Are traitors misunderstood men? If you would you like to have this question answered, then read Judas by Amos Oz, where he is explaining that Judas, the man responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion, was innocent. He was at fault unwittingly.
The renowned Israeli writer Amos Oz bucks this trend in his latest novel “Judas” in which he makes a strong case, if somewhat provocative, for Judas’ liberation. He explores the nature of a traitor and makes a tentative suggestion that Judas’ motives may have been misunderstood. And, by wrapping his narrative around the founding of the State of Israel, Amos Oz challenges the established wisdom about loyalty, treason, and the concept of nation state.
It is the winter of 1959-60 in the still divided Jerusalem where Shmuel Ash, a confused 25 year old student, who is researching “Jewish views on Jesus”, finds himself in the midst of a personal crisis. A romantic break-up, and the failure of his father’s business, have put him in a state of mental trauma.
Unable to continue his studies, he takes up a job as a companion to a seventy-year-old invalid Gershom Wald who is a recluse and a cantankerous intellectual. Shmuel’s main duty is to spend five hours every evening listening to and debating with Gershom. In return, Shmuel receives token stipend and free accommodation in the attic of a ramshackle house in which Gershom lives along with Atalia Abravanel, an enigmatic, beautiful woman in her mid-forties who is Gershom’s widowed daughter-in-law. Shmuel is smitten by this bewitching woman who exudes sensuality and self-sufficiency in equal measure.
Shmuel’s evening discussions with Gershom form the core of the Book and touch upon a wide range of political, theological, and historical topics. Slowly, Gershom starts evincing interest in Shmuel’s abandoned thesis in which he posits that Judas did not intend to betray Jesus. Actually, Shmuel muses, Judas was totally convinced about Jesus’ divinity even though Jesus himself was not so sure. Judas encourages Jesus to take his message to Jerusalem where Judas convinces the Romans and the Jewish priests to crucify him, believing that upon being crucified, his father in Heaven would bring him down from the cross, and thus demonstrate to the Romans, the Jewish high priests, and the whole world that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, the Messiah and the Savior. However, when it doesn’t work out like that, and Judas horrifically watches Jesus die, he runs away in despair and commits suicide. So, Shmuel postulates:
“…had it not been for Judas, there might not have been a crucifixion, and had there been no crucifixion, there would have been no Christianity.” [p 73]
Therefore, for Shmuel, it was treachery for a just cause, and Judas the first true believer, the first Christian. Yet, Shmuel laments:
“In every language I know, and even in languages I don’t know, the name Judas has become synonym for betrayal. And perhaps, also a synonym for Jew. Millions of simple Christians think that every single Jew is infected with the virus of treachery. “ [p 225]
Running in parallel to Shmuel’s theological expositions is the story of Atalia and her pedigreed but troubled past. Atalia lost her husband during the Israeli war of Independence. This has turned her into an embittered and resentful woman. Atalia’s late father, Shealtiel Abravanel, was a fierce Zionist patriot who was, however, opposed to the idea of foundation of Jewish state in 1948 as proposed by Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel. Shealtil firmly believed that Israel should be a country in which Palestinian Arabs and Jews live in harmony. When he articulated this position publicly, he was expelled from the ruling inner circle, labeled a traitor, and made to resign. Sheatil is banished from society and dies a lonely death. So, there is the second traitor in Amos Oz’s book who, like the Biblical traitor Judas, might be a much misunderstood man.
Amos Oz’s book invites the reader to re-consider the image of a traitor. The overarching theme of the novel is betrayal and loyalty and explores them through multilayered perspectives that are political, religious, and historical. Amos expounds through Shmuel that many people throughout history, who are ahead of their times, are viewed as traitors by their contemporaries. He also asks the question: at what point and on whose verdict, does an idealist who wants to reform the world, becomes a traitor? Further, he offers an alternate definition of traitor:
“Anyone willing to change,” Shmuel said, “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...” [p. 230]
Some readers might find the theme a little provocative, but at the same time the core message is compassion and the need for genuine discussion even if it means entertaining completely opposite points of view and ideologies.
The other notable thing about this novel is that it is also a classical coming-of-age story in which Shmuel is forced to ask questions about his life and the direction that he must take after he leaves his job being a companion to Gershom. It is also a story about love, remorse, and loneliness and how one copes with it. The vivid imagery of the divided Jerusalem that Amos Oz evokes through his writing gives the book a delightful crime thriller like feel.
It is a beautiful book from one of the best known novelists from Israel. Amos has long been considered a candidate for Nobel Prize. “Judas” was shortlisted for Man Booker International Prize 2017.
The book was originally written in Hebrew and translated into English by Nicholos de Lange. The writing is beautiful, languorous, and sumptuous that makes for an excellent reading experience. While the book resonates with luminous passages throughout, it reaches a peak close to the end of the book where, Shmuel imagines Judas’ sorrow after the crucifixion.