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Erev Rav, Really?

by Rabbi Robin Podolsky

July 20, 2012 | 1:22 am

(I will be writing more about the Auschwitz trip at some point, but stuff is marinating, and it’s time to get back to life in LA.  So let me check in about something closer to home.)

I’ve had some pushback about the name of this blog.

It appears that, for adherents of a particularly intricate schema within Jewish mysticism, the erev rav are not only figures from the Bible but also the current incarnates of bad people who do bad things and should feel bad.  This badness goes all the way back to the Exodus when, according to this story, the erev rav were not just any mixed multitude but golden calf instigators, sorcerers and even agents of Amalek, the ruthless enemy who attacked the rearguard (those too old, young, ill or female to fight) of the people Israel as soon as they left Egypt. The idea is that these folks come back in every generation to lead the people astray and—now this part really hurts—the erev rav are characterized by their proud and argumentative nature.  (Retiring little moi?)  This construct comes from Zoharic mysticism and draws from the work of super-intellects like the Vilna Gaon.

I have heard the “call me Erev Rav” joke among rabbinical students for years, and not once has anyone answered by bringing this up.  It just never entered into my misnagdisch (Talmudic/rationalist-ish) world.  (There are worlds within worlds at AJR.  There are students of deep Hasidus.  Also austerely logical Maimonideans.  There are orthodox yeshiva graduates and lesbian feminists, Conservative Jews and adherents of all the Re-s (Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal).  The wonderful thing about the school I attend is that, no matter what sort of Jew you are, you will encounter teachers and fellow scholars with whom you disagree about important things and you will learn to engage in those encounters with collegiality and respect.

It’s not as though I find this particular take on the erev rav convincing.  In my first post, I said why I like the erev rav story.  It’s about a disparate group of freedom-loving people, of more than one ethnicity, for whom our covenant, our brit, became a sort of constitution; a contract and a way of life that made them one.  Now I love me some GRA (Vilna Gaon), but it makes me sad to think about him subscribing to a kind of biological nationalism that disparages the mixed multitude on the basis that they were mixed.

Also, to really believe it, one would have to have a firm conviction of phenomena like reincarnation, about which I am…let’s say agnostic.  Truth is, I have an allergy to reified esotericisms through which metaphors for altered states of consciousness—like the Zoharic system of Sfirot and the gorgeous, terrifying prophetic visions referenced in the Kedushah prayer—are concretized into mere descriptions of Real Things.  I only bet the farm on the One Big Non-Falsifiable Claim: I really do believe in God.  Believe is a verb.  I choose to participate in a relationship that I can’t prove is real outside my head.  (My teacher Rabbi Mordechai Finley would say that, by subscribing to a non-falsifiable claim that I know to be true, I am trafficking in the mythic whether I want to or not.  Of course, he approves of that sort of thing.)

I love the ecstatic visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel.  I find Zoharic apprehensions of reality (the material world created from shattered vessels that contained holy light, the sparks of holiness in all things that can be released through mitzvot, kindness and prayer) to be wonderfully apt metaphors, kaleidoscopic lenses through which to see the world in new ways.  But when the structures that people build on these metaphors become at once hardened and weirdly specific (whole angel genealogies, for instance, and detailed descriptions of heaven offered with deadpan literalism), I just can’t follow.

Oh yeah, and another thing.  On a much less exalted level.  A friend told me that a friend told him that, several years ago anyway, some Israelis used the phrase erev rav to refer to those people who are…affectionate for money.  Huh.  Well, that was news to me.  Immediately, I began to imagine future posts:  the Erev Rav on business ethics, the Erev Rav on generosity, the Erev Rav on true avodah gashmiut (the service to God which can only be rendered in the embodied human world).

So already, I’ve managed to be more provocative than I intended (a personal specialty).  This title was just meant to be a play on words, a little inside joke.  (And Erev Rav is also a funk-inflected klezmer band, so there’s that.)  But, even though I meant no harm, what about the associative freight that words carry for other people?

For now, the title stays.  But, if you have any thoughts about it, please share.

UPDATE: A little exploration in back of the internet reveals some politics behind the revival of this bit of esoterica.  Turns out that Erev Rav is now the insult of choice for a peculiar group within right wing religious Zionism to hurl at fellow Jews who: believe in the separation of religion and government (church and state); support a 2-state (or any) solution for peace between Israel and Palestine; believe that there are such people as Palestinians; flash a bit of collarbone now and then.

Right then, Erev Rav it is.

UPDATE 2: Thanks to my brilliant friend, Rabbi Amitai Adler, who along with his equally brilliant wife, Rabbi Julie Pelc-Adler blogs at Speaking of Things Jewish, for his thoughtful comments.

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