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Folk Religion Can Sometimes Grow Piety
Mar 1, 2016

In the modern world, large scale emigration has brought many Muslims into close contact with other Muslims from distant lands. While all Muslims are united by Islamic law and daily prayer, many Muslims have discovered that some of the things they thought were law, were really local custom or local culture.

This has always been the case, although few knew it because world travelers were rare in the past. But Ibn Battuta, the famous 14th century Muslim jurist and world traveler, who visited many Muslim countries and observed many local customs, relates a good example of local custom: “Each of these Khanqahs is set apart for a separate school of Darwishes, mostly Persians, who are men of good education and adepts in mystical doctrines.

“They have many special customs, one of which has to do with their food. The steward of the house comes in the morning to the Darwishes, each of whom indicates what food he desires, and when they assemble for meals, each person is given his bread and soup in a separate dish, none sharing with another.”

This custom mentioned by Ibn Battuta is a local custom meaning that it was, and still might be, practiced in one local area, and/or by one select group of men.

Immigrant Jews also have been surprised to learn that many customs that had great religious significance in the “old country” are not practiced in the “new country” by other Jews from other lands.

In Israel, the differences between Orthodox Jews from Christian Europe and Orthodox Jews from Muslim North Africa and the Middle East, are great, although Jewish law and prayer are basically the same for both groups.

In both Islam and Judaism local folk customs, and even folk beliefs, are often examples of the common people's desire to be better Muslims or Jews. But sometimes these beliefs and customs are the result of local superstitions and are rejected by the Ulama or the rabbis.

Sometimes local religious leaders support modest innovations in practice or belief that are not deemed unIslamic or unJewish, and sometimes religious scholars oppose them as unsupported by scripture.

For example, in both Islam and Judaism, a folk belief grew up in the Middle East, unsupported by religious scholars, that if it were not for a small number of very righteous people, the whole corrupt society we live in would collapse.

Neither the Torah nor the Qur'an support such a belief, but the concept does support the ideal that a few people who continue to live in righteous purity when everyone else has become corrupt, can really make a big difference.

After all, even today the whole earth seems to be filled with violence, cruelty, oppression and injustice. This is made worse by the corrupt and oppressive behavior of many high and low government officials; as well as the immoral activities many economic, intellectual, political, and even religious leaders, which are constantly being exposed.

Of course, our generation is not the first to suffer from these universal social, political, cultural and national maladies; and religious people know that God is merciful and compassionate as well as just.

God's patience and forbearance with widespread human inequity and sin can be understood in many ways.

One explanation, that developed within some parts of both the Jewish and Muslim communities, is that in every generation there are a small number of very special hidden saints (60 or 40 Abdal in Islam and 36 or 30 Tsadikim in Judaism), whose souls are so kind, honest, trusting and righteous, that for their sake alone, the rest of the society of sinful human beings avoids collapse.

Thus, the idea of the hidden saints emphasizes the importance God gives to a small number of very kind and righteous people who serve as the supporting foundations of the civilized world, and in some way known only to God, support human civilization against total collapse.

Thus, Abu Darda’ said: “When Prophethood ended – and they were the supports (Awtad) of the world – Allah substituted their places with 40 men from the nation of Muhammad called “Abdal” (Substitutes). Not one of them dies except that Allah replaces him with another one, and they are now the supports of this world. The hearts of 30 of them contain the same firm certainty (yaqin) which Prophet Ibrahim had.”

They did not succeed or rise above other people due to much fasting or prayer … but rather through being honest, having noble intentions, having sound wholesome hearts … They do not curse anyone, or harm anyone, nor do they see themselves as being higher or nobler than anyone under them, or envy those above them. They do not fake their humility... nor are they ostentatiously impressed with themselves.”

Most Islamic scholars think the ahadith relating to the Abdal are weak. And since acquiring religious knowledge is highly valued in both Islam and Judaism, most Jewish and Muslim scholars have rejected this elevation of religiously ignorant yet pious individuals.

However, I am a Reform Rabbi who thinks of himself as a Muslim Jew, because I faithfully submit to the one and only God of Abraham; and I am faithful to the Torah of Prophet Musa which I study continually, and to the covenant that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.

Yet in my heart, I see the need for religious scholars to increase the respect people in general, and the religious and educated elite in particular, should have for the many simple, poor, good hearted, righteous believers within their own community. This is especially true in our generation.

I also see many parallels between this Islamic and Jewish revolutionary concept that society is supported and sustained, not by the high and mighty, not by the rich and famous, and surely not by the media celebrities of sports and entertainment, but rather by a small number of poor, hidden and rarely acknowledged saints.

As Abu Hurayra said: “I entered the mosque, and the Prophet said to me, 'Abu Hurayra, in this hour, a man will walk through this door, who is one of the seven people of the world through whom Allah diverts punishment from the Earth’s inhabitants.”

“Just then an Ethiopian entered through that door. He was bald, maimed, and carrying a container of water on his head. So he said, ‘O Abu Hurayra, that’s him,’ and then said to the man three times, ‘Welcome.’ This man used to sweep and clean the Mosque.”

Perhaps a weak Hadith, but certainly one with a strong message to respect every human being regardless of class, status or appearance.

Even more revolutionary, is that within the Muslim tradition some people explicitly included Christians and Jews within the Abdal: Hudhayfa ibn Yaman said: “The Abdal in my community in Syria include 30 men on the path of Ibrahim (Jews)… And the group (of righteous Awliya’) in Iraq are 40 men… 20 of them are on the path of ‘Isa (Christians) and 20 of them have been given some of the instruments which Khalifa Da’ud (King David) was given.”

