Baba Sali Site Visit - Article
Contemporary Saint Veneration in Israel and Beyond
What we learn from moments of surprise and discomfort
On 4 Shvat, which fell on 10 January this year, the small town of Netivot in the Negev becomes a pilgrimage destination for those who venerate Rabbi Israel Abu-Hatsera, better known as Baba Sali, who died in 1984. While the Moroccan saint is popular among Sephardi Jews, the hillulah - the commemoration of his death - draws Israelis from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds to his grave. A German anthropologist and an American historian of Christianity, both non-Jewish members of the Center for the Study of Conversion and Inter-Religious Encounters (CSoC), had jumped at the chance to participate in this excursion to the Negev town of Netivot sponsored by CSoC along with the departments of Jewish history, sociology and anthropology, and Middle Eastern studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU). After all, it was only about 35km from the university in Be'er Sheva and a window into yet another component of the bewilderingly complex landscape of Israeli and Jewish life. Reflecting on their experience of the event as well as on the responses to it of other Israelis, gave them some insight into what can be learnt from moments of surprise, discomfort, or even repudiation:
On our way to the tomb, passing tables of grilled meat, stuffed olives, couscous, and rice freely offered to all who passed by, the piles of dirty plastic plates overflowing their plastic trash bags suggesting that many had enjoyed these traditional Moroccan dishes already. A man offers us one of the books on Rabbi Nachman of Breslov from the stack he was carrying, but we politely decline, explaining that we do not speak Hebrew. “But you believe?" he asks in English. Like him, there are other men dressed in the typical hasidic garment, some of them followers of Rabbi Nachman, being Ashkenazi in appearance but dancing to one of the most popular North African Arabic melodies “Ya Rayah" by Dahman El Harrachi, a song about exile and longing.
We join a tightly-packed group of women standing behind a barrier to the grave hall. Many of them appear to be of North African background while others show from their wigs and long skirts that they belong to orthodox and haredi communities. Traditional and popular Middle Eastern music blasts from the speakers, smoke from grilled meat wafts through the night air, and a plastic plate of wrapped candies passes from hand to hand, especially intended for single women. At the security officer's signal, we are carried forward with the rest of the group rushing to see the tomb of the Baba Sali. On the way to the tomb, we have to pass through a room lined with tables of souvenirs - photos of the Baba Sali framed in metal, wood, or ceramic, in gold, black, brown, or white; chalices, candle holders, and more. Some women stop to take a selfie with a larger-than-life-sized image of the tzadik (saint) before heading into the room of the tomb itself. There, women crowd the tomb, laying hands on the stone, touching it with their scarves, praying, crying. A female security officer manages the human traffic flow, noting who's already kissed the tomb and ordering them to move on, telling others who have'nt yet kissed to do so and let others have their turn. A window in the gender barrier allows a glimpse into the men's side; this affords access to a rabbi to make a donation and receive a blessing.
Outside the grave hall in which the tomb is located we can buy candles in singles or packs. The metal tealight candle holders scattered on the ground surrounding the fire represent the prayers and hopes of hundreds of women who have passed this way before us over the course of the day and thrown their candles into the fire. A similar furnace stands on the men's side. A man dressed in the traditional garb of the Moroccan tzadik -a white ankle-length robe with a hood- after speaking to two women, blows a shofar. At the edge of the compound children and youngsters perform dances to oriental songs on a stage that can be accessed from both men's and women's areas. On the way out of the tomb complex, other women instruct us to wash our hands, following common practice. Beyond the tomb, entertainment and culinary attractions await further exploration. Near to the tomb, various Jewish groups share food for free. In a separate area farther away from the tomb, we walk through a market street where vendors have set up stalls of sweets, holy water, arak liquor with the label of Baba Sali, perfumes and incenses like bakhour, other traditional North African food, and the latest headscarf fashions and traditional Moroccan dresses.
