“The Jackals” and “The Lion”: Animal Fables of Kafka and Rav Kook

“The Jackals” and “The Lion”:

Animal Fables of Kafka and Rav Kook

by Bezalel Naor

In 1917, Franz Kafka (1883-1924), a surrealist writer living in Prague, published in Martin Buber’s Zionist journal, Der Jude, a short story entitled “Jackals and Arabs.” The plot of the story is rather simple; the meaning—like that of most of Kafka’s works—continues to mystify readers to this day.

A European gentleman camped in the desert is approached by a pack of jackals who look to him as to the long-awaited savior. The oldest jackal explains that since time immemorial, generations upon generation of jackals have been waiting for his arrival. Momentarily, he presents the astonished guest “with a small pair of sewing scissors, covered with ancient rust,” for the singular purpose of ridding the jackals of the Arabs, whom they detest, but whose yoke they are powerless to throw off. The interloper from the North politely demurs. In the next scene, an Arab chieftain arrives and proceeds to disabuse the European of the nonsense that the jackal blabbered to him. He explains that the Arabs keep jackals as pets, much as Europeans keep dogs. “They have the most lunatic hopes, these beasts; they’re just fools, utter fools. That’s why we like them; they are our dogs; finer dogs than any of yours.” The Arab then cut up a camel carcass; the carrion was immediately snatched up by the jackals. “They had forgotten the Arabs, forgotten their hatred, the all-obliterating immediate presence of the stinking carrion bewitched them.”

What is one to make of Kafka’s parable? Given its context, it seems reasonable to assume that the Arabs are truly Arabs and the jackals—Jews. The Jews look to Europe to free them from Arab oppression in Erets Yisrael. The tool of their deliverance is sewing scissors, an unlikely choice of arms. Why scissors? Is Kafka poking fun at the Jews as being a nation of tailors?

(In a “contrapuntal” interpretation, Edward Said appropriated Kafka’s parable for the cause of Palestinian liberation, whereby the “Arabs” become Jews, and the jackals—Palestinians. But then wouldn’t Kafka have been guilty of mixing metaphors? Palestinians brandish a knife, not scissors. As they say in Yiddish: “Nu, a kashya auf a mayseh!” “A question on a tale!”)

Some view Kafka’s piece as uncannily prescient. Shortly thereafter in 1917, His Majesty’s Government promised in the Balfour Declaration, “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Famous words. Unfortunately, the Balfour Declaration was a valueless paper. It would take another three decades for “Perfidious Albion” to lower the Union Jack and for General Sir Alan Cunningham, British High Commissioner for Palestine, to set sail from Haifa harbor for England. Kafka was right. Europe would not liberate the Jews of Erets Yisrael. How then, would the liberation be accomplished? That brings us to our next animal fable, by Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (1865-1935).

Not nearly as famous as Kafka’s “Jackals and Arabs,” Rav Kook’s “Ha-Aryeh ba-Sugar” (“The Lion in the Cage”) first appeared in Rabbi Moshe Zuriel’s collection Otserot ha-Rayah circa 1990. “The Lion in the Cage” is the story of an ancient lion, broken in spirit, living out his days within the confines of a cage. His cubs, who were born in captivity, know no better, and find their surroundings most comfortable, if not outright enjoyable. In fact, they are at a loss to understand what it is exactly that oppresses the spirit of the old lion. And then one day, the leonine patriarch reveals to them his secret:

There is a world full of light,

Freedom and liberty prevail.

There is a vast forest tall with trees

And stately with mighty cedars.

The fragrance is refreshing

And free animals abound.

When I was your age, my children,

I ruled the forest with pride and might

And all bowed before me.

If not for my pursuers

who broke my bones,

and this cramped cage—

I would still rule the forest,

And you too would be free and proud.

Learning the lie of their “gilded cage” existence, the lion cubs now look with deep dissatisfaction upon their environs. Eventually, this dissatisfaction will lead to a prison break:

The words of the Old One

strengthened the cubs’ heart,

and with the might of lions

they began to break down the cramped cage.

With claws and jaws and the roar of lions

they frightened away their smug captors.

With a mighty spirit

imbued with the delight of the forest

they shattered the walls of the cramped cage.

And with that, lo and behold, the ancient lion was rejuvenated:

The Old One was suddenly alive,

his broken bones healed with joy.

Rebuking his enemies, he and his cubs returned

and established the kingdom of the forest.

Who is the ancient lion? Who are the lion cubs?

While lacking the haunting quality of a Kafkaesque story, neither is Rav Kook’s tale totally transparent. Treading uncertain ground, we might say that the ancient lion represents the sages of Israel, who in exile preserved the memory of the homeland. The ancient sages were, alas, weak when it came to establishing facts on the ground. Yet they were able to communicate to the young an odium for exile, and to fan the spark of the longing for Zion. It was the youth of Israel, impudent, brazen Zionists, who once their conscience, their Jewish identity had been pricked, threw off the yoke of the oppressor.

As for Kafka, today the literati debate whether this tormented genius was a Zionist or anti-Zionist. Perhaps it would be fair to say that Kafka lived in the elusive shadow of the legendary Golem of Prague, created by Der Hohe Rabbi Loew to act as a Jewish savior. When the Golem proved unruly, his creator was forced to pull the plug on him. A sleeping giant lying amid the sheimos (“sacred trash”) up in the attic of the Altneuschul, the Golem is the stuff of which dreams are made.

About the Author
Bezalel Naor is an author, teacher, and public speaker. He is recognized as a scholar in the thought of Rav Kook, Kabbalah, Sabbatianism, and Hasidism, as well as many other areas of Jewish Thought. Recent publications include a bilingual edition of Rav Kook's seminal work, Orot (Maggid, 2015); When God Becomes History: Historical Essays of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (Kodesh, 2016); The Koren Rav Kook Siddur (2017); and Navigating Worlds: Collected Essays (Kodesh, 2021).
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