Jerusalem Noir: The Case of Raz Suriel
The suspect Raz Suriel, 78, has been referred to me by the Court for psychiatric evaluation. Herewith, my report and case history.
Over several hours of questioning, Raz ruminated and fulminated. Though he bristled at some questions, his taut features changing rapidly, he proved generally cooperative and coherent.
To begin with the beginning: In his own telling, Raz arrived at the Diskin orphanage in Jerusalem in the winter of 1946, aged 12, already then marked by acute religious ambivalence, torn between his contortions of guilt and grief, and a gratitude to the Catholic sisters who had rescued him during the war. In an attempt to resolve the ambivalence, Raz plunged himself into an intensely Orthodox milieu at the Brisker yeshiva in Mea Shearim, spending days and nights peering into volumes of Talmud propped up on his shtender.
Permit me here to cite the relevant testimony submitted to the Court by Rabbi Yitzchak Ze’ev, who studied at the yeshiva and who now serves as director of Jerusalem’s Asra Kadisha (Committee for the Preservation of Gravesites):
Of the two registers in which the Jewish tradition voices itself—law and lore, the normative and the narrative, Halacha and Aggadah—Raz was drawn to the latter, to the choreographed dance with biblical verses which spins off not only legends, but also playful puns and fancies, parables and paradoxes and proverbs, extended allegories, ethical maxims of great dignity, homilies, satires, riddles, theological musings about good and evil, eschatological visions of the messiah and the world-to-come, and compassionate attempts to justify the ways of God to men. I can remember how enthusiastically he admired the way Aggadah summoned throngs of demons and dybbuks, false messiahs and reincarnated souls, not to mention harlots and heretics. He grew fascinated with legends of leviathans and behemoths, enthralled by imagined meetings of Plato and the prophet Jeremiah. He studied esoteric musings on the mysteries of the world, like the debate between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel about whether the heavens or the earth was created first. It came to him as no surprise to learn that the sages compared the delights of Aggadah to wine, or to manna (that miraculous nourishment of the desert wanderers), or to the fragrant lilies and sweetened apples of the Song of Songs. He used Gematria to find numerological equivalents of his first name, 207—among them adon olam (Lord of the universe) and ein sof (the Infinite).
Raz seemed to calibrate himself like a pendulum, silently subject to no other force than its own weight. By dint of his delvings into Aggadah, and anyway preferring the company of his own thoughts, he refused to learn with a chavruta. In fact, he avoided idle conversation altogether.
Raz had since puberty experienced psychosomatic stress-related conditions—crying jags, chronic fatigue, severe headaches—but it was only then, at the yeshiva, that fevered dreams began to intrude. Swept up in the quickening cadences of his speech as our interview went on, Raz reported that he dreamt of the hissing seven-headed serpent of Eden, its skin like polished brass, who counseled disobedience of God’s tyrannical will.
He dreamt of falling from Jacob’s sky-flung ladder as Hebrew letters traversed up its rungs until the letters chorused together; he interpreted this as an instruction to descend to the bottom rung in order to ascend to the highest. He dreamt of entering a palm-tree orchard; the tall trunks, creaking in the breeze, seemed to accuse him of heresy: “Kofer! Apikoros! Kofer! Apikoros!” Fleeing from the accusers, he donned sackcloth, slipped through a crack in the Western Wall, and discovered that the Third Temple was already built in the catacombs beneath the Dome of the Rock.
Before long, Raz grew to hate his dreams, “the flickering effluvia of them,” as he put it; they reminded him that he was capable of every virtue and every vice.
After four years of study, his inner frenzies undimmed, he became afflicted by what he came to call alternating phases of “contraction” and “expansion.” “I had no more influence over these than the breather has over his own breath,” he said.
When he left the yeshiva, Raz squatted in an abandoned low-slung building next to the Ratisbonne monastery (he prefers the Hebrew term hesger, or cloister) next to King George Street. Here, in 1956, he chanced to meet a former Luftwaffe ace (Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes, 1941) turned taxidermist. Prof. Dr. Ludwig Zirkus, then director of the Westfälisches Museum für Naturkunde in Münster, had been invited to set up Jerusalem’s Natural History Museum as part of German postwar reparations to the state of Israel. He too had found lodging at the Ratisbonne.
Zirkus took Raz under his wing and tutored him in taxidermy. Raz says he felt calmed by the beauty of frozen death, by taking on the roles of creator and preserver, rivaling the hands of Nature herself. He enjoyed the tactile pleasures of handling matter and form. “The sense of touch, so disparaged by Aristotle and Maimonides,” he said, “must be restored to its place of glory.”
