There is a Jewish mystical belief that in every age there are 36 “hidden” Tzadiks, or righteous ones in the world (Lamd-vav Tzadikim Nistarim). These clandestine Tzadiks act as advocates of the universe, and protect it from being destroyed by God (who apparently has had second thoughts about his handiwork). If any of them dies another takes his place. As befit patriarchal Judaism there are obviously no women among them. The Jewish authors of this mystical belief must have arrived at the number 36 by multiplying 18, which in the Hebrew way of writing numbers also spells "life" (Hai).
The 36 Righteous Ones not only live their lives in obscurity, unrecognized by anyone, but in fact they themselves are not aware of their special status. In fact the Kabala holds that admitting to being one of the Lamd-Vav is the surest sign that the person is an imposter.
Since no one can be quite sure who these special people are, all we can do is guess. That speculation immediately increases the potential candidates a million fold or more. Take this a step further and anybody could be one of the 36 (“that asshole who’s driving in front of me at 30 mph in a 60 mph zone”). This kind of reasoning comes awfully close to the Hindu concept of everyone-is-divine, which is expressed in such greetings as “Namaste” or “Jai Bhagwan” both of which roughly translate as: “I bow to the divine within you”.
But what makes this concept so appealing to me is not the universal mutual respect among humans that it was supposed to engender (and never did) but rather the subversive notion that the ones we venerate (Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses) are assuredly NOT amongst the 36 since they are anything but hidden or obscure. It’s also tempting to extrapolate the same paradigm to other fields such as the arts and philosophy. The “greatest” composer was not Beethoven but some self-taught musician who never had a work published or performed. The greatest playwright was not Shakespeare but some 16th century scribbler who wrote for himself and whose entire scribbled oeuvres was tossed on a bonfire at his death.
Take the idea a step further and you must conclude that what everyone agrees upon is most assuredly not true. When a book is a “best seller”, i.e. the largest number of people agree that it is worth buying, it is by this definition guaranteed to be at best just mediocre, an imposter pretending to be great.
I should mention that the original context of the Lamed-Vav probably had a much narrower and parochial intention. It is an article of faith in Judaism that the universe was created to serve people (see - Genesis), and that the best way to be grateful to God for his gift is to be a Jew. Non-Jews don’t need to worry though because they too will eventually see the light and follow the Torah, not right away perhaps, but certainly at the end of time, when all nations will come back to the one true god - the Jewish god Jehovah. From this perspective it makes sense that those 36 saints that make the world safe in the meantime would all be Jews, not some Goyim.
So, I am obviously taking liberties with the idea of the Lamd-vav. Which just goes to show that even a narrow, inward looking, superstition can sometimes have universal applications.
The Kvetching Factory
"Start every day with a smile and get it over with" (W.C. Fields)