Meron – Where Lifestyle Demands Risk Taking – and Soul-Searching is not an Option

Just as the oblivious are oblivious to being oblivious, fanatics are oblivious to their fanaticism. People who live within subcultures where extreme zeal is the norm view mainstream society as abnormal. Excessive and unreasonable religiosity appears ordinary if you swim in a subculture unmoored from enlightenment and reason.  

Where is the boundary between the religious pilgrim and religious fanatic?  Between the religiously observant (which I consider myself) and the fanatic? I’m not sure.

Some Hindus voluntarily let themselves be trampled by specially decorated cows as a sign of piety. Most Hindus don’t.  Most Muslims come and go on haj. Some Muslim pilgrims have been stampeded in Mecca. Even Buddhists by the hundreds have been killed on pilgrimages.

All opiates the masses turn to have some inherent danger. Sports fanatics have also been stampeded to death. So have disco, rock concert, and nightclub revelers.

These thoughts race through my mind as  I try to process the events overnight (Thursday-Friday, April 30) at Mt. Meron, where at least 44 believers were crushed to death and dozens more hospitalized as they pushed their way toward a shrine.

Traditionally – or superstitiously – take your pick, many of the ultra-faithful spend the Lag B’Omer festival at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a Mishnaic sage for his hillula (yahrzeit).

Rebbes and clerics with clout control who lights the massive bonfires, who gets close.

It all has something to do with the mystical Book of Zohar, a devastating ancient plague that ended on Lab B’Omer, and the conclusion of the counting of days between the Passover and Shavuot festivals.

Yet, the reasons for the mega-pilgrimage need not detain us since embellishments and evolving legends are organic to things religious as sects and seers infuse further meaning into an existing ritual.

Besides anthropologists, who goes to the Meron pilgrimage?  

Individuals on the ultra-religious and politically fanatic spectrum. Not just the nutters of (militantly anti-Zionist) Toldot Aharon and their ilk, and not just (Hardal) MK Itamar Ben-Gvir and his ilk, but also your garden variety adolescent boys and young men (and women) channeling passion via religious zeal. Seekers. Believers. Chabad messianics. Ex-cons. Good people, most. The lost and the bored. People suffering ennui looking to be part of something significant and meaningful.

If this had been a tragedy that befell non-Haredim their clerics would be implying that the loss of life was avoidable if only – and this is a partial list in progress – the dead had not had sex with their menstruating wives, the boys had not masturbated, the females had dressed modestly, everyone had checked their mezuzahs, and scrupulously observed the sabbath in an ultra-Orthodox manner… for as we know such flaws led to the Holocaust and IDF helicopter accidents. 

In the instance of Meron, we can rule out Reform Judaism as a reason (which some rabbis say led to the Shoah).

Why would people want to crowd together at a time when the COVID epidemic is still a real threat? Why would they shlep their young children to such a place? Especially since getting back in time for Shabbat would be a problem. 

For the same reason, they continually behaved immaturely during the height of the COVID-19 plague: because the survival of their subculture demands risk-taking. Insularity from the mainstream necessitates the ongoing, daily, collective life of the sect. 

Collateral deaths are the price to pay for the lifestyle they have chosen.

In the days ahead, the long beards and their apologists will blame the police (whose instructions the fanatics routinely disregard and cops they effortlessly slur as Nazis). They will blame the government (though Prime Minister Netanyahu is deep in their pocket). Or the Egged bus service. 

However, very few will do any meaningful soul-searching. Almost none will question their lifestyle. 

It never ends. On May 9-10, a different subdivision of Jewish zealots will seek to clash with Muslim religious fanatics on the Temple Mount. Fanaticism fuels itself.

What makes last night’s calamity so painfully throbbing is that it encapsulates so much of what is broken in the State of Israel in 2021 – disregard of law and order, indifference toward Derech Eretz, selfishness, religious smugness, political drift, and a spiritual vacuum at the national level.

בָּרוּךְ דַּיַּן הָאֱמֶת

About Elliot Jager

Published by Elliot Jager

In my briefings and blog, I contextualize Israeli politics and explore Jewish civilization. As a collaborative editor, I make your writing clear & compelling.

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