Judaism: The magic of the late Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri

He never wrote a book, led a movement or managed an institution. So why did more than 200,000 mourners flock to his funeral this week?

kaduri upfront 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
kaduri upfront 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The death of Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri on Saturday, at the age of 106 or 112 - depending whom you ask - made major waves. Kaduri's popularity was enormous. Close to a quarter of a million people attended his funeral on Sunday. Half of Jerusalem was blocked off to enable the massive procession of mourners to accompany his body to Har Hamenuhot cemetery. President Moshe Katsav eulogized him. All the major news media in Israel had followed closely the ups and downs of Kaduri's medical condition during his two-week hospitalization at Bikur Holim. When he died, even foreign TV, radio stations and newspapers devoted attention to his funeral and provided obituaries. What was so attractive about Kaduri? He never wrote a book; nor did he hold a position as rabbi of a city or town. He never led a movement or managed an institution. He was not an accomplished rhetorician. Kaduri's fame seems to have coincided with the rise of mystical religion. As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has pointed out in his introduction to Arthur Goldwag's The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah, every generation has its own defining religious model. In the previous generations, especially before World War II, the rational model reigned. In our generation, mysticism is in. The same occult esoterica that attracts the likes of Madonna, Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Sandra Bernhard, Roseanne Barr and others, gave rise to Kaduri's popularity. It is nothing less than a spiritual phenomenon that millions of people, both Jewish and gentile, study Kabbalah, that major publishing houses print books on Kabbalah for general audiences and that typing the word "Kabbalah" into an Internet search engine reveals hundreds of sites catering to the yearning for Jewish mysticism. THE RISE in irrational forms of religious expression is commonly tied to disenchantment with rationalism. The failures of Communism and the horrors of Nazism, coupled with the recognition of the limitations of science, have pushed people to exchange ideologies that aspire to utopia for direct experience of the divine. This trend seems to have penetrated the Orthodox yeshiva milieu as well. The study of Kabbalah in the haredi world, whether the "hard core" Kabbalah of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria Ashkenazi (Ari), or the translated form explicated by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, is growing steadily. According to Michah Odenheimer, a writer and an Orthodox rabbi, the rise of mystical Judaism in the haredi world is a direct result of its rise in popularity in the secular world. "In the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the more irrational aspects of Judaism were outwardly shunned by the rabbinic establishment," says Odenheimer. "At that time, when rationalism was in its heyday, you looked like a complete fool if you took mysticism seriously. "But today, even the most down-to-earth person realizes there are certain phenomena that have no rational explanations, that science cannot explain everything. So it has become more accepted to learn and teach the more mystical side of Judaism." Perhaps this explains Kaduri's popularity not only in the Sephardi haredi circles, where, for historical reasons, Kabbalah has always been accepted, but also among Ashkenazi haredim. True, the rabbis who eulogized Kaduri at his funeral were all Sephardim: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Ya'acov Hillel, Rabbi David Batzri, Rabbi Benayahu Shmueli, Rabbi Ya'acov Adis. Nevertheless, among the crowds who came to pay their last respects to Kaduri there were thousands of haredi Lithuanians who belong to Judaism's more rational school. It is difficult for the haredi yeshiva to objectively assess Kaduri's knowledge of the Kabbalah, because its esoteric nature makes it inaccessible to most. Still, Kaduri was the object of a tremendous amount of respect. Rabbi Mordechai Sharabi, one of the greatest Jewish mystics of the previous generation, purportedly said that Kaduri was the only person capable of writing amulets that have the power to bring success, heal, improve fertility or change reality for the better in some other way. In Kabbalistic thought it is believed that amulets tap the powers of demons and spirits and use them to perform miracles. In order to harness these supernatural powers, it is normally necessary to force these demons or spirits to take an oath. This is considered incredibly dangerous since the demons and spirits, once released from the oath, seek retribution. Asked once if he forces an oath on demons when he writes his amulets, Kaduri replied, "God forbid! It is forbidden to force them to take an oath. I only ask nicely. If they want to listen to me, they listen. Most of the time they respect me because I am so old."