Middle Israel: The messiah's bonfire

Lag Ba'omer is the one Jewish holiday Middle Israelis come to loathe once they become parents.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
As has once been discussed here ("Strange fire," May 19, 2006), Lag Ba'omer is the one Jewish holiday Middle Israelis come to loathe once they become parents. Not only is it a celebration of pyromania, vandalism and stench, the bonfires around which it has come to revolve are probably rooted in paganism. Worse, the story behind the celebration that annually unnerves fire stations, emergency wards and construction sites remains murky. Unlike Hanukka, Purim or Pessah, this day has no constitutional document like the books of Maccabees, Esther or Exodus, only sporadic, belated and cryptic passages in the Talmud and midrash, and some succinct, if harsh, paragraphs in the writings of Roman historian Cassius Dio and early Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea. True, between these and some archeological findings we do get a pretty clear picture of a bold rebellion that was much better organized, and far more fateful, than Judea's Great Revolt. This one had a clear and undisputed leadership, aided by a local military industry of sorts and backed by a large part of the Diaspora, which is also why it was crushed much more brutally and lastingly. Our kindergarten teachers told us that as the Jews lost their Temple, they also lost their land. That's not true. The Jews lost Judea only in the aftermath of the Bar Kochba Revolt. While the revolt of 66-73 CE left the Jewish settlement outside Jerusalem largely intact, the Bar Kochba Revolt, according to Cassius, saw 585 Jewish villages leveled as "almost the entire land of Judea became desolate." Why, then, did Judaism - a religion otherwise so adept at remembering and commemorating - not share with us, in a clear and explicit way, the story of Bar Kochba, or at least just what exactly happened on the date of Lag Ba'omer? Apparently, because this rebellion involved monumental rabbinical misjudgment, as its supreme luminary, Rabbi Akiva, declared the ferocious warrior alongside him as the messiah. And that is also where this holiday becomes so relevant for the modern Jewish state, providing a much needed annual moment in which to gauge our proximity to Jewish history's most dangerous fire - messianism. BAR KOCHBA et al. had good reasons to rebel against Rome. The Romans - inspired by Emperor Hadrian's insistence that it constituted mutilation - had outlawed circumcision and decided to build a pagan shrine on the Temple Mount. If these aren't provocations, what are? The problem was that the Jews underestimated the Romans' resources and overestimated theirs, besides altogether parting with reality in believing their leader was divinely chosen. Thus, while their cause was noble, their struggle lacked flexibility and soon ended in catastrophe. The result of this dereliction was the spectacular calamity for which subsequent generations of Jews paid with total powerlessness. In fact, the sages now went to the other extreme, from blessing adventurism to decreeing defeatism, as they forbade Judea's military conquest until the messiah arrives. That type of passive messianism was no less wrongheaded than Rabbi Akiva's active messianism, as it, too, diminished the role of rationality in dealing with power. Understandably, the Jews kept searching for a human redeemer, and occasionally thought they actually met him, most memorably when they followed the false messiah Shabtai Zvi , who they - and their rabbis - really believed was about to restore the Ten Lost Tribes from beyond the River Sambatyon, then subjugate the sultan, and finally rebuild the Temple. That, too, ended in heartbreak, as the perceived messiah - faced with a choice of being executed - converted to Islam. Now the rabbis, much the way their predecessors had responded to Rabbi Akiva's misjudgment, avoided - and in some cases obstructed - the documentation of this messianic fiasco, hoping that if only properly swept away, it would be fully forgotten. WHAT, THEN, does our own messianic balance sheet read? If Israel's situation ever faced an analogy to Rome, namely a superpower that provoked the Jewish soul, it was the Soviet Union, the empire that caged one part of the Jewish people and helped attack another. The modern Jewish state treated this superpower with all the caution and sobriety Bar Kochba and his colleagues avoided. Yes, it stood up to that power, accessing its Jews despite the risks, spying on it, fighting its proxies and in one case even downing several Red Army fighter planes. Still, the modern Jewish state always made sure not to overplay its hand and was never caught confronting any superpower alone. That was in the black column. The red column quickly filled up the morning after the Six Day War. That's when all messianic hell broke loose, whether in the form of secular generals who worshipped firepower, or in the form of Rabbi Kook's disciples who mystified soil, or in the form of the Lubavitch Hassidim who declared their saint the messiah, or in the form of cosmopolitan secularists who mystified peace, believing it could be imposed even on implacable enemies. These, while at odds with each other, were all equally stung by the ancient Jewish bug of messianism, and at various opportunities nearly doomed Israel the way Bar Kochba and Rabbi Akiva doomed Judea. The neo-pagan military hawks of '67 - Sharon, Dayan, Ze'evi, Weizman, Eitan et al. - inspired the arrogance that invited the '73 war's outbreak; Rabbi Kook's disciples took the Zionist settlement project to extremes that provoked too many gentiles and alienated too many Jews; and the mystification of peace by the Oslo Accords' prophets has bred violence that has yet to abate. Fortunately, most of us have long since sobered up. Yes, messianism still plagues thousands here. Yet most of us are by now post-messianic, not because of some philosophical introspection, but because of personal experiences that have taught us - the hard way - that life is more complex than any messianic bravado, whether it be "we are invincible," or "we are chosen," or "peace is done with enemies," or "we want mashiach now." Think of that today, as you retrieve from the washing machine your kid's hopelessly charcoaled T-shirt, while outside the window the embers of last night's bonfires quietly smolder away. www.middleisrael.com