Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”
“Highway 61 Revisited” is the title track of Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited1.
Whenever I talk to my colleagues about the centrality of biblical text in the western world and as being key to understanding the transcendence of human being beings as mortals, I am always bound to raise suspicions. These range from multiple substance abuse to downright fundamentalism. I have learned to live with it however. This is a new attempt at bringing the relevance of the Torah to the fore, not only within a theological context, but also for its profound influence and relevance within Western culture. I decided to begin with Dylan, one must always keep him in mind. In his “Highway 61 Revisited” he offers an example of biblical recreation with a strongly profane effect. In literature there are many authors that have imbibed from biblical sources, seeking a certain interpretation, a new reading perhaps, or simply inspiration. There are hundreds of examples, to name a few: Hemingway, Milton, Steinbeck, Lord Byron, Dante, Mary Shelley, Calderón or Kafka. All of them have used the sacred scriptures from a non-dogmatic perspective and have made good use of it. In Israeli literature the phenomenon is ever-present. Their great quills, most of which are non religious, have evoked the biblical text non-stop. In the words of a teacher I had at University, contemporary Israeli literature is a constant coming and going to the text of the Torah. We are going to center on one of the great contemporary Israeli writers, David Grossman, and venture into his masterpiece, “To the End of the Land”, which is nothing more and nothing less than a recreation of the Binding of Isaac. If television has not finished you off by now, take a look at what follows. I can assure you will be stunned. At the center of this work we find two main themes. On the one hand, an entire sphere dedicated to the Arab-Israeli conflict, strongly charged with society’s existential fear before the conflict. On the other, the life of an Israeli household. The “family epic”, so to speak. The nuances and details of Israeli family life are treated in a very detailed manner, in their development, evolution, and perspective. The entire story revolves around one character. According to reviewers, the greatest fictional character ever created by Grossman, Ora. A sweet and passionate woman, sweet, dubious, intuitive, and with a lot of character. The novel traces the twists and turns of both her and her conscience, while moving back and forth through time. Ora is a middle-age woman and a mother of two, Adam and Ofer, whose husband, Ilan, has just left her. With Ilan out of the house, Ofer, having just finished his military service, receives an emergency call to return to the army for one last military operation. Ora will find herself home alone, losing her mind over the fate of her recently mobilized son. She is aware that at any moment the state services can knock on her door to inform her of the death in combat of her son. This image creates an unparalleled sense of dread and anguish within her. She wants to keep that from happening by any means. She does not want to be a part of that theater, experienced every so often by Israeli families. Thus, Ora decides to contact an old lover, Avram (Who is, in fact, Ofer’s biological father), who was made a prisoner of war by Egyptian forces during the Yom Kippur War. This experience, his bondage in Egypt, forever marked his life. Upon his return to Israel he is emotionally shattered, nothing has meaning for him any longer. Ora and Avram decide to begin a journey, a kind of hike through the Galilee, without a fixed destination or predetermined time span. This turns out to be the heart of the novel. In fact, Grossman likes to speak of it as a “walkie-talkie” novel. For 400 pages the protagonists walk and talk (or rather Ora talks and Avram listens). In these conversations, Ora takes Avram to perfectly detailed scenes of her past life, spanning an entire lifetime as well as Israel’s history in the face of war.
One must highlight the language, which possesses a profound lyricism, and the formidable creation and complexity of the characters, something that will allow the reader to be told of the wanderings of the protagonists in an unparalleled fashion.
About the author
David Grossman was born in Jerusalem in 1954, the son of Yitzhak Grossman, an Austrian-born bus driver, and Michaela, a Jerusalemite of Polish descent. The young David was born when both Jerusalem and Israel were both profoundly marked by the ideas of collective labor and military heroes, where authority was revered. The Holocaust was a matter branded in fire within his household. During World War Two, his parents saw a great deal of their family legacy wiped out. After finishing his military service, Grossman obtained his University degree in Theater and Philosophy from the Hebrew University. His career as a novelist began in the 80s and by the end of that very decade he had become one of the greatest representatives of contemporary Israeli literature. He has accumulated many literary awards and has a great international projection. His novels have been translated to more than 30 languages. Just as prominent is his role as a peace activist. Along with his colleague Amos Oz, he has established himself as a supporter of the two-state solution in the Arab-Israeli conflict and has been very critical of the policy that has been carried out in the Occupied Territories. In the year 2006, as he was finishing “To the End of the Land”, he lost one of his sons, Uri. For the sake of our analysis, one more piece of information must be highlighted: Despite being someone who considers himself a left-wing atheist, Grossman has, every week for the past 20 years, been studying the Bible with two peculiar friends: A poetess that is diametrically opposed to his political point of view on the conflict, and a Talmud philosopher, who is religious and profoundly observant.
