking individual into a state of confusion and doubt.

In the ruins of reason the thinker peers into the vestiges of knowledge with hopes of discovering some trace of certainty, only to find contradictory fragments, which only deepen the doubtful nature of things. Arrested at the limit of thought, the thinker gazes out towards the coming abyss that surges in the absence of rational order. The systems that once operated assuredly now malfunction, substituting one in place of the other and the other in place of the one. In the morphing of self into other and center into the borders that demarcate it, the parameters that define things waver, revealing the void of meaninglessness that undergirds all meaning.

This tittering on the edge of reason, this crack-up in laughter at the crack-up of rationality, produces anxiety within the Greek hero, the lover of wisdom, the philosopher. In the throes of enlightenment’s darkening, the philosopher feverishly grasps at the remnants of reason in hopes of catching a part that will arrest the movement of imagination’s play. In Kafka’s parable, “The Top,” we find the philosopher in the grips of madness trying, in spite of his incessant failure, to retain a vestige of rational certainty that in his mind promises to restore reason to its initial prestige:

A certain philosopher used to hang about wherever children were at play. And whenever he saw a boy with a top, he would lie in wait. As soon as the top began to spin the philosopher went in pursuit and tried to catch it. He was not perturbed when the children noisily protested and tried to keep him away from their toy; so long as he could catch the top while it was spinning, he was happy, but only for a moment; then he threw it to the ground and walked away. For he believed that the understanding of any detail, that of a spinning top, for instance, was sufficient for the understanding of all things.

For this reason he did not busy himself with great problems, it seemed to him uneconomical. Once the smallest detail was understood, then everything was understood, which was why he busied himself only with the spinning top. And whenever preparations were being made for the spinning of the top, he hoped that this time it would succeed: as soon as the top began to spin and he was running breathlessly after it, the hope would turn to certainty, but when he held the silly piece of wood in his hand, he felt nauseated. The screaming of the children, which hitherto he had not heard, and which now suddenly pierced his ears, chased him away, and he tottered like a top under a clumsy whip.

Kafka’s philosopher gravitates towards the children at play. The carefree attitude of young playfulness evokes a certain uneasiness within the philosopher. The meaningless rotation of things symbolized in the spinning top brings the philosopher face to face with the metamorphic nature of things when stripped of their rational constraints. Ignoring the “noisy protest” of the youngsters, who intuitively know the power of nonsensical play, he seeks to violently arrest the movement-of-thought so as to “catch the top” in its spinning, thus shedding enough light, “sufficient for the understanding of all things.”

The paradoxical spinning, wherein the specific coordinates of the top remain indeterminate, results in the top’s impossible presence both here and there at once. In eluding the here-and-now, the top occupies a space of simultaneity that moves in both directions at once, frustrating the efforts of the philosopher to catch it. When he does manage to catch the top, the illusory promise of reason’s gift fades in his hands leaving only a “nauseating” reminder of the limits of rationality.

The philosophical quest sets out from the primordial ground-of-being and seeks to return back to its point of departure with a newfound grasp of the whole. Guarded by the laws of logic, the eagle-eyed philosopher sees a totalized whole whose laws of homogeneity dictate an equivalency between each and every thing. To understand the intelligible principles of the ideal is to grasp the sensible qualities that constitute the real, like Kafka’s philosopher who believed that “the understanding of any detail, that of a spinning top, for instance, was sufficient for the understanding of all things.”

Yet despite the philosopher’s repeated failure in his quest to arrest the movement of the top, Kafka’s antihero cannot free himself from the bounds of reason. The “hope” that persists in spite of the failure, the sense that could have led the philosopher beyond the path of rationality, is just as quickly transformed into the drive towards “certainty”. The “breathlessness” of the chase, the suffocation of wonder, reignites the philosopher’s craving for absolute knowledge, perpetuating the circular drive towards knowing, whose ending returns to its beginning, the “nauseating” sense of that which remains beyond reason.

For Kafka, life in (t)his world is marked by a certain type of invisibility. The pervasive sense of being watched, gazed at from a faceless beyond, introduces a sense of anxiety particular to the Kafkaesque gesture. Never certain of who or what is surveilling, the anonymous characters are always already under a judgment about which they have no say. The dreamscape of K’s journey towards the unassailable castle morphs into the nightmarish impotency of the subject with respect to a faceless bureaucracy. There is lawlessness at the heart of the law, capriciousness at the heart of order. The “flawless bureaucracy” that executes the ordering, regulating, functional laws of existence is shown to be a system of flaws that accumulate around a gaping hole at the heart of being.

