I’ve long enjoyed Jewish humor for its self-deprecating light-heartedness, and its sometimes surprisingly deep insights into the heart and soul of people in general. There are many classics of the genre out there, and some have become very popular in the general community.
David M. Bader is a Jewish author who’s definitely made the crossover to widespread non-sectarian acceptance. From his first book, “How To Be An Extremely Reform Jew” in 1994, his humor and witticisms have been widely quoted and admired (so much so that much of it is now spread across the Internet without attribution to him as the author). I’ve enjoyed several of his books, which include (in roughly chronological order):
- Haikus for Jews: For You, a Little Wisdom
- Zen Judaism: For You, a Little Enlightenment
- Haiku U: From Aristotle to Zola, 100 Great Books in 17 Syllables
Today’s snippet will be from two of his books. I’ll start with his most recent work, “The Book of Murray: The Life, Teachings, and Kvetching of the Lost Prophet“.
In the modern world, the lives and teachings of biblical prophets often seem remote and dim in our consciousness. And of all these narratives, The Book of Murray may well be the dimmest. This little-known work, a relatively recent addition to the religious canon, has baffled biblical scholars since its discovery. Still, it is assigned reading at some universities and seminaries, possibly because it is very difficult to get anyone to read it voluntarily.
The saga of how The Book of Murray first came to light begins in the land of Israel in ancient times. It resumes centuries later in Boca Raton, Florida, on the 14th hole of the golf course at Kibbitzing Pines Country Club. There, on either his third or fifteenth attempt to chip out of a sand trap (accounts vary), retired hosiery importer Leo Plotnick struck something hard and hollow.
When he investigated, he was surprised to discover a buried earthenware vessel. Inside it were scrolls of parchment, untouched and unread for thousands of years, filled with sacred writings painstakingly inscribed with a primitive stylus, all covered with some sort of mold that was murder on his sinuses. Among these scrolls, now known as the Boca Scrolls, was one bearing the title The Book of Murray.
Experts who examined The Book of Murray immediately questioned its authenticity. How had scrolls purporting to be from biblical times made their way to Florida? Why were they so different in both tone and appearance from other ancient scrolls? Most importantly, why was there no mention of anyone named Murray in other biblical texts? The result was a schism among biblical scholars so great that a number of them called for the manuscript to be taken back to the golf course and reburied in an even deeper hole.
The historical significance of The Book of Murray began to emerge only when carbon dating showed that the scrolls were indeed quite old. Soon after, stains on the parchment—confirmed to contain trace amounts of brisket—were removed to reveal the complete text. For years, scholars had been puzzling over the stark contrasts between modern Judaism and the world of the Israelites of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. Leviticus might contain guidance on keeping kosher, but where was the scriptural support for pocketing a dinner roll from a buffet “for later”? In The Book of Murray, scholars finally found answers. Here was the missing link that showed that today’s Jews and their ancestors had more in common than previously seemed imaginable.
And yet, The Book of Murray continues to raise as many questions as it answers. Who was Murray? Will his teachings add significantly to our understanding of important religious principles? And why was his book buried where it was?
Prophetic words spoken in one age are not always entirely intelligible in another. This is especially the case when, as with The Book of Murray, they were not entirely intelligible the first time around. For all its difficulties, though, The Book of Murray offers a unique perspective on the distant past that explains much about the present. Three thousand years after it was written, Murray’s age-old yet oddly contemporary wisdom still teaches us much about ourselves.
The prophets of ancient Israel—men such as Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah—while divinely inspired, were deeply involved in the world around them. So too was Murray. The pages that follow remind us that these men of God were very much students of the human condition. They also remind us that some of them were better students than others.David M. Bader
The Birth of the Prophet
And it came to pass that the descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob went into Canaan, for they sought water and pasture for their flocks. And it was a place of peaceable hills and valleys, with rains that came in due season, low crime, low taxes, and a goodly public school system. Verily, it was a land flowing with milk and honey.
And they were called the Tribe of Levi (Relaxed Fit) and these were their generations: Jedidiah begat Zedidiah, and Zedidiah begat Zebediah, and Zebediah begat Obadiah, and Obadiah begat Irving. And Irving took unto him a wife, Francine, and they were called the Silvermans. But they were without child and begat no one.