According to Jewish folklore the hidden saints number at least 36 in each generation. Called in Yiddish lamedvovniks (36ers), they are responsible for sustaining and supporting the civilized world. At times of great peril, a 36ercould make a dramatic appearance to defeat the enemies of Israel, and then return to humble obscurity.

The 36+ people are unnoticed by other people because of their humble nature, status, education and vocation. The 36+figured in Kabbalistic folk legends of the 16–17th centuries, and in Hassidic folklore from the end of the 18th century.

Yiddish proletarian writers in the 19th and 20th centuries expanded the folk tradition of the 36+ righteous people whose simple role in life justifies the value of all mankind in God's eyes; by adding that if even one of them was missing from the minimum 36, society would come to a bad end.

For the sake of these 36+ hidden saints, God preserves our world even if the rest of humanity degenerates to the level of total barbarism. This idea is based on the story of Sodom and Gomorra in the Torah, where God told Abraham that he would spare the town of Sodom if there were at least 10 righteous people in it.

Since nobody knows who the 36+ are, not even they themselves, every Jew should honor and respect all the simple, honest, unselfish, hard working and long suffering people around us, for one of them may be one of the 36+. I think this lesson rings true for all religions.

Unlike the rich, the famous, the pious, the scholars, the powerful, the beautiful or the successful, who everyone else thinks are very important, according to this concept, the 36+ are the really important people, because without a few of them society could destroy itself.

The tradition of the 36ers, others say 30, is found in the Talmud where RabbiAbbaye says: "There are not less than 36 righteous people in the world who receive the Sakina – Divine Presence" (Sanhedrin 97b and Sukkot 45b). “Not less” is not a fixed number, and there may be many more than 36 (40 or 60) in some generations.

These righteous people are usually and incorrectly called men because in Hebrew grammar a mixed group of males and females always uses a male noun and verb. It is much more likely that the 36ers are 18 men and 18 women, since in Hebrew the number 18 is the numerical equivalent of the letters in the word life.

Ibn ‘Asakir (1105–1175) and Ibn Abi Khaythama narrate that Uthman ibn ‘Ata was having a conversation with his father, who told him, “The Abdal are forty Insan (humans).” So Uthman ibn ‘Ata said to his father, “Forty men?” and his father replied, “Do not say men, but rather say humans, for there could be women among them.”

The number 36 is not the only number offered in this connection. Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai believed, "the world never lacks 30 righteous people" (Genesis Rabbah 35:2) while Rabbi Simeon ibn Yehozadak says (Ḥullin 92a. and Midrash Psalms 5:5) "the world exists by the merit of 45 righteous people"; perhaps 30 in the land of Israel and 15 in Iraq/Babylonia where Rabbi Simeon ibn Yehozadak lived.

According to Rav Judah, the number 30 represents the number of "righteous gentiles among the nations of the world" (Ḥullin 92a). Thus, some Rabbis felt that women and non-Jews should be counted among the hidden saints, just as some Islamic sages have taught.

All of these statements about the 30 or 36+ Tsadekim (saints) are the views of individual rabbis. Their views did not become part of Jewish law or general belief, just as the Abdal did not become part of general Muslim belief.

The power of the prayers and the tears of a 36er to bring rain from God was rarely mentioned in accounts from Europe about the 36+, because droughts are very rare in Europe. But both the 36+ Tsadekim and the Abdal 40 (or 60) share this trait.

As ‘Ali said: “The Abdal are in Syria, and they are 40 men. Whenever one of them dies, Allah substitutes another in his place. By means of them, Allah brings down the rain, gives victory over enemies, and diverts punishment from the people of Syria.”

A Jewish folktale from Syria illustrates the theme of the power of a pure hearted simple man's righteous plea. Once, in the land of Syria, there was a great drought. A rabbi called all the Jews of his village to the synagogue. They prayed day and night, but still no rain fell. Then the rabbi declared a fast, and asked God to answer their prayers.

That night he heard a voice from heaven, saying, "God will send rain only if Rahamim, who always sits in the back corner of the synagogue, prays for it." "But he's an ignoramus," protested the rabbi. “And I am not sure how kosher his home is.” Silence was the response.

When Rahamim came to the synagogue the rabbi said, "Tomorrow you will lead the congregation in prayers for rain," "But I do not know how to pray," said Rahamim. "There are so many others who know more than I." "Nevertheless," said the rabbi, "it is you who must lead the prayers."

The next day the rabbi called all the people together to pray. The synagogue was filled to bursting. All eyes were on the placewhere everyone expected to see the rabbi leading them in prayer. How great was their amazement to see poor Rahamim standing up there before the Holy Ark, holding a clay jar with two spouts in his hands. "Now I ask that you pray with all your heart," he told the congregation.

So they opened the Ark, where the Torah scroll was kept, and the people poured out their hearts to heaven, wailing bitterly and beating their breasts. Then Rahamim lifted up his jar, first placing one spout to his eye and then the other to his ear. Instantly there was a rumble of thunder and then the sky opened up, drenching the earth with rain.

The rabbi later asked Rahamim, "Why did you bring that jar to the synagogue? What did you do with it?" "Rabbi, I'm a poor, ignorant man," Rahamim replied. "What I earn as a shoemaker barely feeds my many children. Every day they cry for bread and I have little to give them. When I hear their cries my heart breaks, and I too cry. So I collect my tears in this jar.

“When you asked me to come here to pray, I looked into the jar and said, 'Master of the Universe, if you do not send rain, I will break this jar in front of the whole congregation.'

“Then I heard a voice that said, “Ask again when you stand before the congregation. So I did and I heard a voice say: 'Do not break the jar'.” And then it began to rain.