Monday, April 29, 2013
The Bar Yochai Cult
I usually try to keep theology out of these postings, as I hardly think I am in any sort of position to be issuing any sort of authoritative theological pronouncements about anything.
I do have a pet peeve however about the Lag B'Omer festivities (just completed) and the misrepresentation of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in those by some fringe movements in Israel and elsewhere. Not that secular Israelis have any better idea of what Lag B'Omer is about. Most think it is about shooting bows and arrows ("at the Romans") and holding hootenannies around campfires, singing campfire songs.
Shimon Bar Yochai of course was an important Talmudic figure and there are also lots of legends about him. The writing of the Zohar is traditionally attributed to him, although there are lots of considerations that raise questions about the historic accuracy of this assertion. I am not sure it matters whether he actually authored the book or not. Would it really make a difference if it could be disproved that King David authored all the psalms, another traditional attribution? In any case, I should also add that I have never studied Zohar, for the simple reason that my mastery of Talmud and related traditional texts is insufficient to consider doing so. The little "Zohar or Kabbala Institutes" that are cropping up, like the one where Madonna pretends to study, are obscene examples of sacrilege in my opinion, Chilul HaShem. And they basically promote paganistic beliefs in magic.
My problem with the Lag B'Omer festivities is the way that fringe Jewish religious groups turn the figure of Bar Yochai into a great magician. In general I am repulsed by those who misrepresent religion as magic. I am repulsed by the idea of "magic amulets" (as is traditional Judaism and as are all serious rabbis) and similar charms.
Leaflets and ads are all over Israel this week urging people to "pray to Bar Yochai" and ask for his intervention, promising that he will deliver miracles, and that he already has delivered many. Tens of thousands flock to his grave site on Mt Meron for Lag B'Omer. A few years back Rabbi Shach, one of the most ultra-conservative Chareidi Rabbis in Israel, was asked why he never attends these festivities on Mt. Meron. He described them as obscene and said that anyone truly wishing to celebrate the life and teachings of Bar Yochai should stay home and study his books, not run to Mt. Meron and light bonfires.
Bar Yochai is not the only Talmudic figure to whom these fringe groups urge people to pray. Similar cults exist for the graves of Meir Baal Ha-ness and others. And of course there are some parallels with the way many Lubavitchers or Chabadniks regard the late Chabad Rabbi.
Let me be clear. In Judaism it is completely prohibited to pray to righteous men, saints, or rabbis (dead or alive). This is clearly considered to be a form of paganism. One is prohibited from praying to Bar Yochai (or anyone else) to ask for his intervention with God; instead one prays directly to God to ask for anything one wishes with no need or justification for intervention by anyone else. One may not even pray to Moses or Elijah. Those who hang about the grave shrines of Rabbis (or cemeteries) and ask for money to pray on behalf of other people are charlatans and ghouls and should be immediately subjected to investigation by the income tax authorities.
And what of the claims by the Bar Yochai cult groups that Bar Yochai is performing miracles as we speak from the grave? Well, there is a name for people who believe that a righteous man is performing miracles from the grave to assist those alive today. Such a person is known as a Christian. Such a belief is fine for someone practicing Christianity but is totally alien to Judaism.