Several hundred years ago, when the Vatican was a powerful city state and the Pope commanded a great army, Jews escaping trouble in Europe and the Middle East settled on the outskirts of the Vatican, their population grew, and soon there were thousands of Jews living in close proximity to that most Catholic of places. Cardinals and bishops were outraged and petitioned the Pope to send his army to clear away the heathens who were, according to Christian dogma, the killers of Christ.
The Pope at that time, his name eludes me, was deeply pious and spent many hours a day communing with God, so at first he ignored these petitions from the bishops and cardinals. But finally he was compelled to listen to their demands, and he said, “Arrange for me to meet with the wisest of the Jews and then I’ll make my decision.”
A proclamation is sent forth into the Jewish community that on such and such a day, at such and such a time, the Pope will be enthroned at the entrance to St. Peter’s awaiting the wisest of the Jews.
As you can imagine this proclamation sends the Jewish community into a tizzy as one group claims their rabbi is the wisest and another group says, “Are you kidding? Our rabbi’s little finger is smarter than that guy.” And so on. The bickering continues night and day, and no one is chosen to speak to the Pope.
The day comes and the Jewish community prepares for the worst. The Pope takes his place on his throne in front of St. Peter’s and a red carpet is rolled across the plaza and lined with soldiers of the Papal Guard. Hundreds of Jews venture as close as they dare to witness the terrible failure of their community leaders to choose a spokesperson.
And who should come walking by just as the momentous moment arrives? Zemel the Fool, an unemployed bum and one of the more problematic members of the Jewish community. He sees the red carpet and all those hundreds of soldiers holding their swords in salute, and he feels inclined to take a stroll down that beautiful red path.
Assumed by the Vatican honchos to be the wisest Jew, Zemel is not impeded in his progress and ere long, after complimenting the soldiers on their nice duds and impressive swords, he comes to where the Pope awaits him.
The Pope looks at the man in rags and is reminded of Saint Francis who eschewed all worldly goods and was a friend to all God’s creatures.
Zemel looks at the Pope and is reminded of his old friend Ezekiel Goldberg who also tended to overdress on warm days.
The Pope raises one finger skyward.
Zemel considers this and raises two fingers.
Now the Pope opens his arms in an expansive gesture.
Zemel thinks for a moment, raises both hands a little, palms up, and shrugs.
Now the Pope takes a bite of a holy wafer and follows this with a sip of wine from a bejeweled goblet.
Zemel nods, takes an orange out of his pocket, peels the orange, and eats it.
The Pope watches Zemel relishing the orange, rises from his throne and proclaims, “The Jews may stay.”
As you can imagine, this gets the cardinals buzzing angrily and they assemble around the Pope and demand an explanation.
“The Jews agree with us entirely,” says the Pope, still elated from his encounter with such a wise person. “They are every bit as reverent and knowing of His truths as we are.”
The Cardinals are dumfounded and ask the Pope to explain further.
The Pope says, “We conversed in the silent language of spiritual understanding. I raised my finger to say, ‘God is the father,’ and he raised two fingers to says, ‘And the son.’ Then I lifted my arms wide to say, ‘God is everywhere,’ and he made the holy gesture that means, ‘God is here.’ Then I ate of the body of Christ and drank of our savior’s blood, and then that wise man ate of the holy fruit of Israel. I tell you the Jews are our brothers and may stay.”
Meanwhile, Zemel is carried back to the Jewish settlement on the shoulders of his cheering brethren and deposited in front of the four most popular rabbis, all of them having watched in horror as Zemel communed with the Pope.
They begrudgingly thank Zemel for saving the community from annihilation, and ask what went on between him and the Pope.
Zemel frowns. “That guy was the Pope? I thought he was just a rich guy with a big house.”
“But what did he say to you and how did you answer?”
“Oh that,” says Zemel, scratching his head. “Well I get there and he puts up one finger that means, ‘I’ll give a you one.’ So I top that with, ‘I’ll give a you two.’ Then he says, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know.’ Then he eats his lunch and I eat mine.”