now, so much later, I am hard-pressed to explain why I, a reclusive, barely
computer-literate lapsed Jew, had such a violent reaction to a website,
lamedvav.net, dedicated to the identification and public exposure of the
legendary lamed vavniks —the 36 righteous individuals present in every
generation upon whose merit the continued existence of our sinful world depends.
What perversity, I thought, to expose these “hidden saints,” when, according to
the Talmud, they are hidden from the world at large, including from themselves,
for a reason—and if revealed, their special role will be lost!
In the beginning, when lamedvav.net first appeared, I tried to sound an alarm
in the court of public opinion. Since I am neither wealthy nor a celebrity, the
means available to me were few. A letter submitted to The New York Times
was not deemed worthy of publication. Letters to Jewish and intellectual
periodicals had a very spotty reception, appearing, if they did, after the
cruelest, most mindless surgery.
My opposition made no impact because of the website’s powerful appeal. It fed
upon the human appetite for heroes, coupled with the never-ending quest to see
who among us was the best, the fastest, the strongest, the prettiest, the
smartest. In this light, the designation of the most righteous appeared quite
proper, hardly an aberration at all.
Lamedvav.net got off to an extraordinary start, even astonishing and
overwhelming its creators, who had not prepared for the actual selection process
and now hurried to fill the void.
Here were their basic requirements for nomination: 1.) no individual would be
considered unless nominated by an independent third party; 2.) each nominee had
to be a real, living person, thereby excluding the deceased and products of
imagination; and 3.) in partial recognition of the hidden character of the
righteous ones of legend, celebrities of any kind were ineligible.
To submit a name, one prepared a brief biography of the nominee, setting
forth the date and place of birth, parentage, education, occupation, and the
reasons for qualification. In Wikipedia fashion, any user of the website who
decided to participate in the search for the lamed vavniks could join in.
So if, for example, while idly scrolling though the list of candidates, you came
upon the name of someone you knew, you were free to add your own direct
experiences with the nominee that tended either to support or reduce his/her
moral standing, and so advance or diminish his/her eligibility for sainthood.
Like the making of a mosaic, a detailed, moral portrait of the person
emerged, pieced together by many hands.
What were the comments like? A retired sixth-grade teacher was said, by her
supporters, to have opened the eyes of many students to their true paths in
life. An unemployed young actor thwarted an attempted robbery of a convenience
store at great personal risk. In opposition, a longtime neighbor of the teacher
claimed that she failed to dispose of her household garbage properly and never
returned a morning greeting. And the teller at a local bank described how the
actor had walked away with an overpayment of cash she had handed him
Also in Wikipedia fashion, the website organized itself into a hierarchy: At
the top were the administrators, the core group that made policy and served
as ultimate arbitrators; below were the editors, users who had established a
reputation for dependable, quality work; and at the bottom were the occasional
users. To measure the moral attributes of contending saints, the administrators
assigned a numerical value to each action with moral consequences; produced a
cost-benefit analysis, the cost of the action to the individual candidate
measured along with the benefit experienced by those affected by it; and posted
each candidate’s changing moral worth number in the large work-in-progress
entitled “The Book of Good and Evil.”
Fierce debates ensued about the appropriateness of certain numerical
equivalencies. Take the case of an organ donation. What was the appropriate
number to assign? How might it compare, say, to modest annual gifts to the
homeless? Would the latter be equal in value to the former after five years?
Ten? Twenty? Similar questions arose about suitable systems of moral accounting.
In time, two major theories developed, one holding that value is a function of
the number of lives affected by an individual’s act, the other assigning value
on the symbolic meaning of that act alone. Many battles were fought between the
utilitarians and symbolists, and hard feelings still exist.
The rating system initiated the website’s celebrity phase. Once each
submission was assigned a numerical value, the aggregate net moral worth of
every nominee was automatically calculated, and all contenders ranked from the
leading saints on down in descending order. It was not unlike a horse race.
Soon, the top rankings appeared in daily newspapers, first on the sports page,
and then, after an outcry as to appropriateness, in the arts and entertainment
section, where it elicited an even greater outcry. Candidate profiles were
published in the media. Contenders appeared on TV talk shows. Some even had fan
Each nominee’s moral worth number became part of his/her public persona. If
it was high, he/she might boast of it. If it rose significantly, congratulations
might be in order; if it declined, regrets.
