High Profile Kabbala
New Age meets Judaism in the latest spiritual trend sweeping America. The esoteric teachings of mysticism are today connecting Jews—and non-Jews—to the ‘light’ of the Creator. But is this popularization of Kabbala kosher?
In the small stucco and wood-beamed prayer room of the international headquarters of the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles, some 300 people have assembled to worship. It is Friday night and they are in the midst of a raucous and spirited “Lekha Dodi,” full of hand clapping, sonorous emoting and the swaying of bodies linked arm in arm. It is a fast-paced service, a welter of traditional Shabbat observances, New Age mysticism with elements of astrology and rituals specific to the centre thrown in. The room is filled mostly with men dressed casually in white, all the way down to their sneakers. Several wear yarmulkes, others baseball caps, some emblazoned with the centre’s Web site, and a few remain bareheaded. The women are dressed in various assemblages of black, a smattering in head coverings. They sit apart from the men, separated by beveled wood panels. Nearly everyone wears a red string around their wrists thought to protect against the evil eye. Some of the worshipers are Jews, although a number are not.
They have all come together this hot summer night not for religion, they insist, but to “download the light” and transform their lives through the magic of Kabbala, the world’s oldest, most powerful spiritual knowledge.
When the “Lekha Dodi” ends, a vibrating crescendo takes over. The devotees trill, their right hands outstretched and shaking above them. The gesture, explains Alison Cohen, who works in the centre’s public relations department, is part of their Chernobyl project. It is intended to uplift and send positive energy to the radiated waters of Chernobyl in Ukraine. “We’ve already sent Kabbala water there and it has really changed the radiation levels,” she insists.
These days, many people are exploring the spirituality of the Kabbala. Jews looking for a deeper religious experience that is not freighted with the Holocaust and Israel as well as non-Jews have sought spiritual sustenance in Kabbala. The surge in interest has pushed synagogues, Jewish community centers and educational institutions to offer Kabbala study programs. However, the Kabbalah Centre is clearly fueling the current fascination. It has converted Jewish mysticism from esoteric teachings on the arcane inner meaning of the Torah into a nondenominational and widespread form of spirituality for the masses. Although largely repudiated by mainstream Judaism and others who dismiss the centre as little more than a commercial dilution of authentic Kabbala, it has attracted a huge following, including a catalogue of celebrities such as Madonna, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher.
The allure of this contemporary spin on medieval metaphysics has certainly cast a discerning eye on a seemingly new phenomenon. Although there are those who question the centre’s hoary mist of mysticism that has entranced Jews with little background in Torah and non-Jews without any foundation in Judaism or even the ability to read Hebrew, the soaring interest in recent years gives rise to another question: Is this latest kabbalistic infatuation really all that new or unique?
Rav Philip Berg, a former insurance salesman who claims to be the heir to the late Israeli kabbalist Yehuda Brandwein, and his wife, Karen, founded the Kabbalah Centre in the 1970’s. Today it is a 50-branch organization with offices in 11 countries. It claims four million adherents. The elder Bergs run the centre along with their sons Yehuda and Michael, promoting Kabbala as a manual for life—for everyone. And one that can be obtained through its study programs aided by its own books, tapes, scented candles and water, blessed by the centre’s leaders. They are all available for purchase at the centre’s bookstore and online at www.kabbalah. com. “Our mission is to bring Kabbala to everyone,” says Michael Berg. “Kabbala teaches us that Jews were chosen to give this wisdom to the world.” And that, he says, “is what has created controversy.”
Kabbala means “that which is received.” It is the name used to describe esoteric Judaism and the Jewish mystical tradition that surfaced in Provence in the Middle Ages. Kabbala endeavors to illuminate the nature of Divinity, Creation, the soul and the role of humans. It is also full of meditative, mystical and devotional practices and rituals. At its crux is the belief in the Divine nature of the Torah and the idea that studying the text is to unlock the spiritual laws of the universe. According to kabbalistic teaching, its wisdom existed as a primordial revelation before the physical universe and was first given to Adam. Starting in the 13th century, Jewish mystics compiled and wrote down this oral tradition in the Zohar, the Book of Splendor, the primary kabbalist text written in Aramaic.
Because essentially the Kabbala is a commentary on the inner significance of the Torah and because of the power in its language and imagery, there have always been obstacles put up before those who study it. Historically, it has been the purview of married, observant Jewish men over the age of 40. Its teachings and devotions were generally conveyed in tight circles between father and son, teacher to disciple.
Several facets of Kabbala are so enmeshed with Jewish religious belief that, many would argue, to study them outside of Judaism would render them as little more than empty practices. However, the centre takes an entirely different approach. For instance, it maintains that an understanding of Hebrew is not essential to receive the magical powers of the Zohar. It is possible to absorb its potency by simply scanning the Hebrew letters of the text with one’s fingers. As well, devotees need only to glimpse the 72 names of God to be impacted by their energy and power. “Kabbala can be very instructive in bringing an end to pain and suffering to the world,” explains Berg. “It is a very practical goal. People study and they transform their lives. They feel more fulfillment.”
The derision that is focused on the Kabbalah Centre is that it flirts with piety and the profane, commandeering the mystical traditions and offering its devotees an effortless version of material spiritualism. But in the eyes of its detractors, the centre is part of the larger trend in American-style New Age spirituality, albeit draped in the robes of Jewish mysticism. Rabbi Pinchas Giller, a professor of Kabbala at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, describes the phenomenon as “I believe what I buy in a New Age bookstore in the mall.”
Right or wrong, its trendy quotient is encapsulated in one of the centre’s most high-profile members: Madonna. The superstar is not Jewish and yet she has taken on the biblical name Esther, does not perform on the Sabbath, at times wears a Jewish star, has donnedtefilin in her music videos and flashes some of the 72 names of God in her concert performances. According to various news reports, she has given millions to several Kabbalah Centre initiatives.
