A red string has stars buzzing

Celebrities from Madonna to Britney Spears are sporting yarn bracelets as part of the latest spiritual trend in Hollywood

Kabbalah has always been a mind-bender, staggeringly complex and arcane, accessible to scholars who devoted a lifetime to Torah study — so esoteric it should come with a warning.

And yet, pop stars and celebrities have embraced a retooled version of the teachings of Jewish mystics, as a lifeline, an energy booster, an ego-dimmer, a self-improvement tool and a key to unlocking the secrets of the universe.

And who could be more deserving?

Madonna practises it — so much so that her Reinvention Tour, which opens at the Air Canada Centre tonight — didn’t schedule shows on Friday nights, the Jewish Sabbath. Raised Catholic, Madonna recently took on the name of the Jewish heroine Esther. In a rock video she wraps teffilin, the leather straps used in Jewish prayer, around her arms, a scandalous gesture in the eyes of traditional Jews. In the Reinvention Tour, which includes bagpipers, trapeze artists, a skateboarder and anti-war messages, Hebrew words for the names of God are part of the backdrop. And a tour T-shirt cheekily proclaims: Kabbalists do it better.

Madonna wears a red string around her wrist as a symbol of her Kabbalistic connections. It is said to ward off the evil eye.

Yet Jewish scholars say the red string has nothing to do with Kabbalah. It’s part of Jewish folklore, something your bubba might give you for protection. It’s used in other religious rituals as well — anyone who completed the Kalachakra initiation into Tibetan Buddhism here in Toronto this spring came away with a red string, blessed by the Dalai Lama, and worn as an amulet.

Britney Spears was wearing one for a while and was photographed with Hebrew letters tattooed on the back of her neck. Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Paris Hilton, David Beckham and his wife (former Spice Girl) Victoria wear them. Mick Jagger and ex-wife Jerry Hall have held fundraisers for the Kabbalah Centre. Roseanne Barr and Sandra Bernhard practise it too.

Scholars have been philosophic about Hollywood’s latest spiritual diversion, which traditional Jews, even those steeped in the Torah, approach with hesitation for fear they are out of their depth.

Traditionally, Kabbalism is an intensive study of the Torah and Talmud and includes meditation. Its goal, says Rabbi Justin Jaron Lewis, director of the Jewish studies program at Queen’s University, is knowledge of the divine, transcendence of the soul. Its appeal may lie in its rejection of rationalism and its finely shaded approach to experiencing God, who conceals and reveals himself, who is both transcendent and immanent in the world.

Modern seekers love the idea of tapping into secret teachings, of mining previously hidden gems of theology. And Kabbalah, as it’s popularly practised, is being used as a guide to self-improvement — better relationships, sex life, career.

With everyone on the shady side of the millennium looking for meaning in life, some rabbis say a little bit of religious mysticism, no matter how shallow, is better than nothing. Others say the problem isn’t only dilution, it’s distortion: they get things wrong.

Rabbi Reuven Bulka, using a metaphor, explains: Have you ever been in the construction business? he asks.

“Have you ever built the 17th floor of a building without having a foundation? It’s about as ridiculous as it gets. Like a guy studying nuclear physics who can’t add one and one.”

Serious students of Kabbalah don’t identify themselves as Kabbalists, says Bulka, who chairs the religious and inter-religious affairs committee for the Canadian Jewish Congress. Has he studied Kabbalah? “Those who do, don’t say.”

Madonna has said Kabbalah helps to check her ego and make her less selfish, which makes the practice sound more like self-help therapy than scholarly study. But Madonna doesn’t like to be viewed as a dabbler: “I get a little irritated that people think it’s a celebrity bandwagon that I’m jumping on — I’m very serious about it.”

Madonna and her pals are associated with the Kabbalah Centre. It’s virtually a franchise, based in Los Angeles, with 50 centres around the world, including one on Sheppard Ave. W. at Bathurst St. in Toronto. (The Toronto centre declined any inquiries and referred questions to a spokesperson in Los Angeles.)

After 9/11, interest in Kabbalah exploded, says Rabbi Yehuda Berg, son of the Kabbalah Centre founder, Philip Berg, with attendance at the centres doubling and even tripling. Up to 90,000 attend every week around the world, with another 120,000 connecting online, he says.

He addresses criticisms straight ahead. Yes, it’s a constant struggle to balance the depth of the commentary against the need to make it accessible to the average pop star. “For Kabbalah really to work, it needs effort and study. I’ve been studying for 30 years and I’m still learning about myself. You can’t take an hour a week and call yourself a Kabbalist.”

He continues to study with his father every day from midnight to 2 or 3 in the morning, says Berg, who is 32. “It’s a very powerful hour. The idea is that the universe is asleep and you’re connecting and transferring energy.”

Not surprisingly, the Kabbalah Centre, with its A-list connections — Madonna is reported to have donated millions to build a centre in London — has been criticized for its entrepreneurial spirit.

Red strings, which have been wound around the tomb of Rachel, sell online for $26 (U.S.). “It’s imbued with the energy of protection and you get 10 pieces of string in a package,” says Berg. Also on the Kabbalah market are anti-stress candles ($20 U.S.) and Kabbalah water. What’s so special about the water, a questioner asked online. Here’s the answer verbatim from the Kabbalah Centre Web site: “Kabbalah water comes from very pure springs and has been imbueded (sic) with Ancient Kabbalistics Meditations.”

Yes, it’s true, the Kabbalah Centre encourages tithing for some of its programs, but what religious organization doesn’t require donations, Berg says.

“I know people who were kicked out of synagogue for the High Holidays because they didn’t have a ticket. If someone is benefiting from our teaching they should show their appreciation.” There are five places set aside in all Kabbalah courses for scholarship students who can’t afford to pay, he says.

Answering charges that the Kabbalah Centre is cult-like in its practices, Berg says there’s no coercion.

“Most people who make those charges have never contacted me. They judge from the outside; the average one has never met me, so I’m not going to be bothered by it. Two thousand years ago there was this guy, Jesus, with sandals and five followers. It was called a cult, now there are a billion people following him.”

What’s best about the centre, says Berg, is that it’s open to all. “Religion has caused more pain and suffering than any other disease in the world — wars have started over religion. It’s always caused separation. Kabbalah offers a place to practise in a non-judgmental environment. No one is told what to do.”

Traditionally, a student could only study Kabbalah once he or she was at least 40, knew Hebrew and had spent decades poring over the sacred texts, which were assembled in Spain in the 13th century.

Most galling to Jewish scholars is the apparently easy steps that pop culture Kabbalists are provided to absorb the subtle teachings. Can’t read Hebrew? No problem, just scan the characters for the names of God, Berg writes in his book, The Power Of Kabbalah. “For 2,000 years only a few righteous people were aware of this formula. Now with the sudden renaissance of Kabbalah, the formula has finally been revealed to the world.”

What you’re doing is tapping into your brain at a level you don’t usually use, Berg explains. “You pick up the phone and call Tokyo,” he says. “You’re not sure how the phone works, but you use it anyway. We do things all the time without understanding how they work.”

To Rabbi Justin Jaron Lewis, this is all disappointing. It’s like astrology, he says, as Transcendental Meditation is to Hinduism, all conducted at a low intellectual level. “Madonna clearly is brilliant. She could sit down and engage in real Jewish text study.”

While disappointing, this refashioning of Kabbalah is not offensive, Lewis says. “It’s good for Judaism when a prominent public figure expresses an interest, especially when anti-Semitism is such a live issue. Any expressions of positive interest in Hebrew and Judaism are good for the Jewish community and may help diminish anti-Semitism.”

And Berg asks why are we jumping all over celebrities who wear the red string? “Why are we looking at Britney Spears and other celebrities? They don’t deserve protection? You have to start somewhere. Are we so perfect, do we have to judge someone else?”

The Hasidic movement in Judaism has always emphasized mystical study, says Lubavitch Rabbi Mendel Kaplan of Chabad @ Flamingo in Thornhill. But, he cautions, it’s not magic or bending the laws of nature or unlocking secret powers. “It’s viewing things on a deeper level. In Kabbalah, every single idea, letter, nuance, has a literal meaning and a deeper meaning.”

And there are no shortcuts, he adds. “Fast food is not healthy,” he warns. But on the other hand, “if someone is making an effort to greater spirituality, I applaud that effort.”

But there are still risks that the seekers of spiritual fulfilment are attracted by hocus-pocus, by being associated with celebrities, by the ease of wrapping a red string around their wrists and the delight of looking no further than inside themselves for enlightenment.

A writer named Marlo, writing on a blog site discussing Kabbalah, should make us wary:

“I for one (am) thrilled to have finally found a religion that believes the same things I do,” she wrote recently. “I can’t wait to put on my new red string!”

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