By Amos Oz
Translated by Nicholas de Lange
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Can betrayal be a form of loyalty? Consider the archetype of betrayal, Judas, whom Dante consigned to the innermost ring of the inferno. In 1937, Aaron Abraham Kabak published The Narrow Path, a fictional retelling of the life of Jesus. In it, Jesus asks his disciple Yehuda Ish-Keriot (Judas Iscariot) to hand him over to the Roman oppressors in order to set in motion the uprising against them. Jesus, in The Narrow Path, recognizes that Judas, of all the apostles, is strong enough to fulfil his self-destructive demand. The reality of the gospel account is that while Jesus is crucified by the Romans, it does not lead to a revolt of national redemption, but rather to a movement of individual spiritual transformation.
In Judas, his first novel in 10 years, Israeli author Amos Oz resumes the debate about betrayal and loyalty and reconsiders the contemporary meaning of Judas for the Jewish state. Judas combines an exploration of the motivation of the renegade apostle and what the author calls a story of “error, desire and unrequited love,” set in Oz’s native Jerusalem in 1956.
The link between the two strands is a young, sensitive Shmuel Ash, a biblical studies student who has dropped out of university. He takes a live-in job as a companion to an elderly, incapacitated man, Gershon Wald, who, in true Jewish fashion, needs someone to argue with as a coping mechanism against the tragedy which destroyed his life: the death of his son in the War of Independence. Also living in the gloomy house is Wald’s daughter-in law, Atalia Abravanel. Gershon encourages Shmuel to continue his research into Jewish views of Judas.
In less skillful hands the academic slugfest would be boring. Oz describes Judas as the only real believer in the divinity of Jesus. He believes that if Jesus is crucified and rises from the dead while on the cross the world will be forever changed. As we know, the story did not end that way and in the book Judas commits suicide. He will be remembered not as the truest disciple but as the Traitor.
But Oz does more than recraft the Judas story. He juxtaposes it with the story of Sheatiel Abravanel, Atelia’s father. Sheatiel, a fictional character, had been the only member of the Zionist executive committee to oppose David Ben-Gurion over the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Abravanel had developed close friendships with the local Arab population and instead of statehood advocated that Jews and Arabs should live side by side as equals in a country under international control. His Zionist colleagues rejected his view, forced him to resign from the council and labelled him a traitor. Abravanel was forced to live out his life as an outcast, a Judas.
Oz gives us two characters who act in a righteous, just manner but whose opinions are at odds with the prevailing norms. They are not honoured for their “prophetic posturing,” rather they are reviled and hated. Oz calls to our attention that both Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln were called traitors in their own times. Their love for their countries was eventually requited but Abravanel and Judas die as prophets with no honour.
Judas is a multi-layered novel. It is certainly a personal novel as Oz has been vilified by the Israeli right for advocating a two-state solution and for criticizing Israeli governments that have refused to actively pursue peace. He has been called a traitor by more than one politician, more than one newspaper, and more than one Israeli.
You will find this old-fashioned in its writing but modern in its sensitivity. It was originally published in Hebrew and is now available in this English translation.