Research Objectives and Proposed Significance

The precinct in Meron constitutes a sacred space with multiple ritual zones: the shrine complex, the outlying encampments, the makeshift market, and tombs of other tsaddiqim. We would like to conduct detailed ethnographic fieldwork, based on participant observations and interviews, at the many performative arenas in and around the shrine. Since these performative aspects are predicated on cultural scripts and shifting traditions, a diachronic investigation is called for to situate the ethnographic data in the proper historical context. More than juxtaposing materials from the past and the present, we seek to use insights gained in fieldwork in reading historical documents and situate our ethnographic data historically.

The halaka ritual, the first haircut of three-year old male children, mainly of Hasidic background, that takes place in Meron in Lag Ba’Omer, is a case in point. The halaka is a rite of passage par excellence designed to inculcate the values of male identity in small children. As such, it may be compared with other initiation ceremonies studied by anthropologists primarily in tribal societies. But the halaka is also informed by a tapestry of textual sources – biblical, midrashic, mystical and hasidic – the deciphering of which is essential for exhausting the multiple meanings of the ritual as it is conducted today.

1. Meron can serve as a jumping board for studying interethnic, interreligious and intercultural relations in a pilgrimage site. Given that the boundaries of folk strata in religious systems appear more permeable than those of canonical strata, we would like to discuss particular traditions and practices related to the Meron pilgrimage that were informed or influenced by external religious systems. We would like to explore the scope and limits of inclusiveness in Meron in regard to Muslim lore and rituals. There are indications that in different periods Muslims also participated in the celebrations and their impact is still evident in various practices. The aforementioned halaka, for example, although informed by a host of Jewish mystical sources, has clear Muslim roots. From a synchronic perspective, the fact that Rabbi Shimon, as Israel’s “national saint” draws mystically oriented devotees from all the Jewish groups transforms Meron into a laboratory for putting to test classical theories of pilgrimage. One noted example is Turner’s notion of communitas that was examined (and found wanting) in Meron as in other sites. Another example involved the correspondence model of the pilgrimage which was employed to discuss Meron as a symbolic microcosm of Israeli society, manifesting the inequality between the hegemonic European Jews (Ashkenazim) and the underprivileged Mid-Eastern and North African Jews (Mizrahim). This analysis calls attention to the growing popularity of saints and pilgrimages in contemporary Israel as idioms for articulating ethnic identity and sentiments, particularly among Moroccan Jews.

2. From a diachronic perspective, we seek to discuss the historical vicissitudes of the shrine in Meron thoughout the centuies, under different poliical regimes, social circumstances and religious sensibilities. Although textual evidence as to the ritual activity in Meron does not precede the 12th Century, the first documents clearly indicates that at that time, hierophany in Meron was related to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon, the epicenter of the present-day precinct, but rather to the burial cave aattributed to Hillel and Shamai. Thus, the flexibility, fluidity and inventiveness characteristic of traditions of sacred sites at large, can be examined with some detail through the displacements and historical shifts that took place in the sacred space in Meron. A critical event for the shaping of the precinct and the processions and rituals related to it was the rise of Lurianic kabbalah in the 16th Century. This historical event can serves as a juncture for discussing the broader issue of the interface between mysticism and folk-religion, particularly hagiolatric practices. The historical canvas on which the changes in Meron are sketched is not parochial perforce. To bring just one example, the precinct was purchased and the sanctuary in its present shape built in 19th Century by Shmuel Abu, an Algerian Jew who settled in Safed and was nominated a consul by the French. Thus, global trends, related to the growing influence of the European colonial powers in Ottoman-ruled Palestine, were also part of undercurrents that shaped the history of the site.

Meron appears as a very apporpriate arena for exploring analytic issues regarding the interface of religious symbols and personal experiences. We perceive the relations between public and personal symbols as reciprocal and open-ended. While individual believers are constantly affected by religious beliefs – sometimes in ways that are life transforming – religious systems might be altered, rejected, or rejuvenated following dreams, visions, and other personal experiences that constitute new religious convictions and sensibilities. One area in which the interface of religious symbols and personal experiences can be studied in Meron concerns visitational dreams of the saint. On the one hand, this is a recognized cultural genre of sacred discourse, informed by oral and textual traditions from Jewish and Muslim sources. On the other hand, dreams may give vent to subjective experiences that are intimately personal and emotionally charged. Thus, visitational dreams are an appropriate setting for studying how the figure of the saint as a public idiom is transformed into a personal symbol with strong subjective meanings and affective value.