An Israeli friend and colleague chose not to attend the event so as not to patronize people and practices that have tended to align with right-wing politics. Others asked incredulously why we would want to go, or apologized in advance, making sure we understood that at best this was not mainstream Judaism and at worst it transgressed true Judaism. A friend who herself comes from a Moroccan Jewish family argued that these practices were 'left-overs' from her grandmother's generation and that 'true Judaism' forbids saint veneration. Some of those that did attend were repulsed, others bemused; some, indeed, were delighted, joyfully dancing to the music, tasting the food, and offering a brief prayer at the tomb.
As teachers, we advise students to take note of moments of surprise as they read a text to help them identify uninterrogated assumptions. Feelings of disgust/discomfort can provide similar opportunities for self-examination. The work of Dr. Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, who offered a short lecture before the trip, addresses ways in which secular Zionists adopted modern notions of history, progress, and nationhood that were themselves developed within a certain Western Christian imagination that was ambivalent about Jews. Highlighting biblical concepts of the people of Israel and their promised messianic control of the Land, secular Zionists excluded or suppressed post-biblical historical and diasporic Judaism which was centered on a notion of theological as well as territorial exile and involved an understanding of the imperfect state of the world as such. Perhaps a notion of exile is embodied in the Baba Sali pilgrimage, in the “center out there," on the periphery, rather than, or differently than, at the centers of institutional religious and state power. Dr. Jackie Feldman, who also gave a lecture before we departed to Netivot, reminded us of Erik Cohen's stance on the analysis of pilgrimage sites by Edith and Victor Turner who define these sacred places as being 'out there,' peripheral or eccentric. Perhaps responses to the hillulah of the Baba Sali can reveal orientalist perceptions among some Israeli Jews, secular and religious. What some see as heretical tradition, as old-fashioned or as an arena for propaganda for certain Jewish groups, creates feelings of centrality and togetherness for others. Ashkenazi followers of Rabbi Nachman appeared as much at home in the event as families of Sephardi ancestry. The shopping street, food stalls and modern technology - like broadcasting one's participation in the event by posting a selfie with the picture of the saint on Instagram- appeal to a range of people that might feel marginalized in contemporary Israel. The hillulah may reveal, recall, revive, or develop streams within Judaism that have been suppressed, repressed, or marginalized literally and figuratively.
This phenomenon is not exclusive to the Jewish Israeli society. In another preparatory talk, Dr. Orit Vaknin-Yekutieli highlighted the similarities between the Jewish veneration of tzadikim (saints) and Muslim marabouts (saints) in Morocco. Like Moroccan/Sephardi Jews, Muslims in North and West Africa maintain the tradition of commemorating the deaths of local saints and consult living marabouts for advice on questions of everyday life. Broadening the comparative perspective even further - into our home societies with their own religious, political, racial/ethnic, and cultural complexities, or to yet other regions - reveals that negotiations between center and periphery, urban and rural, dominant interpretations of religion and culture and marginalized or diasporic ones, the popular and the official, all appear to have universal patterns. In his new book Bandit Saints of Java, George Quinn, who is currently a visiting scholar in the research group “New Directions in the Study of Javanese Literature" at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies, provides insights into the world of saint veneration and non-standard Islamic devotions in Java/Indonesia. As in Israel or North Africa, these popular 'peripheral' practices often remain hidden from mainstream perspectives on contemporary Indonesia. Strikingly, there are many similarities in the negotiation of center-periphery constellations and the amalgamation of spiritual, commercial and entertainment activities at these pilgrimage destinations.
A comparative perspective on the hillulah in Netivot suggests that popular religious practices across different regions and religions are embedded in social dynamics, intra-religious tensions and the search for belonging, entertainment and meaning. Moments of surprise and discomfort at the behaviors, beliefs, and practices of others, whether in the past or the present, can prompt us to examine our own beliefs, practices, assumptions, even prejudices. Academic inquiry and institutions such as the CSoC allow us to attend to such moments and pursue them with the rigor of scholarly analysis.
Dr. Tritle is a Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellow at CSoC.
Dr. Lücking is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Asian Studies at Hebrew U and at CSoC.