The frontrunners soon learned that status was convertible into prestige and
money, and often they were unable to resist the offers that followed. Typical
was the lamed vav candidate who appeared on TV to speak of the confidence
homeowners would feel if their fire insurance were issued by his employer.
As more nominees sought to sell endorsements, those lower in the rankings
began to hire consultants to move them up in the ranking. When the glare of
public disapproval shined, the consultants pointed out that, after all, they
were like political lobbyists, who merely made sure all voices were heard.
Eventually lamedvav.net became one of the most visited sites in cyberspace,
in part because of the administrators’ decision to increase the number of hidden
saints, although the precise number was never announced. They may have been
motivated by history and demographics. While lamed vav does mean 36 in
Hebrew, various authorities over the centuries have argued that the true number
is 30, or 50, or some other number. Given the uncertainty, they figured why not
inflate the number? After all, the present population was vastly greater than in
the 6th century B.C.E., when the lamed vavnik concept first appeared. If
the world’s population was now about 6.77 billion, and about 100 million around
500 B.C.E., would it not be appropriate to increase the number of today’s
lamed vavniks proportionately?
All of this added to my unhappiness.
I decided to change my opposition strategy. I would infiltrate the growing
army of website devotees, engage the enemy at close quarters.
The ease with which I was accepted in the lamedvav.net community astonished
me. There was no personal interview, no email interrogation, no demand for
references, nothing. I simply began as if I had always been there, a new
volunteer taking his place in an invisible group, reviewing nominees new and
I became immersed in the work, devoting considerable time to it, three to
four hours starting in the morning and then about another two in the evening. It
became the major part of my life.
Eventually, I became a registered editor. I called myself “Ernie Levy,” an
ironic reference to an earlier literary tampering with the lamed vavnik
Editors tended to fall into two categories: “Boosters” and “Killers.” I, of
course, was one of the latter. There was a presumption in my approach that the
nominee was not qualified; it only remained to spell out the disqualifications.
If that presumption was, as lawyers say, rebuttable, my mind was incapable of
producing the circumstances of such a rebuttal.
At the end of its third year, lamedvav.net had become a juggernaut. Yet, the
project had not made even partial delivery on one of its main promises:
completion of the search in three years. Not a single candidate had been
formally designated a lamed vavnik. Could it be that the selection would
never be made?
In the midst of all this, I was taken by complete surprise to learn that I,
myself, had been nominated as a lamed vavnik. Was this some sort of prank
by someone in the community who was ill-disposed toward me? A closer examination
of the submission failed to yield a clue. And after the initial shock, I began
to appreciate the irony that a critic such as myself had been tentatively put
forward. True, my nomination seemed to be in accord with one of the main
elements of the legend. If the saints were to be hidden, even from themselves,
where could sainthood be more completely hidden than within the chief critic of
the entire enterprise?
One of the immediate consequences of the nomination was my dismissal as an
editor in accordance with basic conflict-of-interest rules. Deprived of what had
become my major daily activity, and lacking any other distraction, I was drawn
into endless reflection on my past. Casting my mind back over the years brought
up nothing but memories of failure, opportunities ignored or otherwise lost,
errors of judgment, inexplicable stupidities. The case against me seemed
Yet, amazingly, there was a steady flow of support for my nomination. People
I knew long ago, and then only in a superficial way, now came forward to testify
to my righteous character.
This is not to say that my candidacy lacked opposition. Naturally, the
comments hurt my feelings, but soon I found myself removed from the emotional
give-and-take. Still, as my past was being dissected, fabricated, and
reconstructed, I followed the rankings with a level of attention I had never
shown as an editor.
Where will it end? Will those proposed for hidden sainthood grow ever more
numerous, eventually becoming a significant portion of us all?
An old Persian fairytale I read years ago came to mind recently. One day, a
flock of birds found a rare and brilliant feather from the Simurgh, the lord of
all the birds. A large gathering of many species set out across the world to
meet the reigning bird. The journey was long and arduous, and many birds dropped
out. When the survivors finally reached their destination and entered the royal
court, they saw only a large mirror. It was then that they realized: They are
Joseph Bulgatz, a lawyer, is the author of More Extraordinary
Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds and A Field Guide to