The Cult of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai in Meron – Scientific Background

The shrine of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai in Meron stands out as the most popular pilgrimage center in Israel. As a complex, multidimensional phenomenon, informed by a centuries-old tradition and attracting up to 250.000 celebrants on the saint’s hillulah day in Lag Ba’Omer, the cult of Rabbi Shimon calls for a comprehensive, interdisciplinary exploration. We seek to employ a combined diachronic and synchronic perspective in order to explore the textual, performative, and experiential aspects of the cult of the saint in Meron. Our study is informed methodologically by the growing collaboration between anthropologists and historians and is set theoretically and substantively against the vast literature on pilgrimage and saint worship in the social sciences and the humanities.

1. Between anthropology and history. In recent years [historians and anthropologists have come to the realization that binary oppositions such as synchronic versus diachronic, system versus event, and text versus praxis, that drove the two disciplines into divergent trajectories, are phenomenologically misleading and analytically stultifying.] History has been anthropologized through diverse processes: the emergence of “ethnographic” genre of historical accounts, focusing on daily practices and minute life events; the employment of theoretical and conceptual tools cultivated in anthropology by scholars such as Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, and Clifford Geertz; The burgeoning interest in history “from below” and microhistory; the popularity of notions such as collective memory and invented traditions – concocted of myth and record and manifested in folk and oral traditions; and the rise of epistemological concerns related to author’s positionality and rhetoric of representation in writing history.

At the other pole, anthropology has been historicized through the growing awareness that cultural categories are always realized in a specific historical context, and expressed in the interested action of historic agents (Faubion, Geertz, Sahlins). Most current ethnographies are not locked in “the ethnographic present” any more, though their historical depth is ordinarily not of long duree. The shrine in Meron is exceptional in this sense, offering an interdisciplinary research setting in which data from ethnographic fieldwork can be evaluated against several centuries of historical documentation.

2. Pilgrimage and saint worship. The salience and prevalence of pilgrimages in many divergent religious systems have made it a prime object of investigation in religious studies, anthropology, and history. Still, theoretical models of the pilgrimage are meager in comparison with the rich documentation of sacred voyages. Mircae Eliade viewed pilgrimage as resulting from the basic human urge to move from chaos to cosmos. By drawing nearer to the meaning-giving sacred center located at the navel of earth (axis mundi), a sense of orientation and rejuvenation is restored. Correspondence theory, cultivated in sociology, ponders the pilgrimage as a symbolic microcosm of society. This resonance makes the pilgrimage a privileged arena for endorsing core values and sanctifying hegemonic institutions. In anthropology, Victor Turner’s interpreted the pilgrimage as an extended rite of passage in which the pilgrim, moving from society’s centers to the “center out there” in the periphery, enters a liminal stage, bereft of the social divisions, statuses, and positions that constrain ordinary reality. This transformative state invokes a strong sense of equality, fraternity and exultation among the pilgrims, which Turner labeled communitas.

Given the wide scope and variability of pilgrimages across the globe, it is not surprising that the applicability of these models, when put to empirical test, has been found limited at best. As a complex and heterogeneous phenomenon emerging in wide-ranging religious contexts, pilgrimages defy one unifying conceptual formulation. The models presented should be viewed as partial truths applicable to particular classes of pilgrimage. Thus, Eliade’s concentric model (from periphery to center) appears particularly fitting when the pilgrimage is a basic duty inscribed in the religious canon and replete with formal processions and rituals (e.g. the hajj to Mecca in Islam, the tri-annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem in Biblical Israel). Turner’s ex-centric model resonates with pilgrimages pertaining to popular religion and voluntary in nature (e.g. pilgrimage as ziyara or hillulah in Muslim and Jewish saint worship respectively). Turner’s model appears more applicable to the Meron pilgrimage then Eliade’s, but the fit of his notions (e.g. communitas) to the Lag Ba-Omer hillulah should not be taken for granted. In our research, we seek to use the various conceptual formulations of the pilgrimage as heuristic devices without committing ourselves exclusively to any one theory.

Aside from highlighting the cultural bases, religious motives, and spiritual experiences of the pilgrims, studies have focused on the political and economic preconditions, concomitants and consequences of pilgrimages on the local, national and international levels. The role of sainted figures and their shrines and pilgrimages as emblems of ethnic and national pride has also been explored in different sociocultural settings, and so were the historical vicissitudes of the pilgrimage in the age of modernization and globalization. A particularly rich body of research explores and highlights the intricate relations between tourism and pilgrimage. As against one-dimensional approaches that either view the tourist as the secular equivalent of the pilgrim or as its cultural mirror image, Recent scholarship allows for different degrees of hybridity between the two pheonomena, depending on the “depth” and of the participants’ experiences and their quest for alternative center. We seek to use the vast literature on these “exterior” aspects of the pilgrimage in analyzing the organizational, political, economic, and touristic-recreational facets of the Pilrimage to Meron.