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?”


“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 []

Abravanel and Dumas On Honor

Some cultures have had (and some still have) curious notions about the relative values of life and personal honor. This is illustrated by the following excerpt of the unpromising beginnings of one of literature’s most celebrated fraternities:


D’Artagnan, in a state of fury, crossed the antechamber at three bounds,
and was darting toward the stairs, which he reckoned upon descending
four at a time, when, in his heedless course, he ran head foremost
against a Musketeer who was coming out of one of M. de Treville’s
private rooms, and striking his shoulder violently, made him utter a
cry, or rather a howl.

“Excuse me,” said d’Artagnan, endeavoring to resume his course, “excuse
me, but I am in a hurry.”

[They argue, and eventually d’Artagnan perceives himself insulted by the Musketeer, Athos:]

“Monsieur,” said Athos, letting him go, “you are not polite; it is easy
to perceive that you come from a distance.”

D’Artagnan had already strode down three or four stairs, but at Athos’s
last remark he stopped short.

“MORBLEU, monsieur!” said he, “however far I may come, it is not you who
can give me a lesson in good manners, I warn you.”

“Perhaps,” said Athos.

“Ah! If I were not in such haste, and if I were not running after
someone,” said d’Artagnan.

“Monsieur Man-in-a-hurry, you can find me without running–ME, you

“And where, I pray you?”

“Near the Carmes-Deschaux.”

“At what hour?”

“About noon.”

“About noon? That will do; I will be there.”

“Endeavor not to make me wait; for at quarter past twelve I will cut off
your ears as you run.”

“Good!” cried d’Artagnan, “I will be there ten minutes before twelve.”

[Our hero sets off running, and promptly entangles himself with a second Musketeer, Porthos:]

“Bless me!” cried Porthos, making strong efforts to disembarrass himself
of d’Artagnan, who was wriggling about his back; “you must be mad to run
against people in this manner.”

“Excuse me,” said d’Artagnan, reappearing under the shoulder of the
giant, “but I am in such haste–I was running after someone and–”

“And do you always forget your eyes when you run?” asked Porthos.

“No,” replied d’Artagnan, piqued, “and thanks to my eyes, I can see what
other people cannot see.”

Whether Porthos understood him or did not understand him, giving way to
his anger, “Monsieur,” said he, “you stand a chance of getting chastised
if you rub Musketeers in this fashion.”

“Chastised, Monsieur!” said d’Artagnan, “the expression is strong.”

“It is one that becomes a man accustomed to look his enemies in the

“Ah, PARDIEU! I know full well that you don’t turn your back to yours.”

And the young man, delighted with his joke, went away laughing loudly.

Porthos foamed with rage, and made a movement to rush after d’Artagnan.

“Presently, presently,” cried the latter, “when you haven’t your cloak

“At one o’clock, then, behind the Luxembourg.”

“Very well, at one o’clock, then,” replied d’Artagnan, turning the angle
of the street.

[Presently, the young Gascon becomes embroiled in a quarrel with a third Musketeer, Aramis:]

“Ah, monsieur,” interrupted Aramis, “permit me to observe to you that
you have not acted in this affair as a gallant man ought.”

“What, monsieur!” cried d’Artagnan, “and do you suppose–”

“I suppose, monsieur that you are not a fool, and that you knew very
well, although coming from Gascony, that people do not tread upon
handkerchiefs without a reason. What the devil! Paris is not paved with

“Monsieur, you act wrongly in endeavoring to mortify me,” said
d’Artagnan, in whom the natural quarrelsome spirit began to speak more
loudly than his pacific resolutions. “I am from Gascony, it is true; and
since you know it, there is no occasion to tell you that Gascons are not
very patient, so that when they have begged to be excused once, were
it even for a folly, they are convinced that they have done already at
least as much again as they ought to have done.”

“Monsieur, what I say to you about the matter,” said Aramis, “is not for
the sake of seeking a quarrel. Thank God, I am not a bravo! And being
a Musketeer but for a time, I only fight when I am forced to do so, and
always with great repugnance; but this time the affair is serious, for
here is a lady compromised by you.”

“By US, you mean!” cried d’Artagnan.

“Why did you so maladroitly restore me the handkerchief?”

“Why did you so awkwardly let it fall?”

“I have said, monsieur, and I repeat, that the handkerchief did not fall
from my pocket.”

“And thereby you have lied twice, monsieur, for I saw it fall.”

“Ah, you take it with that tone, do you, Master Gascon? Well, I will
teach you how to behave yourself.”

“And I will send you back to your Mass book, Master Abbe. Draw, if you
please, and instantly–”

“Not so, if you please, my good friend–not here, at least. Do you not
perceive that we are opposite the Hotel d’Arguillon, which is full of
the cardinal’s creatures? How do I know that this is not his Eminence
who has honored you with the commission to procure my head? Now, I
entertain a ridiculous partiality for my head, it seems to suit my
shoulders so correctly. I wish to kill you, be at rest as to that, but
to kill you quietly in a snug, remote place, where you will not be able
to boast of your death to anybody.”

