Reading Kafka On Shavuot


We don’t know where the Torah was given, we don’t know when the Torah was given, we don’t know if the Torah was given.”

— The Draschba

Assuming for my whole adult life that the presentation of the Torah happened in a precise and clear way at Sinai (despite Moses having to come down the mountain twice, having broken the first tablets into smithereens), I was shocked to find that the Torah doesn’t quite pin down how, and when, it was born.

We learn in Exodus, for instance: “And Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD, and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said: ‘All the words which the Lord hath spoken will we do.’ And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD.” In another verse we are told: “When He finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God.”

On top of these seeming imprecisions, or variations on a theme, is a tradition that God didn’t give Moses the Torah all at one time, but parsed it out in smaller doses. In this reading the Israelites traveled for 40 years because it took that long for Moses to receive and then transmit the message to his people.

None of this is new, you might say. The tradition has found a way to live with these ambiguities. So why does it matter now?

Jews point to Sinai as the birth of the community. All of us, stretching the limits of time as if in a sacred sci-fi wormhole, stood at the mountain, and therefore each generation was present for the unfolding of revelation. But if we are not sure exactly what happened at Sinai — or, more specifically, if we’re not sure what revelation was offered to whom, and where, and when — then what is it exactly that we all received?

One of the things I love about staying up late studying on Shavuot is the profusion of texts and teachers offering their wisdom. There is a stunning diversity of ideas, and I want to suggest that as the Jewish community continues to diversify, with Jews increasingly coming into the Sinaitic tradition from different places and faiths, the question of what it means to have stood together at Sinai, and what exactly it is that we heard, has shifted.

This year at Shavuot I will be teaching a seemingly odd text: the parable “Before the Law” by Franz Kafka. This story, which burns with a thousand interpretations but is never consumed by one, concerns a man from the country who travels to visit “the law,” a mysterious entity or process. The law is hidden inside a gate, and guarded by a gatekeeper, with whom the man spends his life arguing about how and when he should be allowed to enter. Finally, confused by seeing no other supplicants during this long wait, he asks the gatekeeper why this is so. He is told, mysteriously, that the gate was designed only for him, and will now be shut forever.

Exactly 100 years ago, during World War I, when the world was smoldering and revelation seemed likely to be trumped by apocalypse, Kafka stayed up all night writing this parable. There is no evidence whatsoever that Kafka’s story happened on the holiday of Shavuot; but in true midrashic fashion, I argue that it could have, and included two lessons for us today.

The first lesson is found is in the parable’s stark language, a reminder of what it must have felt like for our ancient ancestors to have stood waiting for revelation, terrified, amazed, unsure what questions they should ask, and even if they would survive. In our flattened, anesthetized, media-saturated lives, we often forget — except on days like Yom Kippur — how centrally this individual experience of Mystery lives within our psyche.

The second lesson is the opposite of the first. Whenever Jews gather to study Kafka’s parable Jewishly, a profusion of questions emerges, each one drawing people closer into community, turning an arid mystery into fertile possibility. Just like the Torah, this secular parable begs us to interrogate it: What is “the law?” Who is the gatekeeper? What are the questions that we wait to ask until it’s too late?

Most importantly, perhaps, is the sharp lesson of the seeker’s isolation. In my reading, the man doesn’t can’t enter the gate of law and revelation because he tries to enter it alone. None of us stood by ourselves at Sinai; we stood together. Wherever Sinai was, and whatever was said, we are there as one.

Daniel Schifrin is a writer and teacher living in Berkeley, Calif.