On a wintry day in Jerusalem in late 1959, Shmuel Ash spots an enigmatic job posting on a university campus board:
Offered to a single humanities student with conversational skills and an interest in history, free accommodation and a modest monthly sum in return for spending five hours per evening with a seventy-year-old invalid, an educated, widely cultured man. He is able to take care of himself and seeks company, not assistance.
Ash, whose parents, we are told, “had lost their entire life savings in an instant, whose own research had stalled, who had dropped out of university, and whose girlfriend had suddenly married her former boyfriend,” decides to accept the position.
Ash moves to a house that is inhabited by two people, Atalia Abravanel, forty-five, and Gershom Wald, her seventy-year-old invalid father-in-law. They are haunted by the memories of two others who have a presence in the house: Shealtiel Abravanel, Atalia’s dead father, and Micha, Atalia’s late husband and Wald’s son. As we learn later, Micha was killed in the 1948 war and his corpse savagely desecrated.
The 1948 war between Jews and Arabs in Palestine is called the War of Independence by Jews and Al Naqba, or the Catastrophe, by Palestinian Arabs. What is striking in Judas, Amos Oz’s captivating new novel, is that the Jewish Abravanels, both father and daughter, view the 1948 war as an unmitigated catastrophe. This is so in their own lives through the loss of Micha, and for Jews nationally by heaping misery on Jews and Arabs alike.
Oz’s story zooms in on the trio of the living, which has expanded to include Ash, then zooms out onto a quintet that includes the two living-dead with their tight hold on the living. Much of the book consists of conversations between Ash, Wald, and Atalia about religion, Zionism, and the legacy of the war, as well as increasingly intimate exchanges about their private lives.
Shmuel Ash is twenty-five years old. As Lord Byron once asked: “Is there anything in the future that can possibly console us for not being always twenty-five?” In the case of the stocky and bearded Ash, the answer is Atalia—the lady of the house. Ash, “shy, emotional, socialist, asthmatic,” falls deeply in love with her.
Ash is based on the nineteenth-century Russian literary archetype of the “superfluous man”: well-read, intelligent, idealistic, with copious goodwill, and yet utterly ineffectual. Ash can interpret the world but can barely change his own underwear. Like Goncharov’s Oblomov, he stays in bed until midday, a grown baby who dusts his beard with scented talc powder.
Ash is the novel’s link between the story that takes place in 1959 and the one about Jesus and Judas that took place in the first century. His academic research, which he had recently given up, was dedicated to the way in which Jews viewed Jesus. When he tries to explain his interest in the subject, he mumbles: “The figure of Jesus of Nazareth…and Judas Iscariot…and the spiritual world of the Chief Priests and Pharisees who rejected Jesus.”
In Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterpiece The Master and Margarita, written in the 1930s, Jesus and Judas’s Jerusalem is woven onto Stalinist Moscow of the 1930s by the Master, who is writing a biography of Pontius Pilate. Oz uses a similar device: Shmuel Ash’s historical research transplants Jesus and Judas onto the divided city of Jerusalem of the late 1950s.
Oz has a formidable rhetorical talent that doesn’t always work in his favor. He is in danger of giving the impression that his novels are an excuse for delivering eloquent speeches about big ideas. Luckily, his novel is not just about abstractions. For one thing, the contentious life of Jerusalem—divided between Israel and Jordan—has a major part in the novel, and to great effect.
By describing Ash and Atalia’s long walks through its narrow alleyways, Oz brings a wintry wind into his powerful depiction of the city in December. For him, Jerusalem between winds is a place graced with moments of transcendence:
There was no rain, just a few gray tatters of clouds crossing the sky on their way from the sea to the desert. The morning light that touched the stone walls of Jerusalem was reflected back soft and sweet, honeyed light, the light that caresses Jerusalem on clear winter days between one rainstorm and the next.
Oz captures the way the harsh, blinding glare of Jerusalem summers is replaced in winter by a soft glow reflected in the washed building stones. (I have to confess that I am, perhaps, too susceptible to Oz’s evocation of Jerusalem. He and I attended kindergarten together and were raised in the same Jerusalem neighborhood, a place movingly, almost eerily evoked in Oz’s autobiographical novel A Tale of Love and Darkness.)
Oz is very particular about naming his leading characters: the name Ash is already a giveaway. Oz maintains without conviction that Shmuel, to the best of his knowledge, has no relation to the “well-known writer” Scholem Asch, who scandalized the Jewish world with his sympathetic trilogy written in the years of World War II on themes having to do with the life of Jesus. The conventional wisdom among Jews at the time was that there was a direct line between Christian anti-Semitism and the Nazi anti-Semitism calling for the elimination of the Jews. Scholem Asch’s trilogy, which depicted Jesus in a favorable light, was taken as a betrayal by many Jews.
Atalia is another telling name. The biblical Atalia of the ninth century BC is the only woman who became a ruling sovereign in Judea. In Athalie, Racine’s 1691 play, she is the epitome of a fiercely independent woman, as is Oz’s Atalia, the commanding lady of the haunted house who bears herself regally. Meanwhile, Abravanel strongly suggests the name of the descendants of the leading Jewish families who were expelled from Spain in 1492.
“Abravanel? Such an aristocratic name,” says Ash to Atalia, before adding, “If I remember rightly he was the only one to oppose the creation of the state? Or else he was only opposed to Ben-Gurion’s approach?”
Much like the symbolic names and the dual plotlines, Oz’s book is a novel of ideas, of the kind that Vladimir Nabokov hated. Then again, Oz is in good company, for Nabokov also hated Dostoevsky and Mann for this very reason. The book turns on three ideas deriving from three people: Ben-Gurion, Judas, and Jesus. “Ben-Gurion” is shorthand for the justification—or the lack thereof—of founding the State of Israel. “Judas” stands for the idea of betrayal, or rather the ambiguity of betrayal. And “Jesus” suggests Judaism’s refusal to deal seriously with the challenge of Christianity.
Ben-Gurion, the founder of the State of Israel, shaped its strategy and its major institutions like no one else. Oz, instead of dealing with Israel as it is now, goes back to its foundation, arguing back and forth with its forefather. Oz recognizes Ben-Gurion’s ability to get under one’s skin, whether as a friend or foe. After all, Ben-Gurion quite evidently got under Oz’s skin. Here is the admirer Wald:
There’s no one like Ben-Gurion…. The Jewish people has never before had such a far-sighted leader as Ben-Gurion. Few understand as he does that “the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations” is a curse and not a blessing.
And here is Ben-Gurion’s opponent Ash:
Ben-Gurion may have been in his youth a workers’ leader, a sort of tribune of the plebs, if you like, but today he heads a self-righteous, chauvinistic state and he never stops spouting hollow biblical phrases about renewing our days as of old and realizing the vision of the prophets.
Wald, the bereaved father who suffered from Ben-Gurion’s war, remains an admirer of Ben-Gurion. Ash, who belongs to a pathetic group of six dedicated to renewing socialism, is an opponent of Ben-Gurion from the left. Ash and Wald’s reactions to Ben-Gurion are not new. The interesting opposition to Ben-Gurion in the novel comes from an unexpected source: the late Shealtiel Abravanel, Atalia’s father, who
tried in vain to persuade Ben-Gurion in ’48 that it was still possible to reach an agreement with the Arabs about departure of the British and the creation of a single joint condominium of Jews and Arabs, if we only agreed to renounce the idea of a Jewish state.
Abravanel is a thoroughly Mediterranean aristocrat, much at ease with his educated Arab friends and other educated people in the Levant, and rather estranged from his fellow Jews. He speaks Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, French, English, and Ladino but, tellingly, not Yiddish, the language of Eastern European Jews. His opposition to Ben-Gurion cuts deep—he is hostile to the notion of the nation-state. In discussing Abravanel’s ideas with Atalia, Ash asks her: “Don’t you believe that in 1948 we fought because we had no alternative? That we had our backs to the wall?” “No,” she replies categorically. “You didn’t have your backs to the wall. You were the wall.”
Is this internal Zionist talk in the middle of a work of art, to borrow Stendhal’s simile, “like a gun shot in the middle of a concert, something vulgar, and however, something which is impossible to ignore”? I don’t think so. The ideological talk here is like the cannon shots in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture: an integral part of the music, not an outside noise. By creating Abravanel, Oz has succeeded in establishing a credible upholder of views strongly held against the mainstream Zionism of Ben-Gurion. But Abravanel amounts to much more than an ideological opponent of Ben-Gurion. The question is whether his views amount to a betrayal. And here is where the comparison to Judas, the arch betrayer of history, naturally comes to mind.
There are many manifestations of betrayal in the novel. Shmuel Ash feels that he betrayed his mother and father by fantasizing about replacing them with a better class of parents. Indeed, he “always blamed himself for his disloyalty,” as if he were an enemy agent in the family, whereas his parents and sister felt that he betrayed them by betraying his calling as a religious leader to become a scholar. Betraying one’s parents is, in the writings of Oz, a big deal. Yet Ash’s betrayal of his parents doesn’t seem at all comparable with the evocation of Judas; Abravanel’s betrayal of Ben-Gurion—if it is in fact a betrayal—would. For Oz, notwithstanding this discrepancy, both betrayers seem to be in need, at the very least, of rehabilitation.
Indeed, Ash offers a radical reevaluation of Judas, who, he claims, “was the most loyal and devoted” of all of Jesus’s disciples. Ash believes that Judas “never betrayed him, but, on the contrary, he meant to prove his greatness to the whole world.” The Gnostic Gospel of Judas of the late second century already describes Judas as the only disciple to understand the true message of Jesus, while the other disciples are portrayed as lacking understanding. Moreover, in Ash’s view, the role of Judas in the redemptive scheme of humanity is to hand over Jesus to the Romans not as an act of betrayal, but as an expression of ultimate devotion.
