Judas, by Amos Oz, is one of the best contemporary books I’ve read in a while. Winner of the International Literature Prize, Oz sets his story in Jerusalem 1959. It tells the tale of three people – four if you count the omnipresence of the deceased Shealtiel Abravanel – Shmuel Ash (22), Atalia Abravanel (mid-40’s), and Gershom Wald (elderly). This exploration of the paths that might have been chosen by Zionists, is intertwined with Shmuel’s studies of the Jewish view of Jesus and the portrayal of Judas as a traitor.
What is a traitor? Who is a traitor? These are the central questions of the narrative. Was Shealtiel Abravanel a traitor because of his views on the unsuitability of a Jewish state? Did his opinion that there should be no state and instead, a community in which Jews and Arabs existed side-by-side, rise to the level of treachery? And once labeled a traitor by those who had once respected him, was it the best course of action for him to seal himself away from the world?
And what of Judas? Had he betrayed Christ with a kiss or was the kiss intended to fortify Christ in his moment of trouble. Was Judas the first and only Christian – the one person who fully believed that Christ would come down from the cross for the world to see as he ushered in a new order? Was it his complete faith that led him to push Christ to demonstrate his deity, or was it a traitorous act?
Throughout this novel, several others are labeled traitors as well, leaving the reader to weigh these matters at ethical and practical levels. In the midst of these considerations, Shmuel falls in love with and is pushed away by Atalia. He learns the story of Wald’s son, Micah. And he puzzles hours away, wondering how he himself has come to this place and time in his young life.
The story itself is compelling. The philosophical discussions are alive with nuance and varying points of view. The language – in a phenomenal translation by Nicholas de Lange – is especially moving in one of the latter chapters that describes the experience of Christ’s crucifixion.
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