Honor and Anachronism In the Work of Avner Gold

We recently discussed Abravanel’s rather Iberian notion of the paramount importance of honor, even beyond that of life itself:

המות בכבוד טובה מחיי החרפה והבוז

I recently read The Long Road To Freedom, “Avner Gold’s” newly released ninth book in his “beloved series of historical novels”1, and I was pleased to see that he puts this exact sentiment, in nearly the exact words of Abravanel, into the mouths of his two Spanish grandees, the converso Sebastian Dominguez, and his faithful retainer Gonzalo Sanchez. Sanchez has just risked his life to spring his master from the clutches of the Inquisition in a brilliant, daring Scarlet Pimpernel-esque escapade:

“You know, with all your planning and execution, you really risked your life for me today. So many things could have gone wrong, and then we would both have been cooked. You more than me. Why did you do it?”

“That is a strange question for a Spanish gentleman to ask. I am forty-seven years old, and I have been a loyal cavalier to your father ever since I was seventeen years old. My father before me was a loyal cavalier to your grandfather. My life and honor are pledged to your family. Don Pedro [Dominguez, Sebastian’s father] was my lord, my liege, and I would gladly lay down my life to protect any members of his family. And I would be proud to do it. To do anything else would be dishonorable, and it is better to be dead than to live without honor.

“I understand that, Gonzalo. Believe me, I understand the code of honor. I grew up with it, and I feel it in my bones. My father died because of it. We could have fled Spain years ago. We could have been safe, secure and free today in Amsterdam or Constaninople or some other place that welcomes our people. Instead, my father is dead, and my family is uprooted. And why? Because my father’s sense of honor and loyalty to the royal family and to the motherland would not let him abandon his duties. So he paid for his loyalty with his life. But there is a difference between your readiness to die for my father and his readiness to accept death for Spain. My father honored and cherished you in equal measure. So if you would have died for him, you would have felt good about it. As good as anyone can feel about dying. But my father suffered the bitterness of knowing that those to whom he was loyal were the very ones that sent him to his death.”2

[Emphasis added.]

While the mutually understood notion of honor is certainly typical of the period, Gold continues by having Gonzalo express a rather anachronistic, thoroughly modern sensibility of religious tolerance:

“So if you understand all this, Don Sebastian,” he said, “what was your question? How could you ask me why I am doing this for you?”

“It is because we are Jews. Did you know all along that my father was a secret Jew?”

“No, I did not. He never told me.”

“You must have been shocked when you found out.”

“I was. Very.”

“But that didn’t affect your feelings of loyalty?”

“No, Don Sebastian. It did not.”

“Are you a Christian, Gonzalo?”

“Absolutely.”

“Then you didn’t feel a conflict between your loyalty to my father and your loyalty to the Church?”

Gonzalo nodded. “So that was the question.”

“Yes, that was my question.”

“It is a good question.” …

“I consider myself a Christian,” Gonzalo said at last. “I consider myself a very good Christian. I try to live by its highest principles and ideals, many of which are inherited from Judaism. But I do not accept a lot of what the Church does. The Church has become like a tyrannical regime. It wants to control people and to make sure that everyone that lives in its domain is under its power. So the Church behaves like a tyrant. It frightens people into submission by claiming that anyone who does not become a Christian will never have salvation and that his immortal soul is condemned to eternal damnation. And it destroys people who refuse to accept its teaching and its authority.”

“And you don’t agree with that?”

“I believe that the Almighty cherishes good people. I believe he loves people who are kind and generous to others, people who are devoted to their families and their communities, people who are true to their convictions and obligations and to their heritage. I do not believe that their immortal souls of such people are doomed to eternal damnation.” …

Sebastian stepped forward and embraced Gonzalo. “I am honored to know you, my friend,” he said. “The world would be a better place if there were more people like you in it.”3

I cannot imagine that a seventeenth century Spaniard would ever speak like this, and moreover, this seems to be a fudge; does Gold really accept the last paragraph cited above? Does he really believe that “the Almighty cherishes good people”, even if they are profoundly wrong on fundamental articles of faith, and that “he loves people who are kind and generous to others, people who are devoted to their families and their communities, people who are true to their convictions and obligations and to their heritage” even if they, mutatis mutandis, believe in the divinity of Jesus?

