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Monday, May 1, 2017

"Judas" by Amos Oz: traitor? Or?

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The writer Amos Oz has been a constant and consistent voice for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict speaking against occupation and for a two state solution since the 1967 war. He has steadily moved left…from Labor to Meretz…while always remaining an unapologetic Zionist. He has frequently supported what he views as “acts of selfdefense” only to quickly move towards opposition as the death toll rises. And he has a history of taking risks to establish and maintain connections with Palestinians, even at personal cost. He is a classic left Zionist with what appears to be a voice that grows ever weaker. And his weariness and frustration shows through his writings. 

His latest novel, Judas, is  an important and valuable resource for a number of critical conversations.  Perhaps the deep question being posed by Judas is that of the nature of betrayal…what does it mean to be a traitor? And is it possible that one who is commonly perceived to be  a traitor may actually be closer to the truth?

Judas tells the story, set in 1959,  of  Shmuel Ash, a Biblical scholar who comes to be a companion to the elderly Zionist Gershom Wald and a mysterious middle aged woman, Attila Abravanel, his widowed daughter in law and daughter of a deceased early Zionist leader, Shealtiel Abravanel, who argued against the creation of the state. 

In what is on the surface a classic coming of age story, Oz can use his characters to explore ideas that are generally taboo. For example, Jewish fascination with Jesus, as a Jew. Oz’ fictional student gives a pretty thorough overview of historic Jewish reactions to Jesus. But Ash has his own fascination centered in the character of the most profound of traitors, Judas Iscariot. For Ash, Judas is “..the first, the last, (perhaps) the only Christian…”. Ash argues that there would have been no Christianity without Judas, the only disciple Jesus could truly trust. ( The gnostic  “Gospel of Judas” published in 2006 makes this same argument.) Oz thus adds his voice to the popular and culturally ambivalent attraction to Judas from Kazantzakis to Jesus Christ Suoerstar. 

Interwoven with the exploration of  Jesus and Judas is the story of Shealtiel Abravanel who believed that the idea of a Jewish state was inherently flawed and wrong from the start. That only a multicultural, multi-religious  community could survive, Any other solution would be doomed to continual bloodshed. For this, Abravanel is branded a traitor and forced to leave the leadership circle. (For his efforts to retain relationships with Palestinians, Oz, like Abravanel has also been labelled a “traitor.”) Through Abravanel, Oz is able to express what he may feel but not be able to say on his own.

The cynical Wald, meanwhile, in yet another voice, perceives any effort to “reform the world” as doomed. …”whoever comes along to reform it soon sinks in rivers of blood…” Wald does have a word for dreamers, however. 

“…blessed are the dreamers and cursed be the man who opens their eyes. True, the dreamers cannot save us, neither they nor their disciples, but without dreams and dreamers the curse that lies on us would be seven times heavier. Thanks to the dreamers, maybe we who are awake are a little less ossified and desperate than we would be without them…”

One wonders if this may be Amos Oz’ best self-understanding at this point of his life?  With both its longing and its cynicism.

Judas would appear to be a great book for a neighborhood  interfaith conversation of rabbis and ministers, the arguments at a one-step away literary distance but still clear. The questions he raises are well worth exploring.



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