To the End of the Land and the Sacrifice of Isaac
David Grossman’s novel “To the End of the Land” was a best-seller in Israel. Despite having garnered some harsh critiques, it has, generally speaking, been considered a masterpiece because of the complexity of its narrative when it comes to dealing with many key themes in the Israeli collective consciousness. Society, humanity, politics, or family are some of the great topics that appear throughout this novel. And while Grossman’s style could very well be framed within the national canon of Israeli literature (next to Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, Aharon Appelfeld, Yoram Kaniuk…) in this particular case there are a set of circumstances that are rather foreign to the general directives of current Israeli narrative. The type of language that is used, along with the personal and political circumstances, have given rise to the possibility of approaching the novel from a very emotional, even heartrending, prism. In “To the End of the Land”, Grossman personifies the connection between Israeli national identity and death, from the harshest point of view, that of the author, of the father that loses his son, through his main character, the mother of the family, Ora. At first, anyone who submerges him or herself in the reading of the novel knows, apparently, what they are up against. Despite expectations being well defined, beyond the external reality, one is taken by the sensation of pain and terror as a result of the assumed death of one of the characters which will go in crescendo. As with other Israeli intellectuals, Grossman directs his internal criticism under the guise of a prophetic reprimand towards Israeli society. His description of the Jewish people in Israel adjusts to the character of Avram, the male protagonist of the novel. Novel invites us to a clear allegorical reading. The patriarch Abraham and the myth of the binding of Isaac. Avram, the personification of Israeli Jewish society, suffers from a state of shock. In the past, he was a creative and imaginative person, but he sacrifices his life having been incarcerated in Egypt for reasons that were beyond him. In the present, now liberated in Israel, Avram can no longer follow a normal life. He sees death everywhere. He may have survived his past, physically, but emotionally he is ravaged. Here we can see a not excessively forced parable between this captivity in Egypt and the suffering of the Jewish people in the diaspora or contemporary Arab aggression. The novel begins its journey in the middle of an apocalyptic during the Six Day War of 1967. Three teenagers, Ora, Avram, and Ilan, find themselves abandoned like contagious patients in a hospital, under the care of an Arab nurse while outside war is raging. The fearful and ill youths forge, through their conversations, an evergreen friendship, sharing their most personal memories of past times. The description of the fear of war, the axis of this first part of the novel, might not only reflect the Israeli state of mind during, and especially, prior to, the 67 war. As described in the novel, it also constitutes the fear of death and the existential national anxiety, also a characteristic of Jewish Israeli identity. The choice of Ora as a protagonist has been seen as an attempt to awaken a nation from its lethargy. It’s the Israeli woman that represents the possibility of continuing to live and to experiment. Grossman seeks to liberate Israel from its social and political captivity through the familiar world that he creates for his protagonist, Ora. Everything around her moves, so he centers on the most intimate and personal aspects to fill the character with life. That will be childbirth, physical contact, friendship, contemplation, or sex. Her objective will be to save the foreseeable death of her son Ofer and give life again to shattered Avram. The grandiosity of the character of Ora is unparalleled. One the one hand, we see how she emerges as a savior. But beware, she also keeps within her a twofold feeling of sin in the form of sacrifice. First of all, she has sacrificed Avram choosing Ilan as her husband. Secondly, she has sacrificed her son Ofer giving him up to the army and to war. Because of that, a great part of the novel will be centered on a particular episode, the wanderings of Ora and Avram through the land of Israel in a kind of macro-hike. In that way, she will try to compensate for her sins. One the one hand, giving life to Avram through conversation and intimacy. On the other, terrified of the arrival of government officials to communicate the supposed death of her son Ofer, by evading her home and escaping that terrifying vision. Throughout the course of their wanderings as a pair through the Galilee, without a fixed destination and disconnected from news that refer to the war, they kill time, talk, reminisce the past, but also delve into how war and conflict with the Arabs has thrashed the conscience of an entire country. In that sense, the way to awake Avram (Israeli society) from his lethargy will not only be through dialogue and conversation, but also through this journey across the Promised Land of the biblical Abraham. Thus is established a connection between the land of Israel, Jewish identity, and death. The bond between the land, the country, and the society is made out of blood and death. This bond is expressed narratively through the journey of Ora when they constantly run into monuments dedicated to fallen soldiers, which naturally remind them of one of the reasons for the trip, the anxiety over the death of Ofer.
In this narrative line, the connection between the land and death, manifests an ever present maxim within Israel nationalism of all times. The price of the land will be steep, and it is a price that must be paid to safeguard the physical existence of the nation. But this connection goes further beyond when confronted with a great recurring myth in the Israeli sociopolitical imaginary: The Sacrifice of Isaac. In literature as well as in other cultural manifestations, the sacrifice of Isaac has always been a reference in Israel. The use of the sacrifice by Grossman in that sense is framed in a well-defined political context. The connection between the experience of the biblical Abraham and the death of the soldiers that have fallen in the defense of the state of Israel. This resource is certainly obvious when calling the father “Avram” and the son “Ofer”. For some, too obvious, even. But the writer goes even further beyond, since in a way he implies that the fact of sacrifice is inevitable in the Israeli national context. The use of this myth in relation to questions derived from identity and the connection between territory and nation constitutes the explanation and the justification of an idea that is widely in the Israeli collective imagination. The sovereign power protects the lives of its citizens. On their part, the citizens must be ready to give their lives in defense of the state. However, the implications that emanate in the use of the Sacrifice of Isaac go beyond the typical relation between state and citizenship. In this case, it’s about the particularity of Jewish sovereignty in the territory. In the biblical narration, the connection between God and Abraham is based purely on faith. In fact, the life of Abraham in that moment is not in danger, neither him, nor his house, nor his future. If Abraham had had a reason, at least, to sacrifice his son, we would perhaps be less questioning of his determined attitude when it comes to sacrificing his son. That is the essence of his test, pure faith. Carrying something out because God demands it, not as a punishment, not as a condition for anything, not to prevent something, even. The adoption of that narration as national myth also doesn’t seem to be so evident. The analogy between the sacrifice of Isaac and the obligatory military service in Israel and serving in combat units, or the sacrifice and the fact that Israel is surrounded by enemies and must defend itself alone might adjust itself better to other biblical narratives, such as that of David and Goliath. David wishes to sacrifice his life for the common good, before a national enemy and a menace to the territory. He volunteers not only for a matter of faith, also for loyalty to the collective, to national power. In fact, in Biblical history what takes precedence is basically putting the common good before the family. David helps Saul beyond the contrary wishes of his brother, as well as those of his father, Jesse. But hereupon lies the difference. This sacrifice, the personal one, is less dramatic, less sublime than the image of a father or a mother offering the life of that which they love most, especially when there is no clear danger that justifies the offering. Of course, myths that are related to sacrifice and loyalty are not scarce. But it doesn’t have a moral and emotional strength that is comparable to the sacrifice of an “other” with your own hands, thus cutting your own line of descent. Here feeling of guilt and anguish are very present, even when God provides an alternative victim of sacrifice. Not only have I given up my son with such an end, but I have also wished to do so. In the myth of Abraham and Isaac, unlike the myth of David and Goliath, there is no resistance before the action, neither by Abraham, or by Isaac himself. Because of that, the biblical scene differs from so many other in this key aspect. Abraham, in other situations, as well as other central figure protest before God or his messengers. Be it because of moral injustice or general lack of understanding. Not here, the price for the sacrifice will be progeny and territory. The story of the sacrifice of Isaac holds a fundamental question regarding the political character of Israeli nationalism. Blind sacrifice for the sake of survival and the continuation of the nation in the territory will give the “father” a substantial reward for his devotion:
Gen 15:7 And He said unto him: ‘I am the LORD that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it.’ Gen 15:18 In that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates; Gen 17:8 And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land of thy sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.’
