Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A World of Trinkets and Tombs Revival of Mysticism Fuels the Rapid Ascent of One Political Party

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A World of Trinkets and Tombs Revival of Mysticism Fuels the Rapid Ascent of One Political Party

Article excerpt

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.

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. 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. …

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