“I agree, monsieur; but do not be too confident. Take your handkerchief;
whether it belongs to you or another, you may perhaps stand in need of

“Monsieur is a Gascon?” asked Aramis.

“Yes. Monsieur does not postpone an interview through prudence?”

“Prudence, monsieur, is a virtue sufficiently useless to Musketeers,
I know, but indispensable to churchmen; and as I am only a Musketeer
provisionally, I hold it good to be prudent. At two o’clock I shall have
the honor of expecting you at the hotel of Monsieur de Treville. There I
will indicate to you the best place and time.”

The two young men bowed and separated, Aramis ascending the street which
led to the Luxembourg, while d’Artagnan, perceiving the appointed
hour was approaching, took the road to the Carmes-Deschaux, saying to
himself, “Decidedly I can’t draw back; but at least, if I am killed, I
shall be killed by a Musketeer.”1

We recently discussed Abravanel’s views on the Social Contract and the Right To Revolution; in his Commentary to this past week’s Sidra, Abravanel expresses a view on personal honor not totally unlike d’Artagnan’s:

גם היה תועלת בהכרזות האלה [של הכהן והשוטר, קודם המלחמה] מפני הקלון והבושה שיקחו השבים על ידי הכרזה. ואחריהם כל בית ישראל רואים ומלעיגים מהם שרקו ויחרקו שן עד אשר בלי ספק (ימצאו) [אולי צ”ל ימנעו] לשוב מפני זה ויאמרו הלא טוב לנו למות על מרומי שדה ויבחרו מות מחיי קלון וחרפה רצופה2

He uses very similar language to explain the motivation of Shimon and Levi for the annihilation of Shechem:

אבל [שמעון ולוי] השיבוהו [ליעקב] הכזונה יעשה את אחותינו … אבל הרלב”ג כתב בשם אביו פירוש נאה והוא שבני נח כמו שזכרו חז”ל לא היו מוזהרים על הזנות מופקרת כי הותרו אצלם אבל היו מוזהרים על העריות שלא ישכב אדם אלא עם אשתו המיוחדת לו או עם זונה מופקרת ואם לא היו מענישים אנשי העיר והורגים אותם יחשב שהיתה דינה זו מופקרת ושלכן שכב שכם עמה ואיש אין בארץ שימחה בידו ולכן היה מההכרח אחד משני דברים אם שישימו יד לפה ויסבלו קלונם או שיהרגו כל זכר כי אם יהרגו את חמור ואת שכם לבד יעמדו עליהם כל אנשי העיר ולכן הוצרך להיות הדבר כולל אם הסבל ואם הנקמה כדי שלא תשאר דינה כזונה מופקרת שאין הורגים עליה

וכלל דבריהם שעל הקלון הזה היו מחוייבים להמסר עצמם בסכנה כי המות בכבוד טובה מחיי החרפה והבוז וכבר הסכים דעת המקום ב”ה שעשו כי היה חתת אלקים בכל הערים אשר סביבותיהם ולא רדפו אחרי בני יעקב …

והנה נכתב הספור הזה ללמדנו כמה היא גדולה צרת הבת שיעקב נולדו לו י”ב בנים ולא קבל מהם החרפה והקלון והסכנה שקבל בעד בת אחת שנולדה ביניהם.

ולהודיע גם כן כמה יגיע לאנשי המעלה והכבוד שום חרפה וקלון שיעשה להם שישימו נפשם בכפם להסתכן הם ונשיהם ובניהם וכל אשר להם כדי להנקם מאויביהם.

ולהודיע עוד כמה ראוי לנשים הנכבדות שתהיינה נזהרות מדלתי ביתם החוצה ולכן אמרו ילמדנו רבינו מהו שתצא האשה בעדי של זהב בשבת כך שנו רבותינו לא תצא רבנן אמרי לא תצא ברשות הרבים מפני שמסתכלים בה שלא נתנו תכשיטין לאשה אלא כדי שתהא מתקשטת בהם בתוך ביתה שאין נותנים פרצה מפני הכשר כל שכן מפני הגנב כמ”ש כל כבודה בת מלך פנימה:3

The concept of honor under discussion here does not appear to be a particularly Jewish one; it is tempting to suggest this as evidence of host culture influence on Abravanel’s thought. Abravanel’s attitude toward women expressed in the third paragraph of the second selection above is also noteworthy.

Incidentally, an entirely different perspective on the motivation of Shimon and Levi is rooted in the calculus of deterrence.

Update: Falstaff’s antithetical attitude.

Update II: A lecture which I open with the aforementioned explanations of the dialog between Shimon and Levi and their father.

  1. Alexander Dumas père, The Three Musketeers, Chapter Four. Available from Project Gutenberg. []
  2. דברים פרק כ’ ד”ה והנה היה תועלת רב []
  3. בראשית, סוף פרק ל”ד []