This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Bonfire of the Saintly Vanities*

The Torah devotes a considerable amount of space to condemnations of assorted cultic practices that were observed by the ancient Canaanites. However, the millennia that separate us from those ancient idol-worshippers make it all but impossible for later generations to understand those bizarre rites.

One passage that was particularly perplexing to the Jewish scholars was Deuteronomy 18:10: There shall not be found among you any one that makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire. The rational and respectable commentators of the Middle Ages were at a loss to figure out why anyone would want to offer their offspring up on pyres.

An intriguing interpretation to this puzzle was proposed by Rabbi Joseph Albo, the fifteenth-century Spanish Jewish philosopher in his classic formulation of Jewish doctrine, the Sefer Ha-Ikkarim.

Albo associated the cult of child burning with primitive attempts to draw down celestial power in the hope of attaining prophetic inspiration. The pagans believed in the existence of supernatural beings who were rooted in the element of fire. Hence, they concluded that their acts of imitative magic (including passing their children through fire) would enable them to partake of the supernatural force that would allow them to predict future events.

Albo goes on to claim that the pagan rites forbidden by the Torah should not be relegated to the distant past. Quite the contrary: Even after those nations were formally converted to Christianity, they continued to practice some ancestral customs that had once been associated with heathen necromancy. This, he argued, was the reason why Christians buried their dead in churches and made so much noise at their funerals.

Christians also preserved some rites that had once been associated with pagan fire worship: These include the making of large bonfires every year on a certain night when the sun enters the realm of Cancer… at which time they dance and clap around the bonfire, encircling it and skipping over it.

Clearly, the precise descriptions included in Rabbi Albo's account could not have been derived from his reading of the Bible. His words have all the hallmarks of an eyewitness account of customs that he had witnessed personally.

It turns out that Albo's intriguing interpretation had been proposed a century or so earlier, in the philosophical Torah commentary composed by Rabbi Nissim ben Abraham of Marseilles. In his discussion of the Torah's prohibition against passing children through fire, Rabbi Nissim laments his inability to account for the practice: To this day I haven't the slightest idea, nor have I heard from others, any reason or purpose that would have impelled them to do such at thing.

Nevertheless, he goes on to observe that some interpreters equate the biblical passage with a contemporary Christian custom of venerable antiquity, observed on summer evenings, of kindling large bonfires in the markets and public squares.

Rabbi Nissim surmises that this contemporary ritual is in reality a remnant of an ancient pagan practice. When the founders of the Christian faith arrived in Europe to convert the heathens, they were not completely successful at weaning the masses from the attractions of their former cult; so instead, they endowed those customs with a Christian complexion by associating them with the veneration of certain saints.

Rabbi Nissim illustrates this policy by comparing it with the efforts of the biblical King Asa, who made many laudable advances in eradicating the idolatrous abominations of his predecessors. However, even under his uncompromising iconoclasm, the high places of pagan worship were not entirely removed (1 Kings 15:14).

Rabbi Nissim speculates that the original focus on fire was intended to mark the beginning of the hot and dry summer season, and it served the practical purpose of reminding the people to conduct themselves in a manner suitable to the season.

Unable to resist the temptation to score a point against the rival religion, Rabbi Nissim quips that those ancient heathens, in spite of all their gross superstitions, were nonetheless wiser than contemporary Christians. The idolaters, at least, were grounded in realities of nature and astrology (like most enlightened Jewish rationalists, Nissim believed that astrology and astral magic were valid sciences), and they had no illusions about the superstitious foundations of their practices.

In its Christian version, on the other hand, the custom is essentially fraudulent, as its practitioners pretend that what they are doing is a pious Christian ritual. They have thus jumped out of the frying pan into the fire (to cite Rabbi Nissim's own phrase).

From the information provided by the medieval authors, we can derive three solid clues to the practice that they were alluding to: It involved the kindling of bonfires, it was held on a specific summer night, and it was identified with a Christian saint.

From this information, it is easy to identify the celebration as the Eve of Saint John the Baptist, which is celebrated on the night of June 24, coinciding with the Summer Solstice. Modern historians and anthropologists are in complete agreement with the medieval Jewish authors that the holiday originated as a pre-Christian nature rite and was afterwards dressed up to look like a respectable Christian saint-day.

Here in Canada, of course, we are most familiar with the rowdy merrymaking that accompanies this date as an expression of French-Canadian nationalism. We rarely hear even the most half-hearted attempts to link la Fête de la Saint-Jean-Baptiste to the pious Jewish martyr to whom it is nominally dedicated.

Bonfires are still a mainstay of the June 24 festivities in Québec, and the feux de joie, consisting of a chain of thousands of bonfires connecting several villages, are traditionally lit for the occasion. This observance was brought to the New World from Europe, where it had been practiced by the Celts, Romans and Franks. The Church synods of the eighth century tried futilely to suppress the heathen rites, but they eventually came to terms with their popularity by declaring that the day of the summer solstice should be dedicated to the beloved saint.

The pioneering work of religious anthropology, James Frazer's The Golden Bough, surveys mid-summer bonfire rituals that have survived in every corner of Europe, especially in Scandinavia, the Baltic lands and Ireland. Some of the customs involve young men and women jumping back and forth through the fire as they hope for better luck in finding a mate, good health or fertility.

Frazer argued that all these rites can all be traced back to a single source: an old myth about the tragic death of the virtuous Norse god Balder. According to his reconstruction, the fires (which sometimes involved the burning of human effigies) evolved out of a primitive rite of human sacrifice.

As a former Montrealer, I would be the last one to deny my old neighbours their fête nationale. Come to think of it, it is probably just as well that the throngs of revelers in la Belle Provence on June 24 are blissfully unaware of the scathing denunciations of their festival in the writings of medieval Hebrew commentators.

This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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