In an effort to be fair to Gold, I attempted to ascertain his position on the issues of moral relativism and religious tolerance from the book One People, Two Worlds, on the assumption of the correctness of the common rumor that “Avner Gold” is a pseudonym for Rabbi Yosef Reinman, one of the two correspondents whose correspondence compose4 that volume.

Reinman writes:

Let us talk about truth. Over dinner, you [Ammiel Hirsch] quoted the philosopher Isaiah Berlin as saying that the greatest danger to the world is when people believe that there is only one truth and that they have it, and you applied this concept to Orthodoxy. Berlin made this statement with regard to the proponents of communism and fascism who believed they had discovered a single, overarching truth that justified the sacrifice of individual humans to grand abstractions. He was speaking about the outlook that “you are either with us or against us.” Do you believe that applies to the Orthodox view?

Orthodox Judaism is without question the search for absolute truth. We believe without question that there is an absolute truth, and that it is contained in our holy Torah. Does that make us dangerous? I don’t think so. We have never sought to impose our beliefs on other people. We actually discourage conversion. We believe in the election of the Jewish people to live by a higher standard, to be a “light unto the nations,”, to teach by example.5

Ammiel Hirsch challenges these assertions:

Yosef, you are deluding yourself when you write “We have never sought to impose our beliefs on other people.” I spend a considerable part of my professional life struggling against the ultra-Orthodox attempt to impose their beliefs on other people. In Israel, ultra-Orthodox parties use the force of law to impose their beliefs. The primary reason that they do not behave similarly in the United States is their inaccessibility to the legislative process.

After all, if you believe you possess truth, why should you not feel compelled to impose it on others? Why not bring other people the good news? The American Southern Baptists have used this argument recently to justify their efforts to convert Jews.6

I think that Hirsch clearly has the better of this exchange. It is indubitable that authentic Judaism endorses religious compulsion; after all, we exterminate the Ir Ha’Nidahas, to give just one rather extreme example. Perhaps Reinman was referring exclusively to “other people”, i.e. non-Jews, but even this is not correct; we are commanded to implement genocide against the indigenous peoples of Cana’an, to prevent the contagion of their abominable culture:

רק מערי העמים האלה אשר יקוק אלקיך נתן לך נחלה לא תחיה כל נשמה: כי החרם תחרימם החתי והאמרי הכנעני והפרזי החוי והיבוסי כאשר צוך יקוק אלקיך: למען אשר לא ילמדו אתכם לעשות ככל תועבתם אשר עשו לאלקיכם וחטאתם ליקוק אלקיכם:7

The Torah does not specify here what exactly is so horrific about the pagan culture of the Cana’anites, and it certainly implies that the issue is not religious dogma per se but some sort of intolerable practical behavior. Nevertheless, the Torah’s uncompromising and reiterated demands for the execution of idol worshippers is clearly not in the spirit of Gonzalo’s pluralistic belief that God loves all decent men, regardless of their particular dogmatic views.

A full assessment of the consistency and plausibility of Reinman’s views would require a more thorough reading of his work than I have yet made, so the above remarks should be considered provisional.

Update: The Jewish Press has printed an interview with Reinman, in which he discusses his work as Avner Gold, and his rather voluminous and ambitious intentions with regard to its future.

  1. From the publisher’s description, but it is objectively correct; his books are indeed beloved by many. []
  2. pp. 41 – 42 []
  3. pp. 42- 44 []
  4. I originall wrote “comprise” instead of “compose”, but then I recalled the controversy over the proper usage of the former term. []
  5. p. 5 []
  6. p. 9 []
  7. דברים פרק כ’ פסוקים ט”ז – י”ח []
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14 Responses to Honor and Anachronism In the Work of Avner Gold

  1. wolf2191 says:

    “we exterminate the Ir Ha’Nidahas”

    No we don’t, (it goes along with ben sorrer u’ moreh as never having happened).

    http://ishimshitos.blogspot.com/2008/08/inclusiveness-and-tolerance-in-writings.html (see articles in first note)

  2. andy says:

    Perhaps AG holds like Meiri who seems to believe that idolators are inherently not decent people.

  3. Yitzhak says:

    wolf2191: Are you arguing for R. Dr. Berkovitz’ approach to Ir Ha’Nidahas (which I have argued against here), that Hazal “interpreted” it away since they found it morally intolerable? If not, then my point still stands, since we are still commanded in principle to exterminate the city, and we refrain from doing so only out of concern for the Torah’s prohibition against destroying Mezuzos.

    In addition to my above referenced discussion, note the language of the Mishnah (San. 111b}:

    כליל לד’ אלקיך אמר רבי שמעון אמר הקב”ה אם אתם עושין דין בעיר הנדחת מעלה אני אליכם כאילו אתם מעלים עולה כליל לפני … ולא ידבק בידך מאומה מן החרם שכל זמן שהרשעים בעולם חרון אף בעולם אבדו רשעים מן העולם נסתלק חרון אף מן העולם

    and that of Rambam (Avodad Zarah. 4:16):

    כל העושה דין בעיר הנדחת הרי זה כמקריב עולה כליל שנאמר כליל לד’ אלקיך. ולא עוד אלא שמסלק חרון אף מישראל שנאמר למען ישוב ד’ מחרון אפו. ומביא עליהם ברכה ורחמים שנאמר ונתן לך רחמים ורחמך והרבך

    They are clearly quite enthusiastic about the idea of the extermination of the city, which is sufficient for my argument against the idea of the tolerance of Judaism.

    Additionally, you overlook R. Yonasan’s assertion (San. 71a) that:

    אני ראיתיה וישבתי על תילה

    and the Gemara’s {San. 113a) statement, codified by Rambam (Avodah Zarah 4:15) that the Stam Mishnah is against R. Eliezer, and by implication against the Beraisah which denies that Ir Ha’Nidahas can ever happen. [I see that the Frankel Rambam cites a potentially interesting Arzos Ha’Haim on this topic, but I have not yet had a chance to examine it.]

  4. wolf2191 says:

    I just noticed your response now.

    1 – Note that the Mishna in Sanhedrin – אבדו- is passive tense (as in Mishlei – באבוד רשעים רנה). When they are destroyed – on their own. Cf. Beruriah יתמו חטאים not חוטאים (not like the Minchas Eliezer’s “creative” explanation of that Gemara). Destruction of evil isn’t inherently good וגם ענוש לצדיק לא טוב but it is a times unfortunately necessary like amputating an infected foot. ויש להאריך

    2 – I did indeed have Berkovitz’s idea in mind (although the idea precedes Bekovitz, I believe Shadal says something similar) as I mentioned in the comments there I did see an article that ties in Metzora as well but I can’t find it at the moment.

    3 – Isn’t R’ Yonoson in any event difficult since he lived after Churban HaBayis (or something to that effect)? I seem to remember that there are some creative explanations for this.

    4 – Essentially, you are correct. I was just pointing out that Judaism is hardly monolithic on this point and there is certainly some support for a “pluralistic” approach.

    5 – You are overstating the case as regards to the “genocide” of Canaan. They are to be offered peace first, allowed to run away, etc. The Seven Noahide laws (lightly interpreted) is pretty basic, refusal to accept these shows a fairly low cultural level,etc.

  5. andy says:

    wolf- one could say the same for virtually every historical event mentioned in the Bible.

