Friday, May 06, 2011

Why do we like Rashby better than Isaiah?

According to the Torah-true power rankings, a navi (that is a prophet) outranks a tanna (that is a Sage quoted in the Mishna). The prophet is believed to have more knowledge, more power, and more access to siyata dismaya or heavenly assistance. The Rabbis of the Talmud themselves agreed with this evaluation saying "If the earlier generations were like angels, we are like humans. But if they were like humans, we are like donkeys."

So what explains the fact that the grave of the Tanna Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is one of the top pilgrimage destinations in all of Judaism, while the graves of prophets like Isaiah are seldom visited? Why do those Jews who believe in the power of visiting graves imagine that the benefit available to them at the grave of a Tanna is superior to the benefit available at the grave of a prophet?

I expect some of you will suggest that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's grave is more popular because he wrote the Zohar*, generally considered by Jews who have not read it to be the most awesome book ever. I don't think that's the true explanation;  if it is, what a sad statement about contemporary Orthodox Judaism. See, Isaiah also wrote a book**. The one that bears his name. Is that chopped liver? If this love of the Zohar is the real reason for the popularity of Rashby's grave - and I'm not convinced - this is further proof that in contemporary Orthodox Judaism magic trumps ethics. After all, the Zohar speaks of cool-sounding mystical mysteries, while all the Book of Isaiah seems to care about is being nice to widows and orphans, and the various promises God made to the Jewish people. (Plus it has a lot of poetry, and poetry is krum.)

* Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai did not, in fact, write the Zohar, but I don't want to get into that here. 
** Isaiah did not, in fact, write large sections of the book that bears his name, but I don't want to get into that here. 

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