‘The View From Here’ is a slice of local life by Sentinel reporters. Today, religion writer Mark I. Pinsky contributes.
The dozen men and women sitting around the U-shaped table arrangement look nothing like A-list Hollywood celebrities. Yet they come to this austere synagogue social hall in Maitland each Thursday night to study Kabbalah — the same mystical tradition that has captivated entertainment luminaries such as Madonna, Paris Hilton, Ashton Kutcher, Britney Spears and Demi Moore.
According to Kabbalah, the Hebrew letters that form 72 different names for God can offer the power to resist diabolical threats, as well as to induce physical healing.
The mystical belief system maintains that, at the instant of creation, the universe was shattered, splintering into divine “sparks.” Scholars say the objective of studying Kabbalah is to transcend the material world, sometimes with the help of angels.
Sound confusing? Seeking a simplified explanation of Kabbalah is like asking a fast-food question that requires a gourmet answer, says Rabbi Sholom Dubov, of Congregation Ahavas Yisrael, who leads the Maitland group.
There is a positive side to Hollywood’s fascination with Kabbalah, Dubov says.
“Madonna raised an awareness that is causing Jewish people to question and explore that aspect of Judaism, which until now was off limits,” he says. Mysticism and angels are disturbing concepts for some Jews, who are rooted in modern rationalism. Yet, despite its complex, esoteric way of looking at the cosmos, Kabbalah has caught celebrities’ fancy — years after drawing the attention and study of serious Jews and non-Jews alike. Ashleigh Mausser, 25, of Altamonte Springs, says the recent notoriety is an embarrassment.
“I hate how that’s all played into Hollywood,” she says.
Mausser, an artist, first became attracted to the tradition a year ago, when her aunt sent her a book on the subject. “It was exactly what I was looking for,” she says.
Although Dubov and his synagogue are Orthodox, those attending the classes come from all branches of Judaism, and non-Jews are also welcome at the one-hour session. Most members of the class are quick to say their interest in Kabbalah also predates the recent fashion by months — if not years.
“I was seeking more spiritual balance in my life,” says Dr. Michael Zerivitz, 52, a Deltona dentist who attends two different Central Florida synagogues. “I thought this would be a way to learn more about spiritual Judaism.”
By contrast, Micki Wolfson, 57, does not attend any synagogue. The Longwood retiree, who practices yoga and meditation, was raised Jewish but says she has no interest in organized religion.
“I do have a spiritual life,” she says, which is why she is drawn to the Kabbalah class.
The weekly meetings are a mixture of discourse and discussion, led by the rabbi, who supplies a short handout of relevant readings. Light snacks are served on white plastic plates before the class begins, and the soft sound of perking coffee provides a background for the session. For the most part, the atmosphere is relaxed, until a point or example incites spirited interchanges.
The participants give Dubov high marks.
“There’s something mystical about the way he explains these concepts,” says Mayanne Downs, 47, an Orlando attorney. “It’s a marriage of intellectualism and faith.”
Downs, who is not Jewish, says she is not uncomfortable in the group.
“Clearly, anyone is welcome to partake,” she says.
Tiffany Rabner, 19, of Longwood, agrees. The University of Central Florida student, who is not Jewish, says Dubov’s explanations of Kabbalah involve both logic and common sense, “while maintaining a belief in God.”
Dubov is of two minds about Kabbalah’s popularity.Though Madonna has raised the profile of Kabbalah, the rabbi says, there are dangers with some of the things she has been doing, such as using replicas of sacred leather straps and boxes called phylacteries in her act. Judaism and Kabbalah “could be profaned,” Dubov says. “There could be aspects that could be inappropriate, taking something that really belongs in a sanctified atmosphere and materializing it.”