This year, the High Holidays come not a moment too soon. Who can wait to get rid of last year's burdens, not to mention the despair induced by the horrific events of summer 2006/5766? Not I!
As the time dwindles before our rites of renewal and as we prepare ourselves to recreate ourselves through the magnificent liturgies of the Days of Awe, perhaps some reflection upon a mysterious text from the Talmud Yerushalmi (the 'Jerusalem Talmud') might help lighten our mood.
In Tractate Berachot ('Blessings,' p. 5a of the Krotoschin edition; p, 17b of the Vilna edition or, if you like, p. 25b in Rabbi Art Scroll). It goes something like this:
A Jew was toiling behind his plow when his ox bellowed. Just then, an Arab passed by and heard the noise.
He said to him: 'O Jew! O Jew! ' untie your ox and plow, for your ox has announced the Temple is destroyed!'
Where upon the ox bellowed a second time.
The Arab said: 'O Jew! O Jew! ' retie your ox and plough, for King Messiah has just been born!
The Jew asked: 'What's his name?'
The Arab replied: 'Menachem.'
He asked: 'What's his father's name?'
The reply: 'Hezekiah.'
He asked: 'Where's he from?'
The Arab replied: 'From the royal estate in Judean Bethlehem!'
So the Jew sold his ox and plow. He started a diaper business, peddling from town to town until he reached Bethlehem. Now all the women crowded him to buy diapers. Except for Menachem's mother.
The Jew heard all the women shouting: 'O, Menachem's mother! Menachem's mother! Come buy diapers for your son!'
She said: 'I'd sooner strangle him! For on the day of his birth the Temple was destroyed!'
The Jew said: 'To the contrary ' on his account was it destroyed, and on his account will it be rebuilt!'
She said: 'I have no coin to buy diapers.'
He said: 'I should care? Take some now and pay me in a few days when I return!'
At the stated time he returned and asked: 'How's the kid?'
She replied: 'Right after you saw me a whirlwind blew by and snatched him from my arms!'
Now, what is this odd tale of a baby Messiah about? The first thing to notice is that, while the story's action takes place in first-century Yehudah, during the Temple's destruction, its Talmudic narrator is speaking in a Galilean beit midrash, at least three centuries later. So we need to hear this tale with ears attuned to the reality of its actual audience: Galilean Jews under Byzantine occupation. What's going on in their world?
For starters: it's been nearly three centuries, and the Roman rulers still call the land Palaestina, hoping to erase eretz Yisrael as a symbolic flashpoint of Jewish national protest. To make matters worse, the heirs of Constantine have been Christianizing the Jewish landscape, dotting it with monuments to Christian memory and transforming it into a Christian theme park ' 'The Holy Land of Jesus and His Disciples.'
In our narrator's own lifetime, a cave in Jerusalem had become, by royal fiat, Jesus' Tomb, enclosed by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The manger of Baby Jesus had been 'restored' in Bethlehem, in the basement of the Church of the Nativity. From Jerusalem to Sephoris, every new church includes crypts containing relics of 'the True Cross,' 'Jesus' Shroud,' and a host of severed body parts sanctified by the screams of Diocletian's countless Christian martyrs.
How does the parable's narrator respond to these assaults upon Jewish memory? By circulating smirky stories about Jesus' mom's relationships with Roman legionnaires? No, that's a job for the sages of Babylonia, who have no Christian emperor poking his Roman nose into their study houses! By attacking the Christian shrines erected to erase Jewish history? No, that might cause reprisals against innocents. Rather, our man retaliates with the shrewd skill of the dominated.
He spins a Messianic yarn so rich in double meanings that the informers overseeing life in the beit midrash will never even notice that this 'Jewish folk tale' is actually lampooning the key myth of Imperial Christendom!
What thrills his disciples more? His comical send-up of Christianity's 'Baby Jesus' theme or his bold retelling of the Gospels' John the Baptizer as a shmatta salesman?
Which is his most radical debunking of Christian Messianic legend? His portrait of Mary herself as a frantic single mom, daily resisting the impulse to strangle the little mamzer who, through no fault of his own, reminds her of her people's catastrophe?
Or perhaps his fresh twist on the Jesus story? Unlike Baby Jesus, Baby Menachem disappears in toddlerhood, plucked from Mama's arms by a convenient wind (not the Sanhedrin)! Are we to infer, in contrast, that one of Baby Jesus' poopy Pampers has joined the knuckles and skulls in the reliquaries of cathedrals from Rome to Antioch?
Finally, what about the mysterious Arab who understands the bellow of a Jew's ox better than the Jew himself? What Gospel theme does he turn on its head? He just might be the Good Samaritan ' son of a despised people who, in Luke's Gospel, outdoes doctors of the law and sanctimonious Levites in seeing the image of God in the human face.
Call him Ishmael! Sure, he and his tribe are known in pre-Islamic Byzantium for lustful wenching and wining when on holiday from pirating caravans of spices and silks. Yet the Arab ' this Byzantine Long John Silver (har!) ' turns out to be just the guy to decode the Messianic portent of Haim Yankel's lowing beast!
Or maybe it's just a folk tale. But satirical farce or not, I'll be carrying it into yontif with me, a reminder that, as bad as things can get for Am Yisrael, the abiding and truly humanizing form of Jewish resistance begins in grace and wit.
Martin Jaffee teaches in both the Comparative Religion and Jewish Studies programs at the University of Washington. When not masquerading as a journalist, he writes on the history of Talmudic literature as well as theoretical problems in the study of religion.