Law, for Kafka, represents not only the man-made laws of judges and governments but also the laws of nature, history, and even selfhood. In the collapse of law, the boundaries that separate order from disorder, fairness from cruelty, and self from other, are erased, resulting in an upheaval that displaces everything from its proper place. Nowhere is this upheaval more apparent than in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, wherein Gregor “woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, and found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”

More unsettling than the absurd morphing of human into insect is the mutability of categories and species assumed to be absolute, which is disclosed in the morphing of one into the other. As the order of law comes undone in, and is replaced by, the lawlessness of order, like a spinning top where up is down and down is up, where center is marginalized and margin is central, the philosopher loses hope in rationality, himself becoming “like a top under a clumsy whip.”

For Rabbi Nahman, the limit of rationality is a given, not only in the external sense that the thinker’s capacity to think is limited and thus incapable of grasping the essence of thought, but even in the inherent sense that the secrets of existence remain beyond the confines of the imperfect tool of reason. For Rabbi Nahman, the point where reason reaches its limit and breaks down is the transitional point from which the individual can transcend rationality and move on to where faith alone grasps that which remains beyond reason.

Deeply aware of the philosophical questions that the great Jewish rationalists raise in their various works, Rabbi Nahman was less impressed by the questions themselves and more concerned with their rationally-derived answers, which remained contingent at best. Demanding of his adherents a strict attention to the pitfalls inherent in the rational approach to the world, Rabbi Nahman called for a sacred ignorance that led the spiritual seeker beyond rational knowing towards a sort of mystical “unknowing,” which is “the apex of knowledge” and could be realized only through faith.

In contrast to Kafka’s philosopher, who saw the metamorphosis of the sensible into the nonsensical as an allusion to the disorderly abyss that lay beneath the semblance of order, Rabbi Nahman saw the maddening gyrations of existence as a hint towards the unity of faith and the faith of unity that undergirds the natural order of things. Like Kafka’s philosopher, who tried to grasp the spinning top so as to arrest the disappearance of reason, Rabbi Nahman saw the spinning of the very same top as the vertiginous dance that leads the spinner to the palace of madness where faith becomes reason.

Describing his irrational system of faith that is born in the breakdown of reason, Rabbi Nahman writes:

Their books contain questions as to the order of Creation: How is it that a star merited to be a star, or that a constellation deserved to be a constellation? What was the sin of the lower creatures, animals and all the rest, that consigned them to their lowly state? Why not just the opposite? Why is a head a head and a foot a foot?

… This entire pursuit, however, is a vain one. One should not ask such questions of God, who is righteous and upright. For in truth, the entire universe is a spinning top, which is called a dreidel. Everything moves in a circle: angels change into men and men into angels; the head becomes a foot and the foot a head. All things in the world are part of this circular motion, reborn and transformed into one another. That which was above is lowered and that which was below is raised up. For in their root all of them are one.

There are separate intellects, which are angels, completely separated from matter; there are spheres, which are composed of the most refined matter, and there is a lower world, which is fully corporeal. Even though each of these is surely derived from some particular place, in their root they are all one.

Therefore the universe is a spinning top, on which everything turns and is transformed. Right now one thing may be highest, and it is considered a head, while that which is at the bottom is called a foot. But when they spin around again, the head will become a foot and the foot a head, men will become angels and angels will be men…. Everything in the world is a dreidel, moving in a circle, for in truth they are all one in their root (Sihot ha-Ran, no. 40; translation from Arthur Green, Tormented Master, 309-10).

The instability of things, the spinning mutability of seemingly stable identities, discloses the fragility of this-worldly order. The very progression that brings the philosopher, the lover of wisdom typified by the rationalism of Athens, to the brink of the abyss where the “breathless” and “nauseating” chords of meaninglessness threaten to drown the mind of reason leads the rabbinic mind, in its embrace of the paradoxical truth of being, to find a path that leads beyond.

For this reason, writes Rabbi Nahman, we celebrate the spinning madness, the random rotation of this world, specifically on Hanukkah, when the faith of Jerusalem takes shelter from the reason of Athens in the opaque clouds of unknowing:

This is why we play with the dreidel on Hanukkah, as Hanukkah is linked to the Temple, and the essence of the Temple is linked to this element of the rotating wheel…of “the elevated degraded and the degraded elevated”; for God embedded His presence in the Tabernacle and in the Temple, which is the aspect of “the elevated degraded”, and the opposite, wherein the form of the Tabernacle in its entirety is traced above, is the aspect of “the degraded elevated”. This is the element of the dreidel, the element of the rotating wheel, where everything returns, repeats, and reverses.” (Ibid.)