Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Vernacular Dialectics: Spiritual Practices of Tsaddik Veneration by Secular Israelis

Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Vernacular Dialectics: Spiritual Practices of Tsaddik Veneration by Secular Israelis

Article excerpt

In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.

-David Ben-Gurion (the first prime minister of Israel)

brahot is a 50-YEAR-OLD woman from tel aviv who has performed many pilgrimages to sacred graves in Israel and Morocco.1 During one such nightly pilgrimage in 1999, she complained about the responses by those around her to her participation in faith-related travel:

My husband thought that I was acting silly. He doesn't believe in any of this spirituality. My neighbors said that it was just my 40s crisis. My co-workers were sure 1 was becoming religious and warned me about "the slippery slope." But I knew. I felt it was right and that I was not doing it for anyone, just for myself. So I did it, and here I am. People can think that the good things that happen when you visit [sacred graves] are just a coincidence, but I know that travelling here helps because of the special powers of the place. I can't explain it and I don't want to become more religious. I just want to do what I like without people criticizing me all the time. (Brahot 1999)2

A proclaimed secular person, Brahot feels deep cleavages between the rationalisticscientific agendas that she shares with her secular acquaintances and her emotional attraction to pilgrimages. She is not interested in converting to Orthodox Judaism, but several friends think that her spiritual quest inevitably leads to increased religious observance. Brahot separates pilgrimage from other Jewish practices. She interprets these unique travels as opportunities to experience condensed spirituality, which is detached in location, time, and worldview from her daily life.

Tsaddik is the Hebrew title of a man whose dedication to God and acts of human kindness (mitsvot) are regarded as extraordinary. When a tsaddik dies, it is believed that his spirit will seek ways to help people.3 People often vow to repair, maintain, or adorn a tsaddik's gravesite if their prayers to God are answered. This paper suggests using the concept of vernacular dialectics to describe the practice of internal and social dialogues that reduce contradictions between a choice to venerate supernatural powers and the venerators' otherwise perceived secular worldviews. I begin by outlining the phenomenon of tsaddik veneration in contemporary Israel and its controversial nature among the Jewish Israeli population. I then explain why, although tsaddikim are mentioned extensively in Jewish scriptures, the pilgrimage to tsaddik gravesites is a vernacular activity. I follow this trend of thought and practice through three types of veneration sites: locational, symbolic, and virtual. Locational veneration includes travelling to remote gravesites. Symbolic locations are sites that might not be graves of actual saints, but even venerators who know of this uncertainty prefer to relate to the symbolic sacredness of the grave rather than dwell on the question of who is actually buried in this place. Virtual veneration of Jewish saints is a noteworthy new phenomenon in which vernacular dialectics is often articulated by online venerators who are not Orthodox Jews.

In the ultra-Orthodox and traditionalist Jewish groups in Israel, spiritual activity and thought are major aspects of life. In contrast, many in the secular Jewish population view pilgrimages to Jewish saint graves as unsuitable for people who otherwise exhibit non-Orthodox identities and lifestyles. Mainstream media, which is mostly secular, also portrays spiritual and rational perspectives as incongruous. Still, the soaring popularity of tsaddik veneration in Israel points to the vitality of this tradition and its appeal to both religious and secular Israelis (Collins-Kreiner 2003, 2006; Epstein 1995).

The largest Israeli mainstream news portal, Ynet, published a joint survey with the Smith Institution showing that one in three Israelis and one in 10 self-proclaimed secular Jews had visited the graves of tsaddikim in the previous two years (Sela 2006). …

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