During the Romantic movement, the theme of Judas as the true loyalist permeated literature. Even devout Catholic writers like François Mauriac and Paul Claudel contributed, if not to Judas’s radical reevaluation (from worst to best), then at least to Judas’s rehabilitation (“not so bad”).
Ash takes this idea even further: “Judas Iscariot was the founder of the Christian religion.” It would be wrong to take Ash’s half-baked ideas about Judas as the author’s own—Ash, we are told, wrote these words in his notebook “in a state of great excitement”—but bringing Judas into the novel is a way for Oz to deal with the ambiguity of betrayal, namely its susceptibility to reevaluation (or rehabilitation) from one generation to another. It is in the notion of betrayal, and not in Judas himself, that I suspect Oz is interested.
While Ash is an academic researcher, he is also an amateur private eye searching for Abravanel’s record. His investigation leads him to the State Archives in Jerusalem, where he meets a dour archivist, a certain Mr. Sheindelevich: “What is that you wish to know, precisely?” Mr. Sheindelevich asks. “After all,” he adds, “they all wanted as one man to set up a state, and they all knew as one man that we would have to defend ourselves by force.”
“Even Shealtil Abravanel?” Ash asks. The archivist tells him dryly: “He was a traitor.”
Ash reevaluates Judas, whereas Oz, to my mind, only rehabilitates Abravanel. He doesn’t side with Abravanel’s opposition to the idea of a nation-state in general, or to the idea of Israel in particular. What he does is to give Abravanel’s position legitimacy from a Zionist perspective.
A current exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is dedicated to the image of Jesus in Jewish plastic arts. In it, there is an imposing sculpture by Mark Antokolsky, a famous Jewish sculptor in tsarist Russia of the second half of the nineteenth century, titled Christ Before the People. The portrayal of Jesus in the sculpture is unique in not seeing Jesus from a critical Jewish perspective. Indeed, there is nothing wrong historically or conceptually with the idea that Jesus was, and remained, a Jew.* Jesus the Galilean Jew, the faith healer, was not a problem for most Jews. It is with Jesus Christ that the hostility begins.
No doubt, medieval Judaism produced nasty accounts of Jesus. As Wald puts it: “All these foul texts were written by narrow-minded little Jews because they were afraid of the attractive power of Christianity.” The standard account for the hostility of the Jewish attitude is suggested in the novel by Ash himself: “The Jews who wrote this polemic were certainly writing under the influence of their oppression and persecution by the Christians.” But Wald will have none of such explanations. “Surely if you want to challenge Jesus the Christian,” he says, “you have to elevate yourself, not descend into the gutter.”
Wald views the challenge of Christianity to Judaism in its possibility and promise of universal love. Wald, the bereaved father, does not believe in universal love: “Surely anyone who loves everybody does not really love anybody.” In my view, he speaks for Oz, for whom the main divide between Christianity and Judaism is the idea of universal love. Many Jews refuse to believe in the human possibility of such love.
Jesus is the Lamb of God, the sacrificial lamb of Passover for the sake of humanity at large. In the days leading to Passover in 1948, Micha, Wald’s son and Atalia’s husband, was a promising mathematical logician, aged thirty-seven. Because of his relatively old age and a severe kidney failure, he was exempted from taking active part in the war. But he volunteered and was killed in battle, sacrificing his life for the sake of the Jews in besieged Jerusalem.
Jewish martyrology was developed in competition with Christian martyrology. It therefore doesn’t include Jesus. The emblem of Jewish martyrology is Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac on Mount Moriah. Willingness to sacrifice oneself may seem relatively easy compared to a willingness to sacrifice one’s beloved child. Gershom Wald, in recounting the death of his only child, refers to Abraham: “He grew up with me without a mother. He was only six when his mother died. I brought him up on my own. I took him myself and led him to Mount Moriah.” Wald rehearses the Israeli mantra that the death of those who were killed in the fighting of 1948 was not in vain. But then he starts to hear an inner voice: “I seemed to hear Shealtiel Abravanel asking me silently if I still believed that it was all worthwhile.”
Was it worth it? This hovering question can be seen as the bleeding scar of the novel. It doesn’t abate or get better with time. This horrific question is posed on all levels: personal—the death of Micha—and collective—the mutually inflicted pain by Jews and Arabs.
Shmuel Ash’s initiation rite in the haunted house takes three months. Eventually he is liberated from that gnostic maze by Atalia, who brings him his traveling bag one morning and insists for his own sake that he leave. (“If you stay with us any longer you’ll turn into a fossil,” she says.) His redemption means that he is ready to begin a new life, probably in one of the development towns in Israel’s south. There, he watches as a beautiful woman hangs a wet blouse. She is the opposite of Atalia, the unattainable widow, and suggests the possibility of a new beginning.
At the end of the novel, so beautifully translated by Nicholas de Lange, Ash wonders: Where to? What next? But we are left instead with that silent question of Abravanel’s—perhaps of the novel’s: Was it worth it?