Notes on Lag B'Omer

1. My reading of the RSBY narrative continues to evolve. The recent podcast takes a slightly different approach than the series of blog posts. The new "addition" is the two-tiered reading of RSBY's purification of the graveyard - on the external level he was building a bridge (one of the features of society that he critiqued earlier in the story - this is noted by Jeff Rubenstein), but he builds it through halakha (a point made to me by Moshe Simon-Shoshan). In other words, the rabbi/ poseik ideally contributes to the world, makes the world a better place, does "tikkun olam", through the vehicle of halakha. Contrast this with the nay-saying old rabbi in the very next line of the narrative, and you get a very neat opposition between the rabbi, RSBY, who uses his erudition to improve the world - even if it's merely to make life a bit more comfortable - and those who use the same erudition to cast aspersions and deny conveniences. Eruv disputes provide an interesting contemporary parallel. On the deeper level, I returned to the symbolism I developed here, namely, that finding a path through a graveyard connotes the process of moving forward after a major trauma or crisis, a task that fell to RSBY as he and his colleagues rebuilt Judaism after the Bar Kokhba rebellion.

2. Last year, I noted the irony of celebrating Lag B'Omer before Shabbat ends by pointing out that RSBY's mind was put at ease when he emerged from the cave and saw how beloved Shabbat is to the Jews. I suggested then that when Lag B'Omer falls out on Saturday Night, the lighting of bonfires should be postponed. This year, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate called for just such a postponement (even a broken clock is right twice a day), following the call of Rav Ovadia Yosef. I do not see that this call prevented much Shabbat desecration (and religious communities did not heed the call either), but I think it is valuable for another reason (which may get its own post soon enough). The Mapai party, during the years it dominated Israeli politics and culture, created a secular civic religion that essentially hollowed out Jewish rituals and refilled them with new meanings that they supplied (see Liebman and Don Yihya's volume here). To a great extent, this Mapai religion and traditional Judaism in its various forms remained separate spheres, though there was some overlap (imagine it as a Venn diagram). In recent decades, Mapai religion has begun to collapse. There is still an Israeli civic religion, but it draws on traditional Judaism more and more (not necessarily in a halakhic form - there are plenty of non-kosher sukkot and it's always jarring to see people vacuuming their cars on the Shabbat before Pesach). There are still aspects of secular religion that lie outside anything traditional (e.g., the "Adloyada" parades on Purim), but the area of overlap is greater than ever and growing. The Rabbinate's call for a postponement of Lag B'Omer celebrations is a sign that traditional forms of Judaism are "making room" for civic religious praxis to draw more nourishment from the tradition. This is a positive development. For a broader outline of these trends, I recommend some of Yehudah Mirsky's recent essays at Jewish Ideas Daily as well as a recent series of blog posts by Ben Chorin.

3. All that said, my attitude toward the whole bonfire thing is benign tolerance at best, coupled with concern for fire hazards. As a friend pointed out today, "I'm going to make a medura tonight just like I do every Saturday night." Well said (he was referring, of course, to havdala, made over a candle that must have multiple wicks, defined by halakha as a medura).

4. Finally, a public service announcement: next week's event with MK R. Amsalem has been postponed. I will be giving a shiur next Saturday night on the topic of "Chumra in the writings of the Chafetz Chaim and R. Moshe Feinstein." I will be using the former mainly as a foil for the latter, but will present several models of the role and goals of stringency in their writings, and expanding on what I wrote here.

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