Since the announcement that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature, I’ve spent a good amount of my free time reacquainting myself with his work. I’ve relistened to his back catalogue, rewatched documentaries and consumed all kinds of relevant criticism and the rare interview. In one such interview, conducted with Rolling Stone in 2012, Dylan reflected on the infamous 1966 concert, where an audience member berated him and his newly electrified band by yelling, “Judas!”
“Judas,” Dylan recalled, nearly half a century later, “the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable [sic] to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified.”
Whether Dylan indeed betrayed his early folkie fanbase by evolving from topical “protest songs” to his more popular rock ’n’ roll poetry is a question as boring as whether he “deserves” a Nobel Prize. (He didn’t, and he does.) What’s more interesting is how Dylan, born Jewish as Robert Zimmerman and later converted to non-denominational Christianity after his come-to-Jesus moment circa 1979’s Slow Train Coming, still regards Judas as the ultimate kiss-off.
The name and long legacy of Judas Iscariot is exhaustively interrogated in Israeli author Amos Oz’s new novel, his first in a decade. It’s 1959, and Shmuel Ash, an intelligent, hirsute and left-leaning graduate researching “Jewish views of Jesus,” abandons his studies following a romantic breakup and a financial calamity. Shmuel responds to an on-campus ad and takes up residence in a ramshackle house in Jerusalem with an elderly invalid, Gersholm Wald, and a bewitching, mysterious, middle-aged woman named Atalia.
Atalia’s relationship to the elderly Wald remains vague at first – is she a daughter? A caretaker? A mistress? What’s unambiguous are Shmuel’s duties. He’s to spend his evenings conversing with Wald, about all manner of topics, while preparing simple meals of porridge, tea and the occasional glass of brandy. In exchange, he receives accommodations in Wald’s attic and a nominal salary.
At first, Wald’s wandering, autodidactic mind guides these nightly confabs, the text of which takes up much of Judas. But before long, the ancient, self-styled scholar – who, in his broad intellectualism and physical comparisons to Albert Einstein, rather obviously stands as an embodiment of Old World European Jewishness – begins taking an interest in his boarder’s intellectual interests. The conversations turn to Jesus, and then to Judas, “the incarnation of treachery, the incarnation of Judaism, the incarnation of the connection between Judaism and betrayal.”
Shmuel Ash and Gersholm Wald begin rethinking Judas. As Shmuel writes on a loose scrap of paper, “[H]ad it not been for Judas, there might not have been a crucifixion, and had there been no crucifixion, there would have been no Christianity.” For Shmuel, the image of Judas as a backstabber recedes, replaced by a more generous appraisal of him as “the most loyal and devoted” of all Jesus’s disciples, the only one who believed that Christ was the son of God, who could die on the cross and be resurrected. Before Saint Paul minted the Christian faith, Judas was the first true believer. The first Christian.
It’s a clever theological intervention. It’s further deepened by Oz’s twinning of Judas with Judaism, as a way of launching his own rethinking of the State of Israel. As Shmuel begins probing the relationship between Wald and the lovely Atalia, a character emerges to link the two: Shealtiel Abravanel. A persecuted political rabble-rouser who opposed Zionist nationalism and pushed David Ben-Gurion to renounce the foundation of a Jewish state, Abravanel was denied as an “Arab lover” and a traitor. Still, as Oz unfolds his series of dialogues, even the word “traitor” begins to seem like “a badge of honour.” As Shmuel says, “Shealtiel Abravanel had a beautiful dream, and because of his dream some people called him a traitor.”
There was a time, not so long ago, when I rolled my eyes at Oz and other Israeli authors engaged with questioning the very idea of Jewish nationalism, as if any Israeli intellectual who wasn’t physically dismantling settlements in the West Bank wasn’t doing enough. (And I did so without even bothering to read them. Such is the embarrassing effrontery of youth, I guess.) But the ideas Oz develops here, however didactic and academic-seeming, feel vital. Judas doesn’t make a case of Jesus’s betrayer as a way of redeeming Christian views of Jewish treachery and making a case in favour for the State of Israel. It does so to make a case against it and the sustained Arab-Israeli violence fuelled by countries “drunk on biblical clichés.”
In so doing, Oz entrenches himself as a thoughtful anti-Zionist uneasily at home in Zion. It’s just one of the many contradictions that so productively fuel his new book. Unblinkingly nationalistic Israelis may well deem him a Judas. But I’ve little doubt that Oz would wear the most hated name in human history as a badge of honour.Report Typo/Error
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