Saturday, May 21, 2011

Lag B’Omer 5771 and the doomsday prophecies

Lag B’Omer 5771 is a gleeful irony of history. Why? Because the same holiday celebrating the Jewish romance with mysticism and secrets behind the revelatory texts paradoxically coincides with the prediction of the end of the world.
For Jews, Lag B’Omer is the celebration of the life and teaching of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, on the anniversary of his death over 1800 years ago. According to legend, upon dying he instructed his disciples that the day of his passing is “the day of [his] joy.” This year, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, the barley harvest, coincides with a prophecy of the end of days.
Rashby, as bar Yochai is known, was the author of the foundational work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar. Tonight and tomorrow, half a million Jews will descend upon Mount Miron in the Galilee, where he is buried, to pay homage to their mystical leader by lighting bonfires and slaughtering sheep. To my sensibility, this is avodah zara, idolatry, in the fullest sense of the word.
According to tradition, God, not humans, buries Moses to avoid the site of his grave becoming a shrine. Jews don’t mark the location of the Sinai revelation because they don’t want to make idols out of land. Why does God ask Moses to build a Mishkan for Him “to dwell in it”? Because holiness exists outside of geography. The only thing close to being holy in the Bible is the land of Israel, and even it is made holy by our actions.
The celebration of Rashby and his mysticism shows how much the idea of hidden meaning has found a place in Judaism. Rashby’s teacher, Rabbi Akiva, gave us the term, “the language of God,” in opposition to Rabbi Yeshmael’s “language of man,” to avoid fundamentalism and strict adherence to the letter of the law in exegesis, but the anti-literalism of the Akiva school can be a pandora’s box. The minute we open the door to mysticism, anything goes and we often end up with radical predictions.
Fox News recently reported, “The [recent] prediction [of the end of the world] originates with Harold Camping, an 89-year-old retired civil engineer from Oakland, Calif., who founded Family Radio Worldwide, an independent ministry that has broadcast his prediction around the world ” Here is the basis of this forecast according to The Telegraph, “The number five, says Camping, represents atonement. 10 represents completeness. 17 represents heaven…Using the three numbers, if you multiply atonement, completeness and heaven, and then, multiply the sum by itself again, you end up with 722,500 i.e. (5 x 10 x 17) x (5 x 10 x 17) = 722,500. If you add the number of days on from the crucifixion, you arrive at, at least in Camping's view, May 21, 2011, the day of the end of the world. ” Some of you may now want to stop reading and start getting ready.
These predictions sound crazy in the hands of an 89 year old radio network owner from California, but they are common place in mystical traditions and go back to the origins of Lag B’Omer. Rabbi Akiva read the verse in Numbers 24:17, “There shall come a star out of Jacob,” and renamed the Jewish warrior, Shimon bar Kosiba, bar Kochva. He then declared that he is the messiah. In the seventeenth century, Nathan of Gaza made a similar claim about Shabtai Zvi, and in recent history many in the Chabad movement have said that the Lubovitcher rabbi was the messiah.
There is something very liberating about mysticism. It creates space for a power in the world that exists but cannot be fully understood. My favorite mysticism is in the texts which use metaphor to explain science of the world. Some claim, for instance, that the Hebrew letters are the DNA or atomic building blocks of all things.
Metaphors are wonderful as long as we acknowledge the fact that we tend to live by them, as Lakoff and Johnson remind us.
The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities.
A hidden system of an all-powerful God’s will, discoverable in texts and complicated calculations, is a dangerous metaphor to live by. By what criterion ought we say that the prophet in California is less qualified to determine hidden meaning from the texts than Rabbi Akiva or Nathan of Gaza. In the time of Shabtai Zvi, half of all world Jewry believed that the messiah was about to reveal himself. Some sold all their worldly possessions, some even moved to Israel. The pilgrims to Mount Miron will account for 4 percent of all Jews worldwide. How many more are pilgrim wannabes? How many believe but are hedging their bets to see what happens to the early-adopters?
Actually, the glee I take from the Lag B’Omer celebrations this year comes from a completely different train of thought. Forget the end of days for a moment and focus on the celebrations themselves. Lag B’Omer starts at the end of Shabbat. The main event of the celebrations is the lighting of bonfires. This year, as last, controversy has arisen from the concern that if Lag B’Omer is celebrated on Saturday night, thousands of secular Israelis will defile the Shabbat by building and lighting their bonfires before the end of the day. I despise religious coercion in Israel, but I love the fact that the religious are so concerned with us fellow Jews that they would even consider changing the date of this minor holiday. That is what Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef wanted to do.
Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas was successful at getting a compromise from his anti-Zionist, Haredi colleagues who moved the lighting of the first fire to midnight tonight. Wow! This may seem like a small feat, but I assure you it is reason for celebration. First of all, it is an expression of Jewish concern for one another. Moving the time of the bonfires symbolically expresses an attempt to prevent fellow Jews from sinning in their efforts to participate in this national celebration. Second of all, this is a victory for internal, civil dialog among Jews in Israel. A Sepharadi, Zionist rabbi was heard by an anti-Zionist, Ashkenazi rabbi and his words were considered. In light of these events and the speech of President Obama this past week, instead of dwelling on doomsday scenarios, I suggest we choose a different metaphor to live in, at least for today. “Yes we can!”

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