Jews and Gender: The Challenge to Hierarchy

By Jonathan Frankel | Go to book overview

The Modernist Erotics of Jewish Tradition:
A View from the Gallery Naomi Seidman (GRADUATE THEOLOGICAL UNION)

“The Animal in the Synagogue, ” Franz Kafka's only story set in a recognizably Jewish world, is an unfinished parable, a parable without a moral, about a pale bluegreen marten that inhabits a small, dying synagogue and has done so for as long as anyone can remember. The animal in Kafka's synagogue is a stubbornly opaque figure, resisting all interpretation by the congregants who mull over its origin, motives, appearance, and proclivities and by the reader, who searches in vain for what this animal, as a literary figure, might “symbolize” or mean. Yet precisely because it resists meaning, the animal is an engine that generates narratives, speculation, dogma, law, and finally ritual—tradition, in other words, in what Walter Benjamin calls its “transmissibility” rather than truth. 1 “The Animal in the Synagogue” reflects Jewish tradition-making not only in its diachronic aspect, in the movement from one generation to another, but also in its synchronic aspect, in the socially differentiated mechanisms by which tradition is constructed at a given moment in time. The interpretations that arise around the animal, in the absence of other information, are shaped by the particularities of the architecture within which the marten moves: “The animal does not dare to go down below where the men are, it has never yet been seen on the floor. If it is stopped from getting on the lattice of the women's compartment, then at least it wants to be at the same height on the opposite wall. ” 2 In speaking of the animal, the congregants simultaneously trace the contours of their social world.

In Kafka's narrative, what the animal means is less important than how it means: it acquires significance within and through the structures it disturbs. Thus, the men debate the halakhic ramifications of its presence in a synagogue, speculate on its origins and plot its removal; the women feign fear and disguise their erotic fascination with the creature. In traversing and violating the boundaries between the sexes, the animal presents a different series of distractions, dilemmas, and diversions for the women and for the men:

To be sure, it is only the women who are afraid of the animal, the men have long ceased to bother about it, one generation has pointed it out to the next, it has been seen over and over again, and by this time nobody any longer wastes a glance on it, until now even the children, seeing it for the first time, do not show any amazement. It has become that animal that belongs to the synagogue—why should not the synagogue have a special do

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