They are all promises made to Abraham before the sacrifice. And he does not doubt divine power, he has seen how it has ended his enemies, destroyed Sodom, and above all, has given life to his son Isaac. Grossman will go a bit beyond this time. All of the emotional force and the drama that the fact of the sacrifice supposes is worsened when the roles of the mother and the father are interchanged. From Abraham to Sarah, from Avram to Ora. In the novel, the result of this transposition further loads the narration with tragedy. In this manner, furthermore, he achieves a total connection with a certain aspect. The role of the Jewish mother is almost as exaggerated as that of the Italian mother: overprotective, all-powerful, she lives and dies for her children and for the family at any price. How can the reader not identify with the pain of this mother for her child? In this way, Grossman ensures a total identification between the mother (Ora) and his readership. The joys and hardships of Ora will be perfectly constructed in a game that will balance sin and punishment. Her life, described meticulously and to the last detail, will go through the most diverse experiences which are related in a way that makes them easy to imagine. Ora and sex, Ora and maternity, Ora and childcare, Ora and solitude, Ora and love, Ora and heartbreak. They are all pieces that will conform this colossal character. Her sin, having taken her son to the altar herself. Her punishment, the feeling of guilt, worsened by the fact of being the mother. In this way, Grossman not only manages an allegorical reading of the biblical passage, but also plays, reinterprets it, and challenges us to a new reading. In this regard, one must point out a remarkable fact. From what I have been able to read, in no review outside of Israel is the matter of biblical reinterpretation taken into account. Most of them are centered around the grandiosity of the central character, Ora, and the masterful way in which fantasy, reality, and illusion frame the narration. The join the conflict from a different perspective, centering it both in its complexity, and in the tension it produces not only in the actors directly involved, but in all of society. In the same way they praise the reflection on life, which is of a clear pessimist tendency. The matter of the multiple reading depending on where we find ourselves seems to be a constant in much of contemporary Israeli literature. Different degrees of interpretation are offered to us, consciously, by writers that seem to address, with a single text, different audiences with clearly different messages.
The novel and parallel reality
The moment in which David Grossman begins to write “To the End of the Land”, his middle son, Uri, was about to begin the obligatory military service in the Israeli army. His eldest son, Jonathan, had just finished it. In a certain way, Grossman felt that he was accompanying Uri while he was in the army by writing this novel. Like his character, Ora, he submerges himself in a semi-magical way of thinking, through which writing would provide Uri with some sort of protection. In order inform himself, the author began a fifteen day trip throughout the Galilee, which would later become the that Ora and Avram would traverse. During his trip, his wife Michal accompanied him through certain segments. He rested in small villages to take note during the night of everything he had seen and that would later be described in the novel: the trees, the plants and flowers of the Galilee; the shepherds; the Arab villages; the moshavim and the kibbutzim… During his route, he received text messages from his son Uri, who mainly served in the Occupied Territories. Among his tasks, the control of checkpoints and patrolling borders. In July 2006, the novel was almost finished. The situation of tension in the northern border with Lebanon worsens unexpectedly. Militants from the Shiite group Hezbollah attack by firing missiles over the border and killing three soldiers, and, in a parallel operation, kidnap two soldiers. Grossman, like the majority of citizens, defends Israel’s right to defend itself. During the ensuing weeks, in what will be known as the Second Lebanon War, the author will travel north to read stories to children confined in anti-bomb shelters. The 10th of August, after a month of destruction, Grossman, Oz, and Yehoshua carry out a press conference in Tel Aviv. In it, they urge the Olmert administration to accept the ceasefire under the jurisdiction of the United Nations, warning against the illusion that Hezbollah could succumb to the ever deeper incursions into Lebanese territory of the Israeli army. “Hezbollah wishes for us go deeper and deeper into Lebanese territory”, Grossman declares. “This disastrous scenario can still be prevented at this time.” He does not mention that his son, Uri, has been mobilized in an armored unit that finds itself in the midst of battle at that time. The following Friday, Uri calls home happy to hear the news of a possible ceasefire, promising his young sister, Ruthi, that he would be home for the next Shabbat meal. Olmert, on his part, disregards calls for a ceasefire. For now, hostilities will continue throughout the weekend. On Sunday August 13th, at 2:30 am, the doorbell of the Grossman household rings. Through the intercom a voice says “From the Department of State.” As Grossman walks through the door he thinks to himself, “This is it, our life is over.” Uri had died Saturday night, along with the rest of his unit, when his tank had received the impact of a Hezbollah missile in the Lebanese village of Hirbet K’Seif. The war was in its final hours, on Monday the ceasefire becomes effective. Uri was going to turn 21 in two weeks, and in three months he would have finished his military service. During the week of Shiva, the Grossman family receives friends and relatives in the home. Among them, Oz and Yehoshua. Grossman admitted to Oz, “I’m very frightened, I don’t know if I will be able to continue, I don’t think I can finish the novel”. Oz answered “The novel will save you”, While Yehoshua said “Don’t change the book. It’s something organic. Keep going and new elements will enter. Let them in”. In less than a year, the novel was finished.
- Highway 61 runs from Duluth, Minnesota, where Bob Dylan grew up in the 1940s and 1950s down to New Orleans, Louisiana. It was a major transit route out of the Deep South particularly for African Americans traveling north to Chicago, St Louis and Memphis, following the Mississippi River valley for most of its 1,400 miles (2,300 km). ↩