Touching upon the history and anthropology of Jewish religion, as well as concluding methodological reflections. With many thanks to Joshua Schwartz and Shari Rabin, respectively, for the kindness of sharing their expertise and these two scholarly references re: the pilgrimage to and pilgrimage site at Mt. Meron in Israel during the Lag Ba’Omer holiday.
The first speaks to the history of the rite and the development of the site by the Ministry of Religion between the years 1948-1968. It relates to questions I posed here at the blog and on FB about the rite’s modest origins and when and how the pilgrimage turned into a mass event involving hundreds of thousands of people. The pages are from Doron Bar, Ha’mekomit ha’kedoshim ha’yehudiim b’medinat Yisrael 1948-1968 (Jerusalem: Yad Ben Zvi), pp.127-37. I am including these photographs of the text that Joshua sent to me.
The second are two articles, one by Edith Turner and one by Barbara Meyerhoff as edited by Turner that appears in Renato Rosaldo, Smadar Lavie, and Kirin Narayan (eds.), Creativity/Anthropology; Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018. You can find the Turner here and the Meyerhoff here. Alas, both contribution are a bit heavy on myth and symbolism. Edith Turner’s own ethnographic observation begins relatively late in the essay (p.239). She includes a charming vignette of Mr. Turner on pilgrimage at Meron. In her account, there are more Moroccan women than Hasidic men.
Turner’s focus is Shimon Bar Yochai, the “visionary man.” Regarding the emergence of the cult, Turner points briefly to the early period of the state, to 1955, with the convergence of Moroccan Jews and Hasidic Jews who survived the Holocaust as the two religious communities in Judaism most dedicated to Rashbi and the Zohar. Of interest to me here is how the event developed over time, more and more people coming every year, already in the hundreds of thousand, the organization of transportation links, the establishment of temporary markets and tent cities to accommodate the people, and so on (pp.230-2, 239). (About the role of the state, I’d prefer as more precise the discussion above by Doron Bar)
For her part, Meyerhoff in her field notes pays a lot attention to the dream aspect of religion and religious ritual while relating to her own trip to Israel in 1983 with Edith and Victor Turner, touching alas too quickly to the dreams of Moroccan Jewish women in Israel relating to Rashbi and Lag Ba’Omer. In conclusion, Meyerhoff touches upon methodological questions that should be of concern to all students of religion.
If one does religious study in a proper and religious manner, this is well done . But there will be no new information, since all that is religious is already known, eternal and immutable .
If one does a religious study with a nonreligious attitude, this is improper and will not give a valuable interpretation; there is no hope of an understanding.
If one does a nonreligious study with a religious attitude, one is a fool. There is only dogma, no new information.
If one does a nonreligious study with a nonreligious attitude, one is a bore and boring. This is mere secular trivia, for engineers , not anthropologists. (p.222)
How is one to learn, then?
Perhaps the clue is in the abacus, not a computer nor an adding machine, but an ancient and very precise instrument, never mechanical the device here for probing beneath the words into their iconic value, the gematria: the mystery that underlies the talk.
For something a little less romantic, see this story here about dozens of young Haredi men breaking into the Rashbi tomb when the site was officially closed during the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic