Kabbalah enters the mainstream culture

Jewish mysticism gains popularity, but experts say many do not understand it.

Kabbalah, also known as Jewish mysticism, has been gaining mainstream popularity in the past several years. It has attracted celebrities including Madonna, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

Kabbalah, a unique part of the Jewish faith, focuses on the spiritual aspects of Judaism.

However, many Jews argue that the popular media has misrepresented the true meaning of Kabbalah, which they say is a spiritually enriching part of the Jewish faith.

“It’s not magical hocus-pocus. It’s mostly scholarship, learning about the mystical dimension of our reality and ritual practices,” said Rabbi Dov Wagner of Chabad Jewish Student Center.

“Kabbalah is not different from Judaism. There are the basic traditions, and then there is the spiritual meaning behind them,” he said.

“Rituals and laws are the body of the Jewish religion; Kabbalah, mysticism, is the soul within that body,” he said.

Wagner said Kabbalah allows Jews to get a deeper understanding and meaning of life.

In order to get a true understanding of the meaning of Kabbalah, a practitioner must first understand the Torah and basic Jewish principles. Without strong grounding in these areas, it is easy to get confused about the true meaning of Kabbalah, he said.

“The New Age approach is looking for a way to push a button and get something out of it. Religion in the truest sense isn’t about getting something out of it. It’s about getting in touch with the self,” Wagner said.

Wagner said that Kabbalah provides Jews an understanding and meaning behind traditional Jewish practices. It creates a much livelier meaning to a practice that people have grown up with, he said.

Many aspects of Kabbalah are woven into Jewish traditions, such as when Jews sip wine for Friday evening Sabbath dinners.

The spiritual interpretation for the wine is a reference to the hidden spirit within the physical world, Wagner said.

Just as wine is hidden within the grape, Jews must get past the physical shell and tap into the meaning within, he said

Jared Leshin, a Jewish student and sophomore majoring in philosophy, said when he was a child, a teacher told him that studying Kabbalah involved much more than reading and analyzing text.

“There are prerequisites to studying Kabbalah,” Leshin said. “Firstly, an individual must have a mature spiritual mentality. Secondly, that individual must have at least 40 years experience studying the Torah and other biblical texts.”

Leshin said it is challenging to learn Kabbalah and that people who claim to study Kabbalah without the proper credentials are not grasping the true essence of it.

Dr. Eitan Fishbane, a professor of Jewish mysticism at Hebrew Union College, wrote in an e-mail that Kabbalah is an ancient tradition that teaches about the inner mysteries of divine life.

“In Kabbalistic teaching, God is believed to be composed of 10 dimensions, 10 stages in the flow of Being from Infinite Nothingness to manifest existence,” Fishbane wrote.

The 10 dimensions are known as sefirot, and through prayer and study the mystic seeks to enter into this great supernal river of divine energy.

Kabbalah was initially limited to small groups of men believed to be worthy of initiation. The ancient texts, including the Zohar, or the Book of Radiance, were closely guarded. It is fascinating to observe the popularity of Kabbalah in contemporary times, given its closely guarded traditional nature, Fishbane wrote.

“In some cases, popularizers of Kabbalah focus in on rather peripheral elements of the Kabbalistic tradition (and often some of the more magical and superstitious elements that have existed in many pre-modern religions), mixing these features with a new-age, self-help discourse,” he wrote.

“While often well-intentioned, this represents a relatively narrow reading of the Jewish mystical tradition, and often separates certain Kabbalistic ideas from their broader context in Judaism.”

Chava Frankiel a freshman majoring in psychology, grew up with an Orthodox Jewish background. She wrote in an e-mail interview that Kabbalah has been integrated into her lifestyle since she was young.

“Kabbalah in my life means a great emphasis on the more esoteric, mystical, emotionally inspiring facets to the mitzvoth, or Jewish commandments. The mitzvot hold symbolic, allegorical, and broad moral significance,” she wrote.

Throughout high school and in a visit to Israel, Frankiel gained a better understanding of what Kabbalah was and that it provided her with a greater appreciation for her religion.

“It is a discussion about how God relates to man, man’s spiritual purpose in a physical world, and how to rectify that paradoxical existence,” she wrote.

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