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by Joseph Bulgatz

Even 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,, 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 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. 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 inadvertently.

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 clubs.

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 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 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 old.

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 legend.

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, 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 overwhelming.

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 the Simurgh.

Joseph Bulgatz, a lawyer, is the author of
More Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds and A Field Guide to Imaginary Trees.

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