After a year’s apprenticeship, Zirkus introduced Raz to the museum’s director, who hired the young man on the spot. As Israel’s only taxidermist, Raz spent his days stuffing anatomically accurate owls, wolves, and porcupines—“effigies of themselves,” he said. He labored in the laboratory of the museum, housed in a nineteenth-century villa built by an Armenian merchant and later used by the city’s Ottoman and British governors. Occasionally he tested his skills by conjuring up a kind of surrealist menagerie: a pheasant with a skunk’s tail, a squirrel inhabiting a turtle shell, a coat rack made of hippopotamus teeth, a polo mallet stand made of four giraffe legs mounted on stained oak. He soon published his first and only book: Skinning & Mounting the Rock Badgers of Ein Gedi.
At the same time, Raz suggested that he had never come to terms with his adopted country; that he rejected Zionism as a perverse attempt to imitate the Election of Israel. He nursed a profound contempt for “the illiterates,” as he called secular Jews. Complaining of the claustral atmosphere in Jerusalem, he quoted Yeats’ line about Ireland: “great hatred, little room.”
At forty, a certain Don Juan complex set in, inflected in his case by a paradoxical conviction: lower disorder for the sake of a higher order. Not once did Raz aspire to bring himself into harmony. He had by now given up trying to quiet the inner turbulence. Sexual union became in his eyes a way to unite the male and female powers, to restore some small part of the original wholeness of Adam and Eve, created as one hermaphrodite being. Surrendering to the commingling of Creator and the created, he regarded sexual intercourse as a fulfillment of the biblical commandment, “You shall know Him in all your ways.” As though Eros were a form of worship, before the act he would recite: “For the sake of the union of the Holy One, blessed be He, with His Shekhina.”
Raz took as his lover (with me he used the word “consort”) Magda S., an Auschwitz survivor ten years his senior. Each week she filled in the lottery ticket with the number tattooed on her arm. “Magda once told me, ‘Where names are erased, numbers will do,’” Raz said. “She felt this in the marrow of her bones.”
After their lovemaking, he reported, Raz would murmur to Magda about trying to surround the unsayable with speech. He offered her starched arguments for the importance of maintaining a dialogue with unreason. He told Magda that his greatest desire, apart from winning the World Taxidermy Championship (but for that he’d have to beat the contestant from Alaska with the extinct prehistoric Irish elk), was to write something that he himself could not comprehend.
This behavior continued until Magda’s death last year. On her deathbed, he read to her from Dialoghi d’Amore, the sixteenth-century volume by the last of the great medieval Jewish philosophers, Yehudah Abrabanel. “Union between a man and a woman is a copy of the sacred and divine marriage, from which the universe has its origin…. But for the love that every cause has for its effect, the world would be destroyed.”
During his forties, Raz more and more compulsively resorted to unscrupulous libertinism to inflate his personality, to bridge the chasm between his inner and outer realities. Once a year or so, when his arousal became too much to bear, he hosted partner-swapping orgies, ritual fornications that he called “the extinguishing of the lights.” Before turning off the lamps he began such evenings with a homily addressed to his guests, whom he called “my mixed multitude.” “In Gematria, the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of the Ein Sof, of the Cause of Causes, is numerically equivalent to the Hebrew words ahavah (love) and echad (one). Isaiah says: ‘As the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee.’ The phrase ‘the bridegroom over the bride’ amounts to 613, the number of commandments.”
On such occasions, his darkened living room, ordinarily upholstered and tasseled, was stripped of its usual furnishings and brocades, unadorned save for the flour he spread on the floor. The flour absorbed the participants’ juices, their seed. From this flour, leavened with the urge to reproduce, he made bread, a “semen eucharist,” as he called it.
In my opinion this behavior demonstrated more than an absence of inhibition or an appetite for anarchic liberation or a desire to annihilate bourgeois conventions by abandoning oneself to orgiastic pleasures. Raz began to seek a deliberate degradation in order to achieve a kind of consecrated vertigo. His purposeful breaking of taboos became a means of activating—through exaggeration and distortion—the memory of the divine and its opposite. “I wanted to let the repulsive in,” he said.
He sought above all to sin for the sake of heaven, to love God with the evil impulse, to enter the sanctum sanctorum of spiritual ecstasy through the gates of impurity. “According to the tractate Nazir,” he told me in characteristic didactic tones, “a transgression committed for its own sake is greater than a commandment not committed for its own sake.” In short, he began to see the violation of the Torah as its highest fulfillment.
