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A world of trinkets and tombs

Revival of mysticism fuels the rapid ascent of one political party

Zohara Becker has a prayer to offer, and she believes that Baba Sali will help make sure it gets heard.

On a Friday afternoon here, she takes refuge from the pounding sun in shade produced by a wall of the shrine where Baba Sali - a rabbi who died in 1984 - is buried.

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Here she asks for Baba Sali's assistance in gaining God's favor. Today is the birthday of Mrs. Becker's husband - a good time for supplication, she says, because it is on that day that one's fortune comes before God.

Were this a different kind of anniversary - the date of Baba Sali's death - she would have to share the space with tens of thousands of worshippers who come for several days of music, dancing, feasting, and candle-burning.

Becker says Baba Sali's tomb - whose soaring gates and whitewashed dome spring up from the flat desert horizon - is a place closer to God.

"The point of coming to a tomb is to ask the tsadik," she says, using a word that roughly translates as righteous one, "to intervene for you in front of God.... If Baba Sali intervenes with God on your behalf, it helps."

Becker, an immigrant from France, places a lot of faith in such visits. A few years ago, she went to the Galilee region of Israel to visit the grave of Yonatan Ben Uziel, a Bible translator who is reputed to have been a skillful matchmaker. Like other single women, she prayed for help in finding a mate. A few months later, she was married.

Popular phenomenon in Israel

Seeking the assistance of tsadiks, the protection of amulets, and the blessings of living holy men believed to possess extraordinary spiritual powers has become an increasingly popular phenomenon in modern Israel. But many critics argue that such trends stray far from the precepts of mainstream Judaism, which has long emphasized direct prayer to God without intermediaries, the avoidance of any personification of the divine, and the rejection of any moves to beatify people or objects in a way that could be construed as sainthood or idolatry.

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The "new" ways of worship have their roots in Kabala, the sphere of Jewish mysticism that began to crystallize in the 12th and 13th centuries in the city of Safed, in what is today northern Israel. As in the United States - and most conspicuously in Hollywood, where Kabala study recently began to attract a New Age following among stars like Madonna and Roseanne - Israel has seen a revival of interest in the body of work that offers to unlock some of the secrets of the universe.

A host of other social and historic factors, including the rediscovered proximity to holy places once distant and off limits to most Jews, has also contributed to this flourishing culture of tombs and trinkets.

To opponents, these trends are a misguided abandonment of the more scholarly, rational study of Judaism. Such dismissiveness even comes from leading figures within the very group that has most sought to benefit from and encourage this trend: Shas, Israel's fastest-growing political party and social movement.

Shas is an acronym for Sephardi Torah Guardians, billing itself as the representative of religious Jews who originated in Spain and, later, the Islamic Middle East, before Israel's establishment in 1948. But since Shas's entry into politics 15 years ago, its purview has stretched to secular Sephardic voters, crossing the ethnic divide, gaining favor among Orthodox Ashkenazi (European) Jews, and even winning support from Israeli Arabs. While every other political party either lost seats in the May 17 election or just managed to maintain its size, Shas grew by 70 percent, moving from 10 to 17 seats.

Shas says the secret to its success has been restoring pride to the mistreated masses and providing a vast network of social services with low- or no-cost religious education as a path to redemption. But Shas has also relied on the resurgence of popular mysticism, resorting to some very unorthodox campaign methods.

Campaigning with amulets

Just days before national elections in 1996, Shas distributed thousands of amulets - religious good-luck charms - in the form of mystic prayer keepsakes personally written by Kabalist Rabbi Yitzhak Kadourie. The nonagenarian Mr. Kadourie is the spiritual mentor of Shas - sort of their living patron saint. Followers say he is the only Kabalist in this generation with the power to write amulets that include the secret names of angels and arcane abbreviations that can protect a house from evil.

But these particular amulets were given out to recipients with the instruction that Kadourie wanted people to vote for Shas - and for Likud candidate Benjamin Netanyahu. In an election upset in which Mr. Netanyahu won by only 0.5 percent of the vote, the amulets provoked outrage among secular Israeli politicians. Last fall, a judge ruled that the distribution of such items at election time constituted gift-giving and was thus illegal.

This time around, Shas's campaign distributed and screened two videotapes at rallies in the weeks before the May 17 election. The tapes, say some analysts and Shas activists, contributed to the party's electoral triumph. One was of a recent exorcism by a Kabalist rabbi with close ties to Aryeh Deri, who resigned recently as leader of Shas, after he was convicted on charges of fraud and bribe-taking during his tenure as a government minister.

The rabbi, David Batzri, has declined all requests for interviews. But his son, a young rabbi who has permission to speak on his father's behalf, was willing to explain their philosophy in a meeting at their new four-story yeshiva in Jerusalem.

"We didn't prevent anyone from taping [the exorcism] because we knew that seeing it could make all the world believe in life after death," says Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri. The need for exorcisms is rare, he says, and as such, it was the first time his father ever performed one.

"My father didn't want this tape to focus on politics or Deri, but to prove the existence of the afterlife," says Mr. Batzri. "We don't get involved in politics, but it's true that Shas is a spiritual movement. And if someone sees this tape, he may become a more spiritual person and, naturally, vote Shas. Many people who saw this tape said they [decided] to vote Shas."

Despite that, he says, he and his father don't support the use of amulets or candidate endorsements before elections. Although his father studied with the premier Kabalist himself - Rabbi Kadourie - Batzri says they shun any direct involvement in politics.

Cautious about Kabala connection

But Shas, some of its senior officials say, can thrive quite well without the controversial boost from the world of Kabala. Rabbi Shlomo Benizri, a deputy minister in Netanyahu's government who assumed many leadership duties while Mr. Deri was on trial, rejects the new emphasis on mysticism. He argues that Israelis are starved for spiritual nourishment and are finding it in Shas. But, he adds, some members of his party are too quick to feed voters the wrong thing.

"Kabala is important, but it isn't the main thing. I don't like the amulets. If we can bring people to us in another way, I prefer it. We do fear that that this will bring people away from Judaism," Mr. Benizri says in an interview in his Jerusalem office. The walls here are noticeably devoid of the mystic adornments and pictures of rabbis that are so prevalent in the homes and businesses of Shas supporters.

"There is only one way to bring people to Judaism, and that is through the Torah, not magic. There are many charlatans who exploit people, and we give legitimacy to this when we deliver amulets to people," Benizri says.

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