Going back to Durkheim, sociologists of religion who assume a functionalist interpretation of religion look to religion and ritual as something that brings and holds a society together, regenerates it. A dys-functionalist approach to the study of religion and ritual would look to how these push a society straight into the arms of death, while those of “us” outside its clearing look on in utter horror.
Asking people who know this better than I do about the development of this particular holiday and this particular facet of it. It can’t have always been like this. I wonder about the celebration of Lag Ba’Omer in Israel. What did people use to do in Russia or Morocco? When did the bonfires get so big? Is this a contemporary phenomenon relative to state sovereignty, something that members of a religious community can do when they feel like they are in charge?
The Lag Ba’Omer holiday is kabbalistic, and in this religious aspect, is associated with death. By way of reminder. the pilgrimage to what tradition says is his tomb at Mt. Meron in Israel is related back to the memory of Shimon bar Yochai, the key protagonist in and reputed “author” of the Zohar, the great lamp. The fires are meant to symbolize, nay manifest the light of holy revelation of the presence of the Shechinah. They re-enact the surrounding fires that illuminated the Rashbi’s final teaching at which point, according to the Zohar, his soul went up in flames (Idra Zuta, Zohar III:287b–296b).
On the death of Shimon bar Yochai, the revealer of secrets, see this discussion here by Melila Hellner-Eshed in A River Flows from Eden: The Language of Mystical Experience in the Zohar (pp.55-6).
Like moths to a burning flame, what if the secret is death?
Last night in Brooklyn, there’s this thread here and more here from Mea Shearim in Jersualem about Haredi religion as a crowd phenomenon at a time of pandemic.