‘Lamed Vav.’ Google It.

Finally, a potboiler religious action-thriller novel built around an ancient Jewish mystery, in Steven Pressfield’s ‘36 Righteous Men’

By Adam Kirsch|November 22, 2019 12:00 AM


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 16 novels out of the Book of Revelation, narrating the Rapture, the coming of the Antichrist, and the war of Armageddon. 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?

Well, now we have one, thanks to Steven Pressfield’s 36 Righteous Men [1]. Like Tom Clancy, Pressfield—a 76-year-old ex-Marine who published his first novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance [2], when he was in his 50s—writes fast-paced, stripped-down prose that is regularly interrupted by lovingly technical descriptions of computers, cars, and weaponry. One episode in the novel, where the good guys enter an IDF armory to select the guns they will use to fight the bad guy, evokes the opening of countless shoot-’em-up video games.

But the genre to which 36 Righteous Men really belongs is the movies. The hero, Manning, is a tight-lipped but deep-souled cop with a tragic past who could be played by Bruce Willis. The narrator is his partner, Dewey, a kick-ass babe who evokes Lara Croft as played by Angelina Jolie. Most of the scenes follow a Hollywood template: the car chase, the police interrogation, the shootout. Pressfield even sets out the dialogue in script format:

MANNING
You okay, Dewey?

ME
I’m cool.

MANNING
Don’t fuck around.

ME
I’m cool.

Yet this must be the only book of its kind that includes a key scene at the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street. That is where Manning goes to start unraveling the strange case he is assigned to: a series of murders where the victims are found choked to death with seemingly inhuman force, and with the letters “LV” stamped into the flesh between their eyes. Manning is at a loss until he receives an anonymous text: “LV is Hebrew. The letters ‘lamed’ and ‘vav.’ Google it.”

Why Pressfield didn’t simply have the victims imprinted with the actual Hebrew letters, rather than English transliterations, is never explained. (It’s all the more bothersome since we hear that similar victims are being found around the world, particularly in Russia. Why would they have English letters on their foreheads? Or did they have the Cyrillic equivalents?) But a Jewish reader familiar with the term lamed-vavnik will understand the meaning of the clue. In Hebrew, the numerical value of the letters is 36, and they refer to the legend Pressfield uses for his title: the idea that in each generation, there are 36 perfectly just men, the lamed-vavniks, on whose merit the existence of the world depends. (In fact, the name of the first victim is Michael Justman.)

This idea dates back to the Talmud: In a passage of messianic speculation in Tractate Sanhedrin, the rabbis say that “the world has no fewer than 36 righteous people [tzadikim] in each generation who greet the Divine Presence.” The catch is that no one knows who these people are: That’s why they are called tzadikim nistarim, the “hidden righteous ones.” Even the tzadikim themselves, in some tellings, don’t know that they belong to the group. Taken as a spiritual allegory, this is a beautiful and profound idea, suggesting that goodness is inward, inconspicuous, and that the people God loves most are never those whom the world bows down to.

But Pressfield—like a few other [4] novelists [5] before him—takes the legend in a more conspiratorial direction. Someone, it seems, is hunting down the 36 tzadikim and killing them one by one. (In this 21st-century telling, they include women as well as men, but it’s not clear whether they are all Jews. The ones we hear about by name are, but there are references to Chinese and Latin American victims as well.) The forensic evidence shows that the killer can float through windows and is invisible to security cameras; clearly, Manning and Dewey aren’t dealing with an ordinary suspect. And as they learn more about the legend of the tzadikim nistarim, they start to realize that the real goal of the killer is to bring about the end of the world, by eliminating the righteous individuals on whom Creation is supposed to rest.

Readers in academia will be tickled to discover that it turns out the person responsible for all this destruction is, terrifyingly, “an associate professor at Columbia in Judaic studies.” This is Jake Instancer, who introduces himself to Manning at the Dorot Library and explains the legend of the lamed-vavniks. But it soon turns out that there is more to this nondescript professor (“tall, clean-shaven, athletic—dressed in jeans, T-shirt, and hoodie”) than meets the eye. Soon after their meeting, Instancer takes Manning to Brooklyn for a farbrengen (another first for this genre) with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which goes horribly wrong when the rebbe ends up getting murdered like the other LV victims. It turns out that Instancer is the killer Manning was looking for all along.

But wait, you ask—how can there be a Lubavitcher Rebbe? Hasn’t that position been vacant since the death of the seventh rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, in 1994? Yes, but 36 Righteous Men takes place in the year 2034, and apparently “the Council of Elders appointed an eighth Rebbe in 2024—a renowned scholar of the same ancient line.” And it’s not just Chabad that has changed a lot in the next 15 years. The most original element in 36 Righteous Men is Pressfield’s evocation of a dystopian world wrecked by global warming. As Manning and Dewey pursue their suspect from New York to Israel, we see signs of disaster everywhere: temperatures always above 100 degrees, water shortages leading to riots and wars. (One happy side effect is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is over: Everyone has to band together to fight against the elements.)

It’s often been observed [6] 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, is a righteous person? It turns out that all of the LV victims are, in one way or another, fighting against climate change; and the end of the world that Instancer 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. Manning and Dewey, equipped with shoulder-launched missiles and giant “Zombie Killer” shotguns, do battle with Instancer in Megiddo, the Israeli site of the biblical Armageddon; in doing so, they hope to protect the last lamed-vavnik, a climate scientist whose inventions will help stave off global warming. Will they succeed? It wouldn’t be very righteous of me to give away the ending.

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