• נטע שרם

On Kafka's headless dolls

Updated: Apr 11

[published in Hebrew קול ההמון]

In Kafka's letter to his father we read:

“It was indeed, so far as I could see, a mere nothing, a joke – not even a joke. Four days a year you went to the synagogue. I yawned and dozed through many hours (I don’t think I was ever again so bored, except later at dancing lessons) and did my best to enjoy the few little bits of variety there were, as for instance when the Ark was opened, which always reminded me of the shooting galleries where a cupboard door would open in the same way whenever one hit a bull’s eye; except that there something interesting always came out and here it was always the same old dolls without heads. That’s how it was in the synagogue…”[1]

Visually sound, but Jewishly staggering, the estrangement depicted in the headless doll is our concern today. The Jewish-Europe style Torah Sash dresses the Torah scroll in velvet. The leather made Torah scroll, is rolled around two sets of wooden rods which can be used as handles, top and bottom. These handles although peeking through the velvet sash are not used when transporting the Torah around the synagogue. Dropping a Torah is a feared event requiring a communal extended fast. No,Like a precious child, the Torah is hugged with both arms when carried or danced with. The handles are used only for the ceremonious Hagbahah, where the covers are set aside and the congregation is presented with the open scroll, and for the Gelila, when the scroll is turned to reach the right section.

I would like to examine this simile between a velvet wrapped Torah scroll and a headless doll. For it is shocking, outrages, blasphemous. I will contrast it to another extraordinary visualization of the Torah scroll and will conclude with some final remarks. Nice beginning

As I said, the image is visually sound. That is to say, if an outsider were to walk into a synagogue, knowing nothing of Jewish tradition, one might see a doll where the Torah is. This kind of gaze, the outsider's gaze, the ignorant gaze, is a possibility for Kafka. Yes That is to say, if Kafka is retelling a childhood's impression we may learn something very deep from about the two-dimensionality of his Jewish experience. But this concrete understanding of the imagery as a recounting of memory leaves much to be desired in the realm of literary and philosophical sophistication. Even if this is a memory, it means more than that once Kafka writes it in the letter to his father.

Since boredom is the prevailing mood of Kafka's experience of synagogue, we may want to ask for a phenomenology of the boring. We find it in the blue octavo notebooks: "A stair not worn hollow by footsteps is, regarded from its own point of view, only a boring something made of wood." We also find the Philosopher disgusted with the top that has stopped spinning in his hands.[2] The first attributes agency to the bored unfulfilled object, and the second hands the boredom over to the philosopher. Yet both cases seem to imply that boredom is Kafka's quirky take on the unfulfillment of an Aristotelian final cause. Well, in the case of the philosopher, you shouldn’t identify him with Kafka, the author. The piece could be (and probably is ) a critique of the philosopher’s attitude

So, what are these headless dolls? Could Kafka be evoking a child's care for a broken toy? No, these dolls bore him to death. Could Kafka be hiding a yearn for the dissection of the doll? A gory fascination with its interior? Wow, that’s a strong image Again, no. those old rags which are the stuffing of this broken doll are nothing of interest, if one even realizes they are there. Is this image a product of a Freudian move in which “the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar,”? well yes, the whole letter has been dissected for its Freudian impetus, and maybe this headless doll does have eerie overtones, yet Kafka expresses all these memories with an extreme mark of the boring. But as you implicitly admit here, the imagery he uses is violent rather than boring If this is an instance of the uncanny it is masked by boredom, maybe to hit even harder at the reader. Ok, yes! He does have other parts of synagogue that arouse other emotions, like the hazkarat neshamot, which he knows only as the time when something immoral or promiscuous is happening behind the closed doors of the prayer hall. But not here, these dolls don't scare him, they're not worthy of his sympathy, dissection or attention. They're not even a distraction.

I will digress with an anecdote: Intrigued by this headless doll of a Torah, I asked my six-year old daughter to explain to me what a Torah looks like, as if I had never seen one. Her answer, the philosophical negative of a headless doll, was, "a Torah is like a gift with legs and horns".

A gift has a decorated exterior, and a promise of something exciting on the inside. A broken doll on the other hand is a useless two-dimensional figure, folded into three dimensions. It has no interior worthy of mentioning, just old scraps of rags, which might be coming out through the hole left where the head was, or might not, who cares. But maybe one ought to give some attention to the fact that 1) broken dolls are often the most precious former possession of a child, and that there’s a loss , even mourning involved, no? and also that a doll has a human shape?

