Jan. 1, 2005
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Saturday January 1, 2005
Judaism’s mystical side attracting people seeking spiritual boost
SEATTLE — The ancient form of Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah made a huge comeback in 2004.
Celebrities like Madonna, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Demi-and-Ashton made news for studying Kabbalah’s teachings, learning Hebrew and donning red string bracelets to protect against the evil eye. Even Target stores, riding the red string fashion trend, briefly carried the bracelets earlier this year but pulled them after Jewish groups complained.
Around the country, ordinary people, their curiosity piqued, started Kabbalah study groups, taking Kabbalah lessons online and celebrating Jewish culture, whether or not they were Jewish.
Kabbalah is thought to offer the secret to achieving joy and fulfillment, offering a definitive answer to that universal question: What is my purpose in life?
Kabbalah teaches that the creator is a source of eternal affirming light and that the creator’s followers are vessels for it. The word translates from Hebrew as “reception” or “something that’s received.” The main text for Kabbalists, the ancient Zohar, means “bright light” and is considered an actual source of light.
Practicing kindness and selfless generosity, along with rigorous study, helps make the world a better place, the theory goes.
“Kabbalah is all about the mystical angle of Judaism — how you draw the divine down to earth, how you reach the divine — bringing the holy and sacred down to day-to-day life,” said Rivy Poupko Kletenik, director of educational services for the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.
Many Kabbalists believe in reincarnation as a means to achieve higher spiritual development. Another guiding principle is that there are no coincidences — that what you do comes back to you. Equally important is the notion that no one is more responsible for your happiness than you.
That hard but ultimately liberating realization helped change the life of Seattle corporate attorney Naneen Baden, who helped organize a local Kabbalah study group here this year.
Kabbalah hit its groove in the mainstream after centuries as an esoteric branch of Jewish thought because people like Baden have taken its practical life lessons to heart.
Baden, 40, was raised Jewish but last year she started to study Kabbalah, following her sister and father, devotees who live in Dallas. Baden’s sister, Alison, actually credits Madonna for inspiring her to study Kabbalah.
Baden described herself back then as frazzled and easily frustrated. She got hot-tempered in traffic. She was not the type of person who took risks. She wasn’t satisfied with life.
Baden kept telling herself, “I don’t want to have the Lexus. I want to have relationships with people.”
Baden gave up her demanding position at a large law firm to work at a smaller firm. And she started connecting with the people most important to her. She also began studying Kabbalah.
Kabbalah, its followers say, is about relinquishing your ego, cutting down on negative thoughts and channeling positive light through every action in life.
“It helps you focus on areas that people, on a day-to-day basis, don’t think about,” Baden said.
Baden wears a red string bracelet to reinforce this outlook. In Kabbalah, tying a red-dyed woolen string around your left wrist inoculates you against other people’s destructive energy, such as anger and envy, writes Rabbi Yehuda Berg in his newly released “The Red String Book” (The Kabbalah Center, $14). According to Berg, looks really can kill, on a spiritual level at least.
But the bracelet also reminds wearers to rid their own hearts of harmful impulses.
Alison Baden explained Kabbalah this way: “The essence of it is, love thy neighbor as thyself. If we did that every second of every day, the whole world would change.”
“I used to be really negative person — I didn’t realize it,” she said. “That’s totally changed. I’m positive about everything. It’s almost like you have this secret that nobody else knows.”
But in the spirit of full disclosure, she admitted she isn’t entirely over her hang-ups.
“I still have a little ways to go with road rage,” she said, laughing. “That’s my Satan, my opponent.”
The effects of studying Kabbalah can be felt right away, Baden and other members of the Seattle group said during a recent Hanukkah party, complete with traditional potato latkes and applesauce.
At each monthly meeting, members recite prayers in Hebrew. In Kabbalah, the mere act of saying certain expressions aloud unlocks positive energy. Saying them with others only heightens the experience; most devotees therefore recommend studying in a group.
“You can make much more spiritual progress when you combine the light of all the different people,” Baden said.
Baden studies Kabbalah live online each Sunday and recaps what she’s learned for the group whenever they meet. The Web site, www.kabbalah.info, is run by the Bnei Baruch World Center for Kabbalah Studies, a nonprofit institute based in Israel headed by Rabbi Michael Laitman.
Members of the Seattle group have formed a Yahoo message group where they can get news and hold online discussions with Kabbalists in the city and in other areas, such as Kabbalist Adam Bauthues, who lives north of Bellingham, Wash.
Bauthues, a 28-year-old grocery-store employee, writer and student, has been studying through the Bnei Baruch center for five years, but his interest in Kabbalah resulted from writing college papers on mysticism in different world religions.
He attributes the current popularity of Kabbalah, which he describes as a science rather than its own religion, to an upheaval in people’s values and aspirations.
“There is such a large gap between the moral evolution of our generation and the technological evolution, and we are beginning to feel this gap more and more each day,” Bauthues explained by e-mail.
Kabbalah gives people the tools to transcend what they think of as reality, helping them understand their desires and bringing them closer to the true meaning of existence, he said.
It was perhaps inevitable, however, that Kabbalah’s popularity would cause concern among lifelong Kabbalists and in the Jewish community. Some don’t like the consumer-oriented (and celebrity-friendly) approach of the nonprofit Kabbalah Center, which is based in Los Angeles and New York and headed by Yehuda Berg. The center’s popular Web site, www.kabbalah.com, contains a primer on Kabbalah, as well as books and other materials for purchase.
Kletenik, of the Jewish Federation, said she’s worried that some “dabblers” are taking up Kabbalah for the wrong reasons.
“Most people who lead Jewish lives think it’s funny that people say they practice Kabbalah,” she said. “Kabbalah isn’t something you just play with. Kabbalah has to be part of the practice of Judaism. It’s like taking the icing and not eating the cake.”
While Kletenik appreciates that people need something to help them “rise above the mundane,” as she puts it, she recommends that they seek enlightenment and growth through their own cultural and religious traditions.
But other Jews, like Baden, welcome non-Jews. Her husband, Sean O’Connor, another member of her group, was raised Catholic. Her sister, Alison, said she has Christians and others in her study group in Dallas.
An original member of Naneen’s group, Bobbi Salit, is also Jewish. Her grandparents escaped the Holocaust in Europe but kept the family’s heritage a secret once they made it to the U.S.
“We were raised not to tell anyone we were Jewish because we’d lose our jobs,” Salit said. “As I got older, I wanted to learn more.
“You learn there’s a rhyme and reason for everything,” Salit said, noting that she’s a cancer survivor. With Kabbalah, “you’re not afraid of death — it’s just a transition. Fear doesn’t control you.”
The Seattle group is still small, with only half a dozen members. Baden said the group, like Kabbalah itself, is open to newcomers, regardless of their background.
“It’s not just a Jewish thing,” she said. “You just have to be curious and want to develop spiritually and connect to the creator in some way. How fast you develop is up to you.”
Sidebar: KABBALAH RESOURCES
“The Power of Kabbalah,” by Rabbi Yehuda Berg (The Kabbalah Center, $17.95)
“The Red String Book,” by Rabbi Yehuda Berg (The Kabbalah Center, $14)
“Kabbalah for Beginners” by Rabbi Michael Laitman, (Bnei Baruch, $7.50)
“The Essential Zohar: The Source of Kabbalistic Wisdom,” by Rabbi P.S. Berg (Harmony/Bell Tower, $24)
The Kabbalah Center: www.kabbalah.com
Bnei Baruch World Center for Kabbalah Studies: www.kabbalah.info. Click on “Kabbalah Classes” for audio and video lessons.
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