The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Joseph Roth’s Mystic Thought and the Experience of Evil

The writer Joseph Roth was born in September 1894, in Brody (Galicia), a shtetl on the eastern border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Jewish community of Brody was one of the oldest in the East of Europe. Here an orthodox anti-Sabbatian Kabbalism flourished at the end of the Eighteenth Century. With the dissolution of the empire after the war in 1918, Joseph Roth spent most of his adult years first in Germany then in Paris, with continuous travels and stays across Europe. He died in May 1939, just few months before the outbreak of the Second World War.

As evil progressed in Europe and «spread» in the 1930s, Joseph Roth lived in a state of extreme existential fear and anguish, and developed a medieval mythical thought close to the Jewish Mystic tradition, Lurianic and Hassidic — of great influence in periods of extreme calamity— ; namely, in Job (1930), The Leviathan (1934), Weights and Measures (1937) and in his last piece The Legend of the holly Drinker (1939).

My proposal consists of presenting, developing, and analysing the mystic thread that connects those books, in which one can appreciate the long shadow of exile, together with a feeling of transgression and loss. Likewise, I would like to share an intuition that has not yet been scholarly developed: in the beginning of the second part of his book Job (1930), the main character, Mendel Singer, thinks on an ancestor that two hundred years ago had come to Volinia from Spain. One can think that he may be a repentant converted Jew (Marrano), i.e., an existential figure representing crisis of Identity and great need of atonement.