Raz fancied himself privy to a fugitive truth that shook his soul alone, and was not content to let his secret go unpracticed. Every evening, as he walked home from the natural history museum, he could think of nothing else than how to permit what was prohibited, to license the unlicensed, to subvert the law in the name of holiness. “Let us see how ethics evaporate into exaltation,” he said.
And so he began to observe the Sabbath on Mondays. He practiced pronouncing the Unsayable Name of God, playing with the permutations of its letters. He turned fast days into holidays of merriment. In the small pomegranate orchard next to the Ratisbonne monastery, he staged his own wedding with a Torah scroll, Magda his only witness. He committed half of the thirty-six sins deemed worthy of the Torah’s ultimate punishment, karet—the forcible extirpation of the sinner at the hands of heaven, the annihilation of the soul. Before each of these acts, he recited another of his blessings: “Blessed art Thou O God who hath permitted that which was forbidden.”
As his grasp on reality weakened, Raz began to claim that when he spoke with others he could hear language itself vibrating. “I understood that Hebrew, eternal language of the eternal people,” he told me, “is a volcano, which not all the secularization in the world can keep dormant. That the illiterates with their taming hands built this country on its slopes, heedless of the power, potent but unguessed, rumbling underfoot. When we mouth words and name names, we only summon the eruption.”
Yearning for redemption, Raz convinced himself that the Messiah had to be an apostate, a good man clothed in evil garments. “The tractate of Sanhedrin,” he told me, “instructs that the Son of David will not arrive until the kingdom is entirely sunk in unbelief.” Just as Abraham descended to Egypt, he said, he himself would descend into the abyss in order to unleash suppressed impulses and cram the maw of impurity until it ruptured from within.
Now at last to the incident presently under consideration by this honorable Court. As he himself has confessed without remorse, on Yom Kippur of last autumn Raz Suriel desecrated the fresh grave on the Mt. of Olives. He told me that he intended to hasten the resurrection of the dead. “I stumbled, frenzied, from headstone to headstone, gratified by their solid age-enshrined verticality.” Finding the right plot in that hillside necropolis, he dug up the fresh corpse from the parched earth, unwrapped it from its soiled shroud, embraced it, and laid it on the ground. “Even putrefaction couldn’t dispute my possession of her,” he recalled.
Starting from between the breasts, he expertly sliced open the corpse with his taxidermist’s tools—a carbon steel Black Magic fleshing blade—and removed the skin from the forearm bearing a tattooed number. Raz palpated the body, tugging and ripping, hewing and hacking a wreath of wounds, clapping and stamping. Teetering and turning dervish-like, he garlanded a nearby olive tree with the corpse’s intestines “as though to give it tresses.” “I wished I were one of the headstones of that pathless cemetery,” he said, “leached of life.”
A pair of Palestinian teenagers from nearby Ras al-Amud discovered Raz shivering on his knees, convulsed in delirium, unintelligible syllables burbling from his throat. His tongue lolled, the ooooo breaking away from sentences comprehensible only to him.
Recounting the events of that day to me, Raz said: “At that moment of defilement, transported by appetite and satiation, I knew this world to be a figment, a falsehood, like a diorama at a natural history exhibit, a crude imitation smeared with blasphemies of dust. I knew the world is broken, that all things are not in their proper places, that the real indwelling was somewhere else. I knew that this world would soon be carried off into the next, swept away by the eruptions of an apostate messiah into a foaming transfiguration, and that in the twinkling of an eye terrestrial Jerusalem below would be revealed as nothing but a stuffed specimen, a bloodless imitation of the edgeless celestial city above. I almost succeeded.”
Here my expression must have appeared to him quizzical. He scanned my face one last time. “Even if I spoke to you for two weeks, day and night, and even if you were not a shrink but the most God-smitten of men, I could not explain a thousandth part of all this. You know what it says in Proverbs: ‘It is the glory of God to conceal a thing.’” Here his torrent of words ended, his ardor reposed into silence.
It has been said that the language of psychology is reason’s monologue about madness. That monologue recognizes many shades of sanity and insanity. But law cannot admit that many juridical states pertain to a single act. A defendant is either responsible for his actions or not.
In my assessment, the suspect’s manic-depressive symptomatology triggered a latent, deeply sublimated aggression, in such a way that Raz Suriel’s religious delirium befogged his mind and overwhelmed any rational understanding of his act. I therefore recommend that the honorable Court find the defendant “Not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder” and commit him to compulsory psychiatric care for the remainder of his days.
Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is the author most recently of Kafka’s Last Trial (W.W. Norton, 2018). His translations from the Hebrew have appeared in The Atlantic, Poetry International, and The New Yorker.