From the Lamed-Vav Tzadikim to The Thirty Six
Kristopher White, George Zapata, and Micki Zurcher’s independent graphic novel The Thirty Six differs in a number of significant regards from the Talmudic and kabblistic myth of the lamed-vav tzadikim. Talmudic sage Abbaye was reportedly the first to read into Isaiah 30:18 both the story of Abraham’s appeal for Sodom and the sentiment of second-century rabbi Shimon ben Yohai, saying in the Sukkah that “[t]here are never less than 36 just men in the world who greet the Shekhinah every day” (Guggenheimer 45b:15-18). However, just as White et al produce a distinct variation on that concept – namely, that the 36 are super-powered people of varying merit and morality, capable of bringing about the end of the world rather than necessarily its sustainment – their graphic novel should be viewed in terms of the consistent mutability of the lamed-vav tzadikim. That is, cultural understanding of these mythic thirty-six has been quite fluid across the centuries since Abbaye, morphing from representations of the ten deans of astrology (Scholem 253), to half of the seventy-two Elders (Epstein), to the unknown nistarim (concealed ones), akin to Twelver Shia Islam’s Mahdi or “hidden imam.” Notably, no less than Maimonides altered the term tzadikim (“righteous”) to hasidim (“pious”) in the Noahide laws, thereby honoring and legitimizing the roles of “non-Jews who treated Jews benevolently” (Rosenthal 467). Without even knowing themselves as the lamed-vav, the thirty-six could, arguably, be as disparate as the characters in the graphic novel, but the work better demonstrates the ongoing renegotiation of the legend, evolving as it has over time and revealing the hermeneutic plasticity of such lore.
A. DAVID LEWIS is the author of American Comics, Literary Theory, and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife and a columnist for Duke University’s ISLAMiCommentary site. He serves as a Faculty Associate for MCPHS University and as a Steering Committee member for the American Academy of Religion’s Death, Dying, and Beyond Group. A graphic novelist, doctorate-holder in Religious Studies from Boston University, and national lecturer on Comics Studies, Lewis lives in the greater Boston area.