The Strange Case Of Israel's Red Heifer

HER NAME IS Melody, and she whiles away her days oblivious to the controversy that surrounds her. Some would like to put a bullet in her head. Others want to burn her to cinders. But the greatest troubles Melody knows are the flies that swarm about her pen. Melody, a red heifer, was born on an ordinary farm in northern Israel last year. But to observant Jews, there is nothing ordinary about her. A couple of millenniums ago, in the era of the first and second Jewish Kingdoms, the ashes of a red heifer, butchered in her third year, were mixed with water and used to purify Jews before they could approach the Holy Temple on Jerusalem's Temple Mount. Not since the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70, however, has a red heifer been born in Israel, Judaica scholars say. Some Israelis have greeted Melody's arrival as a wondrous portent for the new millennium; others view her as an ominous threat to Middle East peace.

The furor springs from the fact that some devout Jews see Melody's birth as a sign from God that the coming of the Messiah is nigh. Many Muslims, and some less observant Jews, are concerned that extremists might take the red heifer as a signal to destroy the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosques, which now occupy Jerusalem's Temple Mount. That would clear the way for the construction of a third Jewish temple - and possibly provoke a war. ""The potential harm from this heifer is far greater than the destructive properties of a regular terrorist bomb,'' wrote journalist David Landau in the influential Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. Landau has suggested the heifer's rapid, unceremonious, dispatch.

He may be overreacting, but there is precedent. In the early '80s, a handful of Jewish militants were arrested and convicted of plotting to blow up the two mosques. And sentiment still runs strong. Gershon Solomon founded the Temple Mount Faithful Movement 30 years ago to press for the hill's liberation from what he calls ""Muslim imperialist occupation.'' His followers periodically challenge the Israeli government's longstanding stricture against Jewish prayer anywhere on the Temple Mount, apart from the Western Wall. Solomon sees Melody's advent as an omen, ""another sign that we are very close to the rebuilding of the temple,'' he says. ""This will [allow] big crowds of Orthodox Jews to join us in our campaign to liberate the Temple Mount.''

Among those hoping that predictions of heightened unrest don't pan out are Israeli tourist officials who, in the year 2000, want to attract hordes of Christian tourists to, of all places, Armageddon. The Book of Revelation names Armageddon - or Megiddo, as it's known in Hebrew - as the site of the final, all-consuming battle between good and evil. The Israeli National Parks Authority has approved a multimedia reconstruction of Armageddon on the site of its ruins, 15 miles southeast of Jerusalem. High-tech prayer grottoes will enable pilgrims to contemplate the final showdown with the aid of virtual reality. But if the recent plunge in tourism at Megiddo is any guide, continued trouble will keep the visitors virtual, millennium or not.

Melody, of course, is just one potential threat to peace in a region that seldom lacks a light for its tinder. And she may not even be the hot discovery first imagined. Under Jewish law, Melody - who's really sort of auburn, when you get right down to it - must be immaculately red. Melody's local rabbi, for one, doesn't think she'll pass muster. ""I'm very doubtful whether she is kosher,'' says Rabbi Shmaria Shore, pointing to a pair of white hairs in Melody's tail, white whiskers in her snout and eyelashes that are red only on one end. ""If I really thought she was, I'd send her away to an undisclosed location.'' She may turn out to be more red herring than red heifer - which may be better for everyone.