Onkelos vs Empire: a parable of revolutionary Judaism

The Talmud tells a remarkable tale of the conversion to Judaism of a prominent Roman general named Onkelos, and the futile attempts by the outraged Roman Emperor Hadrian to dissuade him from his conversion. In this little story, we get a glimpse of a Judaism that lights a spark of resistance against Empire, a revolutionary Judaism that strikes at the heart of unjust power, and offers a vision of what truly just, safe, and liberated human being-together looks like.

First, the story, from Avodah Zarah 11a-

The Gemara mentions other Romans who converted to Judaism. It relates: Onkelos bar Kelonimos converted to Judaism. The Roman emperor sent a troop [gunda] of Roman soldiers after him to seize Onkelos and bring him to the emperor. Onkelos drew them toward him with verses that he cited and learned with them, and they converted. The emperor then sent another troop of Roman soldiers after him, and said to them: Do not say anything to him, so that he cannot convince you with his arguments. The troops followed this instruction, and took Onkelos with them.

When they were walking, Onkelos said to the troop of soldiers: I will say a mere statement to you: A minor official [nifyora] holds a torch before a high official [apifyora], the high official holds a torch for a duke [dukasa], a duke for the governor, and the governor for the ruler [koma]. Does the ruler hold a torch before the common people? The soldiers said to Onkelos: No. Onkelos said to them: Yet the Holy One, Blessed be He, holds a torch before the Jewish people, as it is written: “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way, and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light” (Exodus 13:21). They all converted.

The emperor then sent another troop of soldiers after him, to bring Onkelos, and said to them: Do not converse with him at all. The troops followed this instruction, and took Onkelos with them. While they grabbed him and were walking, Onkelos saw a mezuza that was placed on the doorway. He placed his hand upon it and said to the soldiers: What is this? They said to him: You tell us.

Onkelos said to them: The standard practice throughout the world is that a king of flesh and blood sits inside his palace, and his servants stand guard, protecting him outside; but with regard to the Holy One, Blessed be He, His servants, the Jewish people, sit inside their homes and He guards over them outside. As it is stated: “The Lord shall guard your going out and your coming in, from now and forever”(Psalms 121:8). Upon hearing this, those soldiers also converted to Judaism. After that, the emperor sent no more soldiers after him.

 

First, some context- the story unfolds in the Roman Empire around the 1st century CE. During this time period, the Emperor Hadrian, who appears in this story, destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, built a pagan temple on its ruins, and passed other harsh anti-Jewish decrees, including a ban on circumcision and a special tax on Jews throughout his empire. Before and after the destruction, Jewish communities had spread throughout the Roman Empire, developing a syncretic Hellenistic Judaism that blended the ways of Torah with elements drawn from the Platonic tradition, Roman paganism, and other aspects of surrounding cultures. The vast Roman Empire, though still the politically and culturally hegemonic force, was in a state of decay, with immorality, decadence, violence, and the other vices of materialism rampant and widespread. In this context, many Romans were drawn to Judaism as an attractive, ethical alternative to the Roman Empire. Some, like Onkelos, converted to Judaism, while others adopted many Jewish practices.

Described as the nephew of the Emperor (some sources say this emperor was Hadrian himself), a prominent high-ranking Roman official, an expert on the world’s religions and a commanding figure in the marketplace, Onkelos decided to leave the state-sponsored pagan religion and join the Jewish people- the same minority tribe which had only recently mounted a vicious rebellion, in Jerusalem, against Hadrian’s rule. This decision enraged Hadrian, who perceived it as a further threat to his unstable rule over the hearts and minds of his empire. By the end of the story, it is clear that indeed, Hadrian has something to be afraid of. Onkelos uses the discourse of Torah itself as a weapon against Empire, with the power to corrode and destabilize its machinations, to transform the hearts and minds of its soldiers away from complicity and towards resistance.

How does Onkelos’s Judaism present an alternative to the status quo so radical, that the soldiers are compelled to drop their weapons and convert? While the Talmud does not record the first set of ‘verses that he cited and learned with [the first troop of soldiers]’, it shows that, when Hadrian sends his second troop to capture him, Onkelos makes explicit, to these soldiers, the coercive, hierarchical norms of their social order- one where those of low rank must ‘hold a torch’ before those above them, in a chain of subservience leading up to the highest sovereign, who wields absolute authority. Then, Onkelos contrasts this earthly model of sovereignty with the divine sovereignty of G-d, a King who, rather than demanding obedience from atop a chain of hierarchy, wields his power to liberate the downtrodden, captive Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and to protect them in their journey towards freedom. Struck by the force of this revelation, the soldiers can no longer perform their role as cogs in the state machinery and, like the first troop of soldiers, drop their weapons and join Onkelos as part of the Jewish people.

The enraged Hadrian sends a third troop of soldiers, unwittingly confirming the truth of Onkelos’s parable by demanding they obey his orders. As this regiment escorts Onkelos out of his home, Onkelos touches the mezuzah (the source for today’s widely-observed custom of touching or kissing a mezuzah upon entering or leaving a building or room). Surprised, the soldiers ask him what he’s doing, and Onkelos explains that, while the earthly king compels armed guards to stand outside his door and defend his rule, the divine King of the Jewish people stands outside the door of each Jew, guarding and blessing their comings and goings. In truth, all the king’s soldiers ultimately cannot protect him; his show of strength betrays a deeper weakness; true safety comes from trusting a power more exalted and compassionate than anything that can be promised by militarism. Again, these soldiers drop their weapons and convert.

Taken together, these Jewish visions offer a model of human cohabitation, and an analysis of power, that radically subverts any model of state power or any attempt by human beings to rule over another through force or coercion. What type of ‘king’, wondered the Roman soldiers with awe, establishes his reign not by ruling over, but by uplifting and protecting those most oppressed by his social order? What type of ‘sovereignty’ can possibly exist without the use of arms?

While the earthly King rules through hierarchy backed up by the threat of violence, Judaism asserts that there is a deeper power which frustrates the designs of Pharoahs, which protects everyone who bears witness to its wonder, regardless of social standing, not with human weapons of war but with a demilitarized divine promise. While the pagan king rules by the edicts of ‘the weak shall obey the stronger’, ‘follow orders’ and ‘the only true Law is the law of force’, the divine King overturns this barbaric earthly order to liberate the captive, protect the vulnerable and subdue the mighty. This higher power protects an entire collective of people, as it wanders through the in-between space of the desert, with the crushing might of Pharoah’s army behind them and the promise of liberation before them; and it protects a single individual, in the in-between space of the doorposts of his home, guarding his coming and goings.

In short, this parable presents Judaism as an anti-militarist, anti-state, counter-hegemonic force of justice, peace and liberation. Like the best elements in Judaism, the message it delivers is both universal- presenting an emancipatory vision and critique of Empire with broad appeal- and particular- speaking vividly of the experiences, yearnings, and values of a single people.

Seen in its historical context, this parable exemplifies the radical critique directed by post-temple Rabbinic Judaism against the Roman Empire. Rome was the imperial power that destroyed the Second Temple, the hegemonic cultural force of paganism in whose empire the Jews now lived as an often precarious and persecuted minority. The Rabbis, charged in the post-Temple era with the task of developing a diasporic Judaism for a dispersed people, mostly regarded the earthly might of Rome with distrust and suspicion, as the paradigm of human greed, materialism and moral bankruptcy. “Why does he compare it [the Roman State] to a swine?” asks a commentary on the book of Genesis, in one of the many moments of commentary criticizing Rome/Edom. “For this reason: when the swine is lying down it puts out its hoofs, as if to [deceptively] say, ‘I am clean,’ so does this wicked State rob and oppress, yet pretend to be executing justice” (Midrash Rabbah – Genesis 65:1).

Rabbinic Judaism identified Rome with Edom, the spiritual force of materialism rooted in the Biblical character of Esau, hunter, man of the flesh, pursuer of strength and all things earthly and physical; twin brother of Jacob, devotee of things intellectual and spiritual, who later was renamed Israel and became spiritual ancestor of the Jewish people. From within the belly of the beast, the rabbinic critique of Esau/Edom came to symbolize, over the centuries, a polemic against not only the Roman Empire but, later, the oppressive forces of European Christianity and the larger Western world. The dance between Jacob and Esau- which, in the Torah, was mostly one of rivalry, discord and competition- became, for the rabbis in the Talmud and beyond, a parable for the cosmic battle between the forces of justice and the forces of materialism, corruption, extravagant wealth, decadence and state violence.

The story of Onkelos and Hadrian’s soldiers, then, is part of a larger radical strain in Jewish thought which uplifts the emancipatory potential of ethical monotheism against the brutal machinations of Empire, colonialism and militarism as well as the profit-driven forces of greed, corruption, and materialism. The story also serves as an optimistic take on conversion, and on the broad (one might even say, universal) appeal of Judaism. In a decaying empire, rife with corruption, collapsing under the weight of its internal contradictions, Judaism had much to offer Onkelos and his fellow Romans, delivering an earth-shattering, foundational critique of Empire that stirred the hearts of the very noblemen and soldiers most sworn to defend the reactionary regime. After his conversion, Onkelos went on to play a very important role in the Jewish people, translating the Torah into Aramaic so it could be understood by the many Jews who, in the age of Hellenization, no longer understood Hebrew. His vital translation, the Targum Onkelos, is considered so holy that today, it is rabbinically mandated to study the weekly Torah portion twice in the original, and once using Targum Onkelos.

Since the destruction of the Second Temple, according to rabbinic tradition, the Jewish people are in the ‘exile of Edom’, the longest, most bitter and final of our exiles before the coming of the Messiah. During this exile of Edom, the Rabbis prophecied, the world will be dominated by forces of materialism, profit-seeking, war, greed and spiritual corruption, under the domineering rule, first of the greedy Roman Empire and then, in more modern times, by the imperial excesses of Western European Christianity. The parallels with today’s world- Trump as Hadrian, America as Edom- are obvious. In our own time- when American Judaism, embedded within a decaying, corrupt, materialist and immoral empire, is finding new spiritual vitality and raising a new moral voice to speak truth to power and express anew our age-old ideals of justice- the story of Onkelos serves to remind us just how revolutionary our voice can be.