Israel’s Mystery Man

The most talked-about, perhaps the most feared, figure in Israeli politics this holiday season is neither a statesman nor a rabble-rouser. He is Yitzhak Kedouri, a frail, mystical Iraqi-born rabbi, barely able to speak or to walk unaided, whose widely distributed kabbalistic amulets are credited with swaying thousands of underprivileged Sephardic Jewish voters.

With its tongue only slightly in cheek, Ha’aretz, the most secularist of Israeli daily newspapers, nominated him its Man of the Year. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu invited the white-bearded sage in the pillbox hat and flowing black gown to his office so that he could receive the rabbi’s Rosh Hashanah blessing. Former Foreign Minister David Levy, a veteran standard-bearer for North African immigrants, denounced him as a political stooge who was “dragging us back to the dark ages.”

In the 1996 elections, Kedouri instructed his devotees to vote Shas, the Sephardi Torah Guardians, for the Knesset and Netanyahu for prime minister. No one can measure his influence, but no one is underestimating it. Shas, the rising force in Israeli politics, won 10 seats, making it the third-largest party, behind Likud and Labor. Netanyahu defeated Labor’s Shimon Peres by less than 1 percent of the total vote.

Kedouri is, in the most literal sense, a mystery man. His exact age is unknown, though he is assumed to be about 100. In his youth, he was associated with Yeshivat Hamekubalim, a noted Jerusalem seminary specializing in the occult. Yet there is no record that he was ever ordained or that he distinguished himself as a scholar.

“Even with regard to kabbalists,” said Professor Menachem Friedman, a Bar-Ilan University expert on the fervently Orthodox world, “in the Jewish tradition, a man gains status because he wrote something, or because his students recorded his ideas. With Kedouri, there are no books and there are no students.”

David Levy attacked the rabbi after Shas helicoptered him into the ex-minister’s hometown, Beit She’an, to bless a candidate standing for mayor against Levy’s son, Jackie. With Ashkenazic politicians on the defensive against charges of patronizing the Sephardic Jews, perhaps only Levy could bell the cat and dare to question his lucidity.

“We are witnessing something surrealistic,” Levy told Israel Radio, “with rabbis being enlisted to do things that harm the unity of the people. This Rabbi Kedouri, with all due respect, I’m not sure if he even knows where he is living, the poor man. He is being abused. Does he know whom he is blessing? Does he know where he is being taken?”

In what was a challenge as much to Shas, his bitter rivals for the Sephardi constituency, as to the Kedouri cult, Levy went on: “The use being made of him takes us back to the dark ages, with people looking for good luck charms and attributing divine qualities to a human being. This has become a virtual industry, unfortunately based on superstition and leading us toward an abyss, blindness and near civil war. I firmly object to this cynical use of the innocent faith of people, especially the weak.”

A Moroccan “wonder” rabbi, “Baba Baruch” Abu Hatzeira, waded in behind Levy. “They’ve made Rabbi Kedouri into a circus,” he said, “just so that they can make money. Rabbi Kedouri is an elderly Jew who can’t tell right from left.”

Netanyahu, who knows a blessing when he sees one, sprang immediately to the rabbi’s defense. “I think the rabbi is so sober, so clever, so wise,” the prime minister said, “that it isn’t serious for me to even testify to it.”

The Shas leader, Aryeh Deri, celebrated Kedouri as “a holy man, who is completely clear-minded and very independent and cannot be influenced in any way.” He was, he added, “versed in every detail of daily and political life in Israel.”

Many Israelis remain to be convinced. In any case, both official chief rabbis, the Sephardi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron and the Ashkenazi Yisrael Meir Lau, went on record against the “exaggerated and improper use of rabbis.”

In naming Kedouri its Man of the Year, Ha’aretz lamented what he tells us about Israel at the end of its first half-century.

“More than any other individual,” wrote the columnist Ran Kislev, “he symbolizes the process we are undergoing: the rise of ignorance, on the one hand, and the crumbling of the values associated with an enlightened society, on the other; the decline in the value of rational thinking in determining foreign policy and our way of life; the infiltration of religion not only into matters of personal status, but also into political life in the form of a caste of ayatollahs.”