  6. Yitzhak says:

    Wolf2191:

    • 1. The Mishnah may say אבדו, but it also says אם אתם עושין דין בעיר הנדחת, and Rambam has it all in the active voice.
    • 3. Perhaps R. Yonasan meant that he had been to a ruined city, that tradition told him had been an Ir Ha’Nidahas. That wouldn’t, of course, be as reliable as actual eyewitness testimony to the execution of the law of Ir Ha’Nidahas, but he would still have considered it solid evidence that the law was not merely theoretical.

    • 4. The problem here is that by this standard, Judaism does not speak univocally on virtually any point. I therefore think it is still meaningful to consider the question of the normative position of mainstream Judaism, the existence of outlying positions notwithstanding

    • 5. They are indeed offered peace, although not on very attractive terms, but that in no way alters the fact their subsequent annihilation would qualify as genocide, which my dictionary defines as:

      The systematic killing of a racial or cultural group

      Moreover, you write that:

      The Seven Noahide laws (lightly interpreted) is pretty basic, refusal to accept these shows a fairly low cultural level,etc.

      implying that we are not asking much of them, which is quite far from the complete story; you neglect to mention the other condition for our toleration of their existence, their acceptance upon themselves of arrant servitude:

      אם השלימו וקבלו שבע מצוות שנצטוו בני נח עליהן אין הורגין מהן נשמה והרי הן למס. שנאמר יהיו לך למס ועבדוך: קבלו המס ולא קבלו העבדות או שקבלו העבדות ולא קבלו המס, אין שומעין להם עד שיקבלו שניהם. והעבדות שיקבלו היא שיהיו נבזים ושפלים למטה ולא ירימו ראש בישראל אלא יהיו כבושים תחת ידם ולא יתמנו על ישראל לשום דבר בעולם: והמס שיקבלו הוא שיהיו מוכנים לעבודת המלך בגופם ובממונם. כגון בנין החומות, וחיזוק המצודות, ובנין ארמון המלך וכיוצא בו … ויש למלך להתנות עמהם שיקח חצי ממונם, או הקרקעות ויניח כל המטלטלין, או כל המטלטלין ויניח הקרקעות, כפי מה שיתנו … ואם לא השלימו או שהשלימו ולא קבלו שבע מצוות, … [בשבעה] עממין ועמלק שלא השלימו אין מניחין מהם נשמה … (רמב”ם מלכים פרק ו’ הלכות א’ – ד’)

  7. wolf2191 says:

    Mate! Great points.

    1- Of course, this is all Rambam L’ Shitoso who basically invented Dogma for Judaism.

    3-but ראיתיה I think implies he saw the actual city while standing and then saw it later destroyed. In any event, your p’shat wouldn’t work by Ben
    Sorer U’ Moreh (I saw HIM).

    4-I actually don’t think that Judaism speaks with a univocal on matters of Haskafa/Aggadah and that is its beauty.

    5-I must look into this. The Rambam is I assume basing this on the Givonim but this is really a special case since they acted deceitfully.

    There is an excellent article in HTR on the Genocide issue by Amalek. I’ll forward that to you.

  8. wolf2191 says:

    I see I was (unknowingly) quoting Ramban

    Deuteronomy 20:10-11, which requires the Israelites to offer peace to their adversaries before beginning hostilities, and which sets terms for the latter to surrender, is conventionally read, following Rashi, to apply only to non-obligatory wars. In the case of an obligatory war, this view is that Deuteronomy 20:10 does not apply. However, Ramban reads Deuteronomy 20:16-17, with its command to annihilate the enemy completely, to apply only to the case where the targeted city rejects overtures from the Israelites to make peace. Thus, he reads verses 16-17 as a continuation of the unit that begins with verse 12, and regards verses 10-11 and the obligation to sue for peace as modifying the entire section that follows, and as applying generally to all wars of conquest, regardless of location or purpose.

  9. Yitzhak says:

    Wolf2191:

    You are right; the parallel of R. Yonasan’s language to his to Ben Sorer U’Moreh clearly demonstrates that R. Yonasan had seen the city itself, and not merely its ruins.

  10. andy says:

    wolf- I meant Dever leshitaso; certainly there ‘maximalists’ like Kitchen.

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