Lag Ba'omer approaches - and many of us just can’t breathe. We close the windows, we drink water and lie still - but the fumes persist.
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These days the problem is no longer just our lungs and eyes. It’s our hearts and brains. Lag Ba'omer now delivers theological asthma. Its many, mad, mystical messianic messengers act as the airborne carriers for this ailment. They levitate their fervent devotions to the one Jewish holiday grounded in Eretz Yisrael that doesn’t have a Jerusalem focus (for Purim, Jerusalem is transposed to become an ‘honorary Shushan’ through its ancient walls).
Lag Ba'omer should just be fun, and it’s a holiday even for illiterates – no text or prayers, just burn some wood, to commemorate the bonfires that warned the Jews of the arrival of Roman troops during the Bar Kochba revolt (132-136 CE). And it’s a happy event, signaling the end/interruption (depending on how you count) the restrictive Sefira mourning for the death of 12,000 pairs of learning partners from Rabbi Akiva’s school, who perished fighting. Different, easy and happy: It’s a minor holiday, which is part of its charm.
But then comes the spin. The night-time celebratory torching is traditionally related not to the beloved Rabbi Akiva but to the rather fearsome Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, one of the five or seven (again, depends how you count) of Akiva’s surviving disciples who revived their martyred master’s teachings – and with that, Rabbinic Judaism. And given that the post-Talmudic Zohar – the “illumined” central work of Kabbalah – is attributed to Shimon Bar Yochai, the holiday gravitated to him and to his gravesite in Meron, just outside of Safed.
Through Shimon bar Yochai, Lag Ba'omer thus became the perfect holiday for bringing together two dangerous “know nothing” ideologies: The lovers of Zion, who define Judaism as opposition to the world; and advocates of “pure” Torah (read: Talmud study), who refuse army service and any worldly occupation. Rabbi Shimon brings these hardly identical, but nonetheless rapidly merging ideologies, into one destructive kindling.
We can better understand how these ideologies fit into Lag Ba'omer by revisiting the hyper-popular Talmudic story (found in Tractate Shabbat 33a) that describes the aftermath of the disastrous Bar Kochba defeat and the death-by-torture of Akiva.
Shimon and a few colleagues are discussing the dire situation they find themselves in; one consoles the others that, at the least, the Romans have bequeathed the land an infrastructure of civilization. Shimon rejects the positivity in this assessment, preferring to denigrate completely Rome’s ‘gifts’. This soon turns him in to a wanted man by the Roman authorities. He goes into hiding with his son Elazar in a cave in Meron, where they drink and eat from a miraculously-provided carob tree and spring of water. They bury themselves in sand to save their clothes and learn nonstop for 12 whole years…When they finally leave the cave and see daily life continuing - men farming and neglecting Torah study for “this world” - they eviscerate those commoners with laser-like stares, and head back to their cave beit midrash for another year.
In this story are the two images that are the mythic basis for Israel’s extremist ideologies. First, Shimon bar Yochai, completely set against the world at any cost, even in defeat, is the model for the political religious right wing. Shimon and son learning (with no regard for the needs of the body or the body politic) is the paradigm for the Israel’s Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) camp. In unison, both camps sing at his grave: Bar Yohai, unsheathe thy sword and defend thy people.
They both repeat Shimon’s rejectionism. In the Talmud when his colleague claims: “How noble are the works of this [Roman] nation! They set up marketplaces, they built bridges, they erected bathhouses,” Rabbi Shimon witheringly retorts: “All they made, they made for themselves: marketplaces – to station whores; bathhouses – to pamper themselves; bridges - to levy tolls!”
Shimon’s honest analysis is crudely aped by today’s extremist ideologues. The religious political right, confronted with Western (itself a trigger!) value claims of globalism, tolerance and democracy see a cover for world anti-Semitism, for suicidal surrender, and Jewish national weaknesses. When the Haredim are confronted with the notions of universal truths, the right and privilege of working and supporting one’s family and the need to defend one’s country, they counter immediately with a particularistic language that favors the arcane and obtuse: The labelling of work as the definition of wasting time and the failure of a holy vocation and - in this case, acceding to a Western concept - they relate to Israel’s army at best as favorable for outsourcing the dirty work of defending the people.
The common denominator of these ideologies is a radicalizing of positions that have of themselves fundamental worth: Love of land and people for one group, and the love of Torah for the other.
But the unusual extremism of these positions in today’s Israel can only lead to a fire that literally self-combusts. Not light and warmth, but a sudden glare that blinds and a quick, intense heat that scorches and destroys.
In the early morning after Lag Ba'omer when all that is left is choking smoke and dead embers, the Haredim will still be illiterate and impoverished, angry and frustrated; and the right will be bewildered by Israel’s growing isolation that it will attempt to deny. And the glory of Torah will not be magnified. Hand me my inhaler.
Rabbi Landes is Director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches the Senior Kollel Talmud class and Theology. The views expressed are his own.