In September, Madonna and her husband, British film director Guy Ritchie, accompanied Kabbalah Centre leaders and some 2,000 followers to Israel for the High Holidays. While there, they participated in a kabbalistic Rosh Hashana service and visited the graves of rabbinical sages. A late-night trip to the Kotel was curtailed because of the throngs of fans and paparazzi that chronicled the pop singer’s four-day pilgrimage.
Although her practice of Kabbala has put her in intimate proximity to Jewish practice (she is said to keep kosher to some degree and has participated in Passover Seders and Purim), Madonna has adamantly denied that her study of Kabbala is either religion or Judaism. She has described Kabbala as akin to the “out-of-the-box thinking” of “punk rock.”
In the centre’s view this makes perfect sense. “Some people view religion as dogma,” says Berg, “the pressure to do this as this is what God wants. In that sense Kabbala is not religion. Shabbat,tefilin—Kabbala views these as tools to our goal of connecting with the light, the Creator.”
Critics charge that the centre spins just enough of a diaphanous thread of imagery, symbols and language to create an opaque illusion without any Talmudic foundation and without having to do the necessary work. “It is a modern fact of life that there is a sincere quest for spirituality,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Alderstein, a faculty member at Yeshiva of Los Angeles and Loyola Law School, “but people don’t want to invest the time. The Kabbalah Centre takes Kabbala wisdom and pretties it up with phrasing and mixes it with nonsense. It’s potent.” Moreover, he says, the reason Kabbala study has traditionally been limited is because of its inherent understanding that it is God’s wisdom revealed to man and there is a chasm between the two. “The only way to understand God’s wisdom is to be God-like and live a certain lifestyle,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons that it has not been taught to non-Jews. The more esoteric profane points are supposed to build on a foundation [of Talmudic knowledge]. You wouldn’t attempt calculus without algebra or geometry.”
Therein lies the rub. For over 500 years a number of secret societies and those within and without Judaism have appropriated various aspects of Kabbala. “Kabbala was always a paradoxical crossover phenomenon,” says Giller. “Gentiles were not particularly interested in Jewish law or philosophy. They were interested in mysticism, the beautiful language and meaning in Kabbala.”
During the time of the Medici court in Renaissance Italy, neoplatonists grasped Kabbala as a way to divine the keys to the Bible and to search for Christological references—in essence a tool to convert Jews to Christianity. Influential among this group often referred to as the Christian Kabbalists was Italian philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. He believed Kabbala could reveal the divinity of Jesus Christ as well as an understanding of the teachings of Pythagoras and Plato. A second important figure was Christian Hebraist Johannes Reuchlin, who was the first non-Jew to write about Kabbala. Reuchlin’s two volumes in Latin furthered the connection between Christian themes and Kabbala and pushed it onto the stage of some of the leading intellectual developments of the time.
While many aspects of Jewish mysticism are intrinsically associated with Judaism, parts of it would become associated and absorbed into a number of rituals and practices largely stripped of Jewish roots. Occultists in the 19th century borrowed from Kabbala, as did the Hasidic movement, with its social structure of the rebbesituated at the center and the idea of cleaving to God through therebbe. Kabbala has also crossed over into cultural consciousness through time. The painter Amedeo Modigliani was inspired by kabbalistic imagery. More recently, Darren Aronofsky’s film Pi used Kabbala to advance its plot in which a brilliant mathematician latches onto the idea that math can decode the inner workings of the natural world and is soon pursued by a secret sect of kabbalists, fearful he is about to discover the true name of God.
Although aspects promoted at the Kabbalah Centre have come into question, on some level they too have historic roots in kabbalistic practice. According to Giller, in the 16th century Rabbi Isaac Luria told Marranos with limited Jewish background that they could pray essentially by scanning up to 30 pages of the Zohar. As well, revered Negev mystic Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira (known as Abu Baba Sali) blessed water and the late Lubavitch Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson blessed vodka. According to Michael Berg, Rabbi Shalom Buzaglo, in the mid-18th-century book Kisse Melekh, writes: “Reading the Zohar even without understanding reveals tremendous light.” And some of worlds leading non-Jewish thinkers—Sir Isaac Newton and Shakespeare among them—are said to have studied Kabbala.
Of course, there are some essential differences in the practice of Jewish mysticism today. In the past, Kabbala was confined to men of higher learning and known among the secret societies of Christianity and Islam. Those who studied it certainly knew Latin or Hebrew.
“Kabbala now has a grown interest outside of elite circles,” says Elliot Wolfson, professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University. “But its content is watered down and there is the machinery of modern technology to move it.”
Indeed, the centre claims to have 100,000 new visitors to its Web site each month, and it deploys a call center with 45 teachers on hand to answer questions and consult (1-800-kabbalah). According to Berg, the centre is establishing a studio to produce documentaries and DVD’s. It plans to build a television network “so that people can get Kabbala without having to come to a centre,” he says.
The current fascination with Kabbala, particularly as promoted by the centre, has given the mystical movement the kind of profile its creators could probably never have imagined. But the history of Kabbala has always been interlaced with the traditions and agendas of other groups and individuals.
Additionally, controversy and critics have always surrounded its study. For one, factions of Jews in the 18th-century largely discredited its study as mere superstition.
Unleashing the power of the universe and finding transformative, enduring happiness is an intoxicating brew. And symbols and metaphors have always been highly potent methods that help us understand the unknowable, as is the interpretation of them.
“Then and today it is easy to pervert Kabbala,” says Alderstein. “Its abstract language is pretty obtuse and its imagery allows people to turn it into what they want.”