Book Review: Judas

Judas. By Amos Oz. Translator Nicholas de Lange. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pages, $25.

Considering how often he has been called a “traitor” by fellow Israelis (from his early involvement in Peace Now to his recent comparison of violent West Bank settlers to neo-Nazis, which earned him death threats), it should hardly surprise that Oz has long been preoccupied by its fraught significance.

The exceedingly malleable nature of just what “treason” and “loyalty” really signify enlivened earlier works (especially Panther in the Basement’s portrayal of a child of Jewish underground fighters’ friendship with a British soldier during the Mandate). Now in his penetrating new novel Judas (published as The Gospel According to Judas in Hebrew), Oz places the “virus of treachery” front and center, delivering his most thoughtful and perhaps urgent statement yet concerning the uneasy relationship between nationalism and critical citizenship.

Judas is a stately but thoroughly entertaining work, brimming with intricate storylines and characters who are brilliantly alive and get under one’s skin. Woven around a structural triptych consisting of the story’s “present” set in the harsh Jerusalem winter of 1959-1960, the chief protagonist is a young biblical scholar whose investigation of the portrayal of Judas in the early Christian imagination leads to a startling conclusion, and lastly a beguiling alternate history of Roman Palestine told by none other than Judas himself.

Initially, antihero Shmuel Ash seems to be one of Oz’ more familiar types, a luftmensch sharing many of the dysfunctional and antiheroic qualities of his predecessors (as early as the tragic paratrooper in his classic story “The Way of the Wind”).

We meet Shmuel at a moment of acute crisis: university studies abandoned, romantic life in ruins, and beleaguered by asthma, he faces a bleak financial horizon. But just when prospects look particularly dire, Shmuel finds employment as caregiver and increasingly, argumentative foil, for a cynical old man named Gershom Wald.

Gershom’s bookish household includes the provocative presence of Atalia, daughter of the late Shealtiel Abravanel, who spent his last days scorned by society for his dovish views on coexistence. Embittered by those who drove her compassionate father into a kind of exile, Atalia is also scarred by the particularly horrific death of her husband, Gershom’s son Micha, in the 1948 War.

Ultimately Atalia emerges as one of Oz’ most outspoken female characters. Here she vehemently confronts the helplessly infatuated Shmuel with her disgust over the destructive force of male ambition and desire: “I can’t love men. You’ve held the whole world in your hands for thousands of years and you’ve turned it into a horror show. A slaughterhouse.”

And elsewhere: “You wanted a state. You wanted independence. Flags and uniforms and banknotes and drums and trumpets. You shed rivers of innocent blood. You sacrificed an entire generation. You drove hundreds of thousands of Arabs out of their homes. You sent shiploads of Holocaust survivors straight from the quayside to the battlefield. All so there would be a Jewish state here. And look what you’ve got.”

In recent interviews, Oz has forcefully observed that many of the most significant leaders in history were called traitors by many of their own people, most poignantly his late friend Shimon Peres, who loved arguing with the novelist and faithfully read all of his books (he also cites Abraham Lincoln, de Gaulle, Gorbachev, Begin, Sadat, Rabin, even the prophet Jeremiah).

In that light, Shmuel appears cast as the author’s ideological proxy when he declares, “Anyone willing to change will always be considered a traitor by those who cannot change and are scared to death of change and don’t understand it and loathe change.”

Defending the audacious utopianism of Atalia’s late father, Shmuel remarks that “Abravanel had a beautiful dream, and because of his dream some people called him a traitor.” In many vital moments Judas reads like the powerful zenith of Oz’s imaginative and persistent interrogation of the toxic mingling of messianism and politics that have taken root in the Jewish state.

Oz has other irons in the fire of this intricate story. Deeply concerned with the ugly distortions at the foundation of Christian anti-Semitism, Oz has said that the figures of both Jesus and Judas have allured him ever since his teenage years on kibbutz. Moreover this turns out to be something of a family story considering that his great-uncle, the renowned historian Joseph Klausner, aroused heated controversy with his 1921 book Jesus of Nazareth reclaiming Jesus as a devout Jew.

In Judas, alternating chapters explore the fruits of Shmuel’s scholarship, the insidious ways that Judas came to be seen as “the incarnation of treachery, the incarnation of Judaism, the incarnation of the connection between Judaism and betrayal” and the “hated archetype of all Jews, in every country and century” in the Christian imagination.

But when Shmuel’s research leads him to boldly conclude that Judas was the most faithful of Jesus’ disciples it becomes apparent that Oz has crafted a subtle allegory not only linking events in ancient Palestine and the tempests of modern Zionism and the state of Israel but with the fatal distortions to which Western Civilization has too often succumbed.

Oz’ poetically precise language is as potent as ever and in the novel’s deepest strata, which suddenly plunges the reader into ancient Jerusalem and the tormented mind of Judas himself, the effect is almost visceral, a shocking contrast to the rest of this cerebral novel. In fact, it’s utterly spellbinding. And for all its lofty historical and political themes, Judas also succeeds as a rather unusual love story, filled with pathos and longing.

Ever since his early masterpiece My Michael, Jerusalem has figured prominently in Oz’ fiction and Judas rewards with achingly beautiful and lingering descriptions of its famous light, alleys, stony houses of worship and pervasive melancholy. Judas also reads like an especially urgent and profoundly universal work, its characters’ heartfelt struggles with their own human frailties as well as those of the state resonating far beyond Israel itself. By its conclusion, the reader recognizes that there are many forms of betrayal, not least the states and revolutions that destroy innocent people.

Astonishingly, at the age of 77 Oz has written one of the most triumphant novels of his career. As so often in the past, translator Nicholas de Lange superbly captures the intricate nuances and shifting moods of Oz’s Hebrew.

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Ranen Omer-Sherman is the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence Endowed Chair of Judaic Studies at the University of Louisville. His most recent book is Imagining the Kibbutz.

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