This evening I am going to listen to a lecture at the Theologische Fakultät of the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena where I am staying for two weeks. The lecture will address the response to National Socialism by the university during the 1930s and ‘40s. Apparently, it isn’t a happy story; but, I will await the detail.

History is easy with hindsight, isn’t it? It all looks obvious – or destined. Well, yesterday I had lunch with a wonderful PhD student from the university who is starting her research into ‘collective guilt in the Old Testament’. In our conversation we roamed over 20thcentury German history and the rise and demise of the British Empire, asking at what point does responsibility – collective or personal – cease to apply. Intergenerational guilt has to be held in tension with the consequences of the choices and actions of our ancestors. History is not so easily reckoned with, after all.

So, this morning I sat in a bookshop and read a lecture by Amos Oz, given in Berlin a couple of years ago, but published in 2018 and seemingly only available in German. Judas und Jesus, with reference to his novel Judas, tries to understand the character and motivation of Judas and make sense of a story in the gospels that he says is unnecessary to the gospel narrative. It is a quick, but arresting read, recounting the thinking behind the novel. The text of the lecture is followed by a description of Jewish-Christian relations by a Jewish academic and rabbi.

The immediate pertinence of these three events – the lecture later this evening, the conversation with the student, and the Amos Oz book – is that all are run through by charges of treachery, traitors and betrayal. But, without the benefit of hindsight: who/what did the theologians of Jena think they were betraying if they supported (or didn’t support) Nazism; or who did the Empire-builders think were the traitors to the cause while they were busy exporting Anglicanism to the world and looting the colonies of their riches; or did Judas feel that it was Jesus who had betrayed him by failing to bring in the kingdom of God in the way he had expected or been led to believe?

I ask the question because, although delivered from the burden of emails for a while, I am following the news from a German perspective – not least Brexit. It isn’t a happy exercise. The language and discourse of Brexit is shocking, but also surprising to the Germans who are eager to speak about it (some are, frankly, too embarrassed). When Donald Tusk wondered yesterday which special place in hell has been reserved for those who led Brexit without any plan for how to do it, the emphasis was on the lack of a plan – the sheer recklessness of demagoguery without strategy or vision that knew what it wanted to be free from but no idea of what it wanted to be free for (‘free’ being the word they use for the final destination of Brexitannia). Contra the (utterly predictable) snowflakey screaming in the media, he did not condemn Brexiteers or those who voted for Brexit. He rightly put the responsibility on those who led and promised and then abdicated responsibility for the consequences.

It seems everyone is a traitor. Brexiteers have betrayed the best economic interests of the United Kingdom; Remainers have betrayed democracy and the ‘people’ (das Volk, as they say here); Parliament has betrayed its function; the media (particularly the BBC) have betrayed everyone unless they can be interpreted as saying what any particular group wants to hear them say.

It is an easy accusation to make of anyone whose opinion or judgement differs from mine. It usually bears little scrutiny. I guess history will tell who betrayed whom … and whether or not they knew what they were doing … and whether or not the language of betrayal was even remotely appropriate at the time. In the meantime, the dialogue of the deaf will no doubt continue, and we will perfect the art of self-exculpating blame-throwing. As Donald Trump might say: “SAD!”

(Now for Dostoyevsky for whom the theme and experience of betrayal were no stranger.)

While looking for another of his books in a London bookshop, I came across Jews and Words by Amos Oz and his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger – he a novelist and she a historian. It is intriguing, funny and enlightening, with some pertinent comments and observations that speak into contemporary discussions of Israel, Judaism and Jewishness. I would be interested to hear a response to the book from someone who intuits (because inhabits) the Jewish cultural worldview being explored. The key line is that the authors, both atheists, see the vitality of a “textline” over a “bloodline”.

So, it might seem odd to link that to a very different book: Mount Sinai: A History of Travellers and Pilgrims. Written by George Manginis, it is a detailed account of what most people know as Mount Sinai. In fact, he describes it early on as a “biography” of Moses' Mountain, deriving this from archaeological interpretation, historical analysis, art historical appreciation and textual criticism.

He might have added “fashion history” to the list. The fascinating and vivid account of life in this place includes almost passing reference to the transience of some resident communities. Referring to some time around 300AD he quotes:

And they [the savage nation of Vlemmyes], hoping to find riches, came to plunder the monks; since they found nothing but woven mats and the saints themselves wearing animal hair garments, they were outraged and slaughtered them, even though they did no harm.

When you stand back and survey the great sweep of the entire history of the known universe (for starters), how do you count the significance of some men who (a) chose to live as monks in a desert, (b) had a basic line in clothing, and (c) met a grisly death for no apparent reason other than that they disappointed their killers?

This is a pertinent question in a world in which we have become used to hearing stories of whole communities being summarily wiped out by people who fundamentally dislike them. It focuses Primo Levi's post-Auschwitz question about what is a human being? Is a life valuable when lived in obscurity (as most are) and ended in cheap violence? The Christian answer is clear, but this is a contested matter in a world in which ethics too often are discussed in purely utilitarian terms.

Anyway, that's a digression. The biography of Mount Sinai allows stories to be told by people who have been there. These are people who have travelled, lived, sojourned, invaded, worshipped, hidden and traded in a place thought of by many as holy. They bring their diverse motives and conflicted contributions to a place that, if the stones could speak, would tell much about what human beings are really like. Holiness does not dwell in splendid isolation from the real world, but somehow flickers a fragile flame amid the usual stuff, business and horrors of the world we all know.

I have not been to Sinai, and I know little of the development of the area. Its history is not one with which I am very familiar (where is Tom Holland when you need him?). But, this book, bringing together the several disciplines that tell its story, is rich in detail, agile in narrative, and evocative in mood. It makes me want to go there. As the book concludes:

What makes Jabal Musa interesting for the scholar, fascinating for the visitor, and hallowed for the believer is the layering of worship; the stratigraphy of devotion. The place continues to inspire awe, to be seen as a refuge and to attract pilgrims. The immutability of its rituals is the measure of its importance… Modernity denies or ignores tradition. For some, Jabal Musa is just a mountaintop. For most, it remains a holy place.