Isn't this image of the Torah so unique, so indicative of the fragile Jewishness of Kafka? Yes I wish to claim it is. It is not for its blasphemy, blasphemy is actually very Jewish. Yes Let's examine a violent image which a myth has placed into Berdyczewski's writings. This passage is from his son's memoirs, not verified in any other place to this day:

The year after Berdyczewski's death, my mother and I visited Weimar and viewed the archives. The old woman remembered her meeting with Berdyczewski twenty-five years earlier and recalled a scene from a novel, The Leave Taker, which he had told her about. The hero of the novel, or his friend, negates the Torah scroll and stabs it with a knife, and blood spurts from the parchment. I cannot cast any light on this— the manuscript has disappeared, or perhaps been destroyed.[3]

Berdyczewski, living the Eastern European rapid secularization in his own lifetime, lived through a childhood steeped in Jewish learning, and for as long as he lived was still amid turning his back to this rich tradition that would not let go of him. Yes, this comes very close When he stabbed the scroll, in an act of violent rage, or calculated cold anger, we cannot tell, the scroll bled. It is a bleeding foe, it is alive. Yes – a wonderful contrast with Kafka And the danger is that A living thing, even a wounded one, may recover and take revenge. The spilling blood is in it and of itself a response, and moral attack against the offender. And if the scroll cannot speak, maybe it will be the lord himself who will exclaim. "the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground."[4]

But Kafka's numb and depleted dolls are definitely not worth an act of desecration. True, this is already “after”

Moving away from the physical artifact in which the words of the Torah are written, to the idea of Torah, we might learn something more. The Torah itself writes: " For it is not an empty thing from you "[5] And right after expressing its fullness via the negative not-empty, comes the liturgical hit ki hem haicha - "but your very life". The commentators of course picked on the negative formation of this verse and learned from it that: "For it is not an empty thing from you" —If it seems empty it is because of you, since you do not toil in its study.[6]

The rabbinic rebuking answer to Kafka would be: you see dolls were the Torah stands because of your own lack of education! This would be, in the context of the letter, and blow at his father, who would be outraged at the analogy. Well, the father was already assimilated and probably the source of Kafka’s ignorance (as Kafka himself suggests) For, the way Kafka represents his father's sentimental ties to Judaism, such a depiction of the Torah, does exactly what it should do to his father. That’s true

Maybe one should explore how the velvet dress resting on the body of a headless doll fits in with Kafka in other works. in his Yiddish speech he attacks his audience saying: " Now, as you see, nothing has been achieved by these explanations. Sewn up inside these explanations, you will in the course of the reading look for what you already know, and what is really there, you will not see."[7] Beneath the Sewn velvet sash is what his father already knows but does not see. But what does Kafka see? What does Kafka seek? Nice- yes, maybe there’s just a remnant of mourning left

On a final note, this image was picked up by contemporary rabbinical figures, but with a (perhaps) unintentional spin. In a drasha written by a prominent rabbi in Australia, Kafka's passage we began with is quoted. Complaining how Kafka's images are in fact a grave reality he calls for a revitalization of prayer life the sermon concludes with a wishful prayer: "We should be so spiritually busy that we don’t even notice the dolls without heads."[8]

In this line, and I'm sure this is more radical than the rabbi intended for this line to be read, the headless dolls really do exist. Only one must be too preoccupied to notice them! As a side remark this use of Kafka in contemporary sermons tells a loud tale of the never ending midrashic tradition which kafka entered unknowingly, and in a most unexpected place.[9] He may not have entered the "Law", but he did enter the human negotiations of or about it. And maybe that is all there really is.


This is a fine, original reflection on a single image from Kafka that reflects on the poor remnants of Judaism in this German-Jewish context. You give this image a very nice twist and it’s all well researched, written and argued


[1] In German: "eine Kastentür sich aufmachte, nur daß dort aber immer etwas Interessantes herauskam und hier nur immer wieder die alten Puppen ohne Köpfe" Franz Kafka, Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins, Letter to His Father (New York: Schocken Books, 1974). [2] 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. […] so long as he could catch the top while it was still spinning, he was happy, but only for a moment; then he threw it to the ground and walked away. Kafka, Franz. The Complete Stories. New York City: Schocken Books, 1995. p 480. [3] Emmanuel Ben-Gurion, Reshut Ha-yahid, Tel-Aviv, 1980, p. 197 [4]Genesis 4, 10 [5] Deutoronomy, 32:47 [6]Yerushalmi Peah, 1:1 [7] The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1909-1923, ed. Max Brod, 2 vols. (London: Secker & Warburg, 1949). P 54-55. [8]“OzTorahh » Blog Archive » Dolls without heads”, August 2 2018, https://www.ozTorahh.com/2008/09/dolls-without-heads/. [9] Scholars have already pointed to a Midrashic quality in Kafka's works. See discussion in: Vivian Liska, “Kafka’s other Job”, in The book of Job: aesthetics, ethics, hermeneutics, ed Leora Faye Batnitzky וIlana Pardes, 2017, 123–45. Bloom remarks: "The way he [F.K] read the bible reflected a spiritual kinship with these classical vehicles of Jewish exegesis" (p. 90). See: Harold Bloom, Franz Kafka (Infobase Publishing, 2010).

By Dontworry - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11935877

19 views0 comments