Revived interest in Jewish mysticism stirs controversy

It became official when Britney Spears appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly in November, wearing little but a white bustier, a pouty look and a red string around her wrist: Kabbalah has entered the realm of pop culture.

Of course, Madonna has led the way in promoting Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. She evangelizes Kabbalah Centre International teachings to her celebrity pals — perhaps she told Britney about the red string’s power to turn away others’ jealous looks as they kissed on the MTV Video Music Awards.

Even Paris Hilton, the videotape-beleaguered socialite heiress, stopped in at the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre recently to pick up her own red string bracelet for protection against the evil eye, said the center’s co-director, Rabbi Yehuda Berg.

This can hardly be the fate that the Kabbalah’s creators — Jewish mystics in the 13th through 16th centuries who wrote the Zohar and related writings — could have imagined for their teachings, which were intended to reveal the inner meaning of the Torah.

And it has traditionalists up in arms. The phenomenon has been derided on some Jewish Web sites as “McMysticism.”

The connection between pop-culture Kabbalah and the real thing “is the relationship between pornography and love,” says Adin Steinsaltz, a Hasidic rabbi in Jerusalem who has written several books about Jewish mysticism, including the newly published Opening the Tanya: Discovering the Moral and Mystical Teachings of a Classical Work of Kabbalah (Jossey-Bass, 2003).

“Pornography is intrinsically soulless, and doesn’t have any obligations attached,” he said. “It’s just using externals. They are doing exactly the same thing.”

Most of the traditionalists’ fury is directed at the Kabbalah Centre International, a religious nonprofit organization run by Rabbi Philip Berg of Los Angeles, his wife, Karen, and his sons. They have 10 locations in the United States, including South Florida, and 13 more from Tel Aviv to Chile.

The Kabbalah Centre markets Jewish mysticism to everyone, Gentile and Jew, adults and children, as a system of tools for self-understanding, to be acquired through its courses, books, tapes and “gear,” which includes T-shirts and key rings.

Because of the potency of its language and imagery, as well as the fact that it is, in essence, a commentary on the inner meaning of the Torah, Kabbalah study has historically been open only to married, observant Jewish men old enough to be grounded in Judaism’s core texts.

But Kabbalah Centre teachers say that their teachings have little to do with Judaism and need not be restricted to anyone.

Kabbalah is “a universal system for self-improvement,” said Rabbi Yehuda Berg, a son of Philip Berg and the author of The 72 Names of God: Technology for the Soul, issued this year by Kabbalah Publishing. “A lot of people are disenfranchised from religion, and Kabbalah offers them a very nonjudgmental way to connect.”

But no matter how the traditionalists object, the reality is that the Kabbalah Centre International reaches a lot of people.

More than 18,000 students are enrolled in its classes in the United States and another 90,000 are “active members,” according to Yehuda Berg. The organization’s Web site, kabbalah.com, is visited by 90,000 people each month, he said, and 30,000 call a toll-free number for advice or “student support.”

The most talked-about Kabbalah Centre products are its red strings.

Jewish tradition holds that wearing a red string that has been brought to the gravesite of the biblical matriarch Rachel, in Hebron, can bring children to the infertile and protection from the evil eye. Such strings can be purchased cheaply all over Israel, and in Judaica stores elsewhere.

The Kabbalah Centre this year tried to trademark the red string, which it sells for $26 to $36. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office turned it down.

In part because of the Kabbalah Centre, interest in Jewish mysticism has spread far beyond it. Synagogues, Jewish community centers and colleges now offer classes on the topic, as do New Age spirituality centers.

Even the Reform movement, which for nearly all its history rejected most of Judaism’s traditions and metaphysical elements, recently hired its first professor of Jewish mysticism for its rabbinical seminary.

It’s all part of Americans’ hunger for self-help, and for answers to the big metaphysical questions that people confront as they age.

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