“If there is one proper noun which has become a common noun,” G.K. Chesterton wrote in his book The New Jerusalem, “it is certainly the name of Judas … the name is known everywhere merely as the name of a traitor.” Indeed, the name Judas is on the lips of wronged people around the world ready to curse those who betrayed them. Though Judas has largely appeared as a villain in Western imagination, heterodox thinkers such as Thomas De Quincey, Thomas Paine and Jorge Luis Borges have not only questioned the logistics, motives, and punishment of his betrayal; they have suggested that Judas could have acted righteously as a true believer.
Amos Oz, one of Israel’s most acclaimed writers and liberal thinkers, channels such revisionist debates in his deeply contemplative historical novel of ideas, Judas, his first new book in ten years. In this superb novel, lucidly translated into English by Nicholas de Lange, Oz manages not only to consider the history and reception of Judas, but also offers a thorough and eminently readable examination of the complex nature of betrayal and faithfulness in religion, politics, and Israeli history. With much of the world now convulsed by the recrudescence of communal hatred and violence, Oz, an implacable moralist, has written a book worthy of answering the hard questions about faith, nation, loyalty, and justice that plague our times.
Set in Jerusalem in 1959, the novel follows the story of a shaggy, left-wing atheist graduate student of religion, Shmuel Ash, who is fascinated to the point of obsession with Judas Iscariot and Jewish views of Jesus. Yet a series of misfortunes—his girlfriend leaving him for a hydrologist, his father's faltering finances, and a schismatic splintering of his socialist group—leads him to drop out of Hebrew University and forces him to start searching for both a place to live and his life’s purpose. Alone and without many prospects, Ash moves in with the talkative Gershom Wald, an elderly intellectual who offers a small income and free lodging in exchange for company and care. Instantly Ash, a soft-hearted young man, is enraptured by Wald’s middle-aged and magnetically beautiful daughter-in-law, Atalia Abravanel, who manages their home.
The heart of the novel is framed as a series of elegant and bookish dialogues focusing on Judas’s history and notions of treachery. As in his previous novels, Oz uses the conceit of a young man coming of age in a young country also coming of age to probe Israel’s national psyche.
To Ash, a fervent idealist, Judas was Jesus’s most loyal and devoted follower, organizing Jesus’s crucifixion only to reveal his holy dimensions. When Judas realized Jesus was a mere mortal, the apostle killed himself out of despair, proving his commitment and making him “the first Christian. The last Christian. The only Christian.” Without Judas, the director of the crucifixion, there would have been no Christianity.
A wizened realist suspicious of all idealism, Wald is not convinced, seeing Judas as a potent, anti-Semitic symbol of supposed Jewish betrayal that motivates hatred. “We are all Judas,” he says. “Even eighty generations later we are still Judas.” For Wald, the pervasive and fallacious charge of Christ-killing against Jews has been responsible for much of their suffering under idealistic projects of “slaughter, crusades, jihad or gulag, or the wars of Gog and Demagogue.”
Judas successfully depicts the intense intellectual inner workings of an Israel coming to terms with its newfound power, but the novel has broader aspirations. It reveals what was then a young republic—in the 1950s and '60s—where criticism is seen as an act of betrayal and a sin against one’s own people. Reading Oz’s erudite prose, one senses that Israel has yet to figure out how it will deal with dissidence. Oz, a prominent and patriotic critic of Israeli nationalism who has been accused of disloyalty, writes without offering any firm answers, leaving the reader to reconsider recent history and politics without any loyalty to past conventions.
Oz sees no panacea in sight, but in this novel he firmly places himself among the ranks of the loyal critics with one telling line: “Anyone willing to change will always be considered a traitor by those who cannot change.” In the end, Judas is a powerful literary novel that confronts ideas of faithfulness through engrossing philosophical exchanges.