And the Silvermans prayed and beseeched the Lord to open Francine’s womb, yet her womb remained closed. And they made burnt offerings of rams and heifers and loaves of barley to the Lord, but it availed them not. And they offered coffee rings and bagels and white-fish salad to the Lord, yet she did not conceive. And they tried everything, even sex, but still she was barren of child. And they wept.
Then Francine went up to Mount Sinai to seek counsel from the Lord. And she went up also to a specialist at Cedars Sinai for a second opinion. And she promised the Lord that, if he would give her a child, she would give the child up in service unto the Temple for all the days of his life, though not all the evenings. And the Lord heard her prayers and answered them.
So it came to pass that she bore a son. And they called him “Murray,” meaning “he whose parents have planned his life without consulting him.” And they were sad no more.
The Early Years
And when the child was weaned, his mother brought him to the Temple with three bullocks, one ephah of flour, and a box of Pampers. For though he was weaned, he was not yet toilet trained. And she said unto the High Priest of the Hebrews, “Here is the child I promised the Lord. He shall abide with thee and serve the Lord for all the days of his life, though not all the evenings.”
And the High Priest of the Hebrews said, “Um, thanks but no thanks. Really. We’re fine here.”
And Murray went back home and remained there.
And when Murray was older, his mother returned him to the Temple once more that he might abide there and serve the Lord. And the child did remain to minister unto the Lord before the High Priest of the Hebrews to the best of his ability, which was not great. For on parents’ day, the High Priest did upbraid his mother with harsh words, saying, “Thy son speaketh barely a word of Hebrew.”
And she said unto him, “Is that such a big deal?”
And the High Priest of the Hebrews answered, “At this point in history, it’s our only language.”
And Murray’s mother was ashamed and she did weep and wail and rend her garments. And she insisted unto the High Priest that Murray was very gifted and that he just tested poorly.
Yet despite his mother’s prayers for him, Murray continued to worship below his grade level until it was quietly suggested that he pursue a less demanding vocation, such as goat herding or advertising. For though he was promised to the Lord, he was a washout.
So Murray departed from the House of the Lord and went forth into the house of his parents, specifically the finished basement, where he dwelt rent-free.
And he found work among the crops in the fields, planting in the planting season and harvesting in the harvest season.
For to every thing there is a season: a time to sow, a time to reap, and a time in between to work as a bartender.
And Murray also did odd jobs in the orchards and vineyards. And though his pay was meager, Murray was content, because he was a humble person and because it was all off the books.
Next, here are some samples from “Zen Judaism: For You, a Little Enlightenment“.
If you wish to know The Way, don’t ask for directions. Argue.
Be here now. Be someplace else later. Is that so complicated?
To find the Buddha, look within. Deep inside you are ten thousand flowers. Each flower blossoms ten thousand times. Each blossom has ten thousand petals. You might want to see a specialist.
Let go of pride, ego and opinions. Admit your errors and forgive those of others. Relinquishment will lead to calm and healing in your relationships. If that doesn’t work, try small-claims court.
The enlightened monk attains permanent liberation – Nirvana. The unenlightened returns again and again to the wheel of suffering. Infinite deaths, infinite rebirths, infinite circumcisions.
If there is no self, whose arthritis is this?
Enlightenment is a sudden, wordless understanding. Stop telling everyone already.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Forget this and attaining Enlightenment will be the least of your problems.
Do not kvetch. Be a kvetch. Become one with your whining.
If you meet the Buddha on the path, show him the photos of the grandchildren.
Drink tea and nourish life. With the first sip, joy. With the second, satisfaction. With the third, Danish.
What use is profit? Can accumulating money day after day in a trade or business truly bring satisfaction? Of course not. For that, one must go shopping.
To practice Zen and the art of Jewish motorcycle maintenance, do the following: get rid of the motorcycle. What were you thinking?
From his high vantage point, the Buddha was able to perceive with complete clarity not just the past and the present but also the future. Practicing Zen, you, too, can begin to anticipate what others, with less elevated perspectives, cannot. Then you can say, “I told you so.”
One inch of meditation, one inch a Buddha. Inch by inch, through constant meditation, you can reach his six-foot height. Then meditate a little longer to get the waistline.
Enter into your inner self and behold the eye of the soul. Gaze upon your original face before you were even born. Shocked? Remember, this was before the nose job.
Zen is not easy. It takes effort to attain nothingness. And then what do you have? Bupkes.
Gentle, self-deprecatory humor. Both books are classics of their kind.