An estimated 300,000 people marched through the streets of Jerusalem on Sunday — not to protest the Palestinian elections or to celebrate the Betar Jerusalem soccer team, but to join in the funeral procession for a famed Kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri. Kadouri died last week, somewhere between the ages of 104 and 114 (no one knows his exact age).
Kadouri was the last of a generation and the genuine article: a real, living Kabbalist who dispensed spells, amulets, and segulot (special remedies) for a variety of ills. In many respects, he was a simple man — a learned Kabbalist who worked as a bookbinder even after he became famous as a healer. But he remains a complex symbol, a kind of countercultural icon to the Ashkenazic, secular Israel, and one closely associated with Sephardic resentment and empowerment.
Many of his alleged famous miracles involved politics, as when the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party, Shas, distributed his amulets in 1996 — and won 10 seats in the following Knesset election, more than double the number predicted by polls.
Kadouri himself, however, rarely entered the political fray, in contrast to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Shas. Instead, Kadouri spent most of his time dispensing blessings and studying the Kabbalah.
Since the rabbi was hospitalized a few weeks ago, scores of admirers have come forward with stories of miracles that they say he performed on their behalf. Barren women who conceived and gave birth, survivors of cancer — these were a few of the multitudes who marched in the funeral procession and memorialized the Kabbalist rabbi faith healer in the press.
Kadouri was known to offer blessings and remedies to Jews and non-Jews, Arabs and Israelis. Perhaps the most surprising recipient of the rabbi’s blessings was Jordan’s King Hussein, who even offered to build a special road to his palace when Kadouri complained of the difficult journey.
Born in Baghdad around the turn of the 20th century, Kadouri came to Israel as a teenager. He studied with and received blessings from legendary Kabbalists, including the Ben Ish Chai, Rabbi Yosef Haim, who reportedly gave him a blessing for long life, and the Beit Lehem Yehuda, Rabbi Yehuda Petaya. These are not familiar names to most people, but for students of Kabbalah, the effect is like hearing that a writer studied with William Butler Yeats and James Joyce, or a musician with Brahms. Kadouri was a link to a vanished era of legendary figures and miracle workers.
And he was considered one himself.
Kadouri offered cures ranging from magical inscriptions to formulas based on gematria (numerology) or astrology. One man whose wife had been unable to have children, despite a series of fertility treatments over the course of eight years, reportedly was told by the rabbi to plant 15 seeds of wheat and to water them every morning. Within six weeks, the story goes, she was pregnant.
Such tales do not go over well in the cafes of Tel Aviv — and that is precisely the point. Kadouri was part of the mystical subculture of Israel, which thrives not just despite the contempt held for it by the secular majority, but precisely because of it. Moreover, the appeal of figures like Kadouri extends well beyond the uneducated, the superstitious or the ultra-Orthodox. In Israel, Kabbalists routinely are consulted and respected by a wide range of Jews — including the wife of Israel’s president, Moshe Katsav. They are regarded in some communities as “physicians of the soul” and prescribe treatments for emotional and psychological ills.
For many Sephardim and Jews from Arab countries, there is no contradiction between consulting a rabbinic sage and conducting one’s life in a more or less secular way, or between attending Shabbat services on Friday night and attending a soccer game on Saturday. In addition, Sephardic Jewry generally did not marginalize Jewish mysticism, as did Ashkenazim; Kabbalistically influenced liturgy, medicine and folklore often have a central role in Sephardic religious life. Arguably, ethnic resentment might also play a role, with some Sephardim celebrating this aspect of their culture precisely because the secular elites in Tel Aviv can’t stand it.
Kadouri was no illiterate folk healer, though; he was a learned man who had mastered the Zohar and other Kabbalistic texts and who studied every night with a group of 40 elderly Kabbalists. Active and articulate until the last weeks of his life, Kadouri lived modestly in Jerusalem’s Bukharan Quarter. A vegetarian, he rose early and went to bed late. He was no ascetic, however; in his 90s, he wedded a woman in her 40s, and according to published reports, he enjoyed snacks and cigarettes (Bamba and Marlboro Reds, respectively).
In short, he was a master of practical Kabbalah, which focuses on using occult wisdom to cause changes in the world. This form of Kabbalah has little to do with the theosophical speculations of the Zohar or the ecstatic prayer of Hasidim, and it often is denigrated by other Kabbalah scholars. But it always has been the most popular form of Kabbalah, as Kadouri’s own story demonstrates. Perhaps this is because, more than the speculations of theology, practical Kabbalah, for all its superstitions and irrationality, responds to deep human needs — for healing, for order and for hope. Maybe Kadouri’s miracles were all mere coincidences, but no one doubts that he was a holy man.
I visited Kadouri’s grave a few hours after the funeral, where dozens of believers remained, praying, reciting psalms and gathering bits of earth from atop the rabbi’s grave. There were Hasidim there with long white beards and Kabbalists with fire in their eyes. But there were also “traditional” Sephardic Jews; Ashkenazim wearing knitted yarmulkes, markers in Israel of the Modern Orthodox; and others who looked like they rarely covered their heads. As the sun set over the Jerusalem hills, there was an unmistakable energy in the air, the sense one gets when one visits a holy place of any religion: that this is sacred ground.
Just as I was about to leave, an elderly Kabbalist was brought near to the grave to pay his respects to his colleague. Women asked for his blessing on behalf of sick or barren relatives, and he obliged — even, once, over a cell phone. Then he told us that we should begin the Sabbath an hour early this week and that by Kadouri’s merit, we would enjoy peace and long life. I’m thinking about doing it — after all, you never know.
Jay Michaelson is a doctoral candidate in Jewish mysticism at Hebrew University and the creator of learnkabbalah.com.