Jews Surely Deserve a Potboiler Based on a Talmudic Legend

November 26, 2019 | Adam Kirsch
About the author: Adam Kirsch, a poet and literary critic, is the author of, among other books, Benjamin Disraeli and The People and The Books: Eighteen Classics of Jewish Literature.

Like his previous nine novels, Steven Pressfield’s 36 Righteous Men is action-packed, ready-for-Hollywood genre fiction. But at the heart of the plot is the rabbinic tradition that at any given moment there are 36 righteous men in the world, whose identities are hidden. The twist: some powerful person is systematically killing them off, and Pressfield’s heroes must stop him. Adam Kirsch writes in his review:

Christian writers have long since woken up to the crowd-pleasing potential of the religious action-thriller. The popular Left Behind series, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, spun sixteen novels out of the book of Revelation. . . . Dan Brown sold 80 million copies of The Da Vinci Code by imagining a millennia-old Vatican conspiracy involving the Holy Grail and the true identity of Mary Magdalene. What do Jewish readers have to compete with that? A handful of arty novels about golems. Surely we deserve at least one book where the hero unravels an ancient Jewish mystery and staves off the end of the world by shooting an RPG at the devil to knock him back through the portals of Gehenna.

It’s often been observed that environmentalism serves many secular people today as a substitute for religion. But this has seldom been more explicit than it is in 36 Righteous Men. For what, in the year 2034, [when the novel is set], is a righteous person? It turns out that all of the [36 righteous] victims are, in one way or another, fighting against climate change; and the end of the world that [the villain] wants to bring about will take the form of our own destruction of the planet. Goodness is no longer a religious concept but an ecological one.

Yet at the same time, the genre in which Pressfield is working demands that the denouement involve explosions, not carbon-sequestering pilot demonstrations. And so 36 Righteous Men tries to have it both ways. [The heroes], equipped with shoulder-launched missiles and giant “Zombie Killer” shotguns, do battle . . . in Megiddo, the Israeli site of the biblical Armageddon; in doing so, they hope to protect . . . a climate scientist whose inventions will help stave off global warming.

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