Far from the Hollywood glitz of Kabbalah‘s celebrity acolytes, ordinary people are flocking to Israel’s capital of ancient Jewish mysticism this summer on a quest for spiritual meaning.
The Ascent Centre organises popular seminars to study Kabbalah, as championed by media messiah Madonna, increasingly attracting Jews and non-Jews looking for spirituality and disenchanted with the vagaries of modern life.
“Madonna happened to be a vehicle of God,” says Rabbi Mordechai Siev, who directs the English-language programme at the centre in Safed, extolling the magnetism of the Jewish Sabbath in the slightly down-market Israeli town.
“A guy in LA told me ‘my feet are here but my head is in Safed.’ Friday here, is the real Friday night fever.
“The centre is open to Jewish and non Jewish people from all over the world and they come to check out mystical experiences,” he says, adding that plunging into religious texts allows Kabbalah enthusiasts to “connect to themselves.”
For the bargain-basement price of 280 shekels (66 dollars, 48 euros), students get a discount, interested parties are treated to a four-day course with full board and lodging in the ancient centre of Jewish learning in the Galilee.
Sheree Sharan, 31, has been interested in Kabbalah for two years and came from Chicago for a four-day seminar to “get some energy” and search for the hidden meaning that she believes is lost in the materialism of the West.
“I was looking for Jewish mysticism and Safed is the headquarters for Kabbalah,” says the skinny, blonde single woman.
“Kabbalah teaches you about the power you have inside, how to control your inner instinct, how to make sense of emotions. Our generation seems to be searching for meaning, for goals and answers.
“There’s a lot in Kabbalah that speaks to people from different backgrounds. Now technology, materialism. People have lost touch with their basic needs and desires,” she adds, in the over-powering heat of high summer.
An esoteric offshoot of Judaism, Kabbalah’s origins can be traced back to the 12th and 13th centuries when its central text, the Zohar, was penned.
By tradition, Kabbalah was taught only to a select few — namely, pious Jewish males over the age of 40 who had spent a lifetime immersed in the study of Hebrew texts. Its followers believed that understanding and mastering the Kabbalistic teachings would bring one closer to God and allow greater insight into God’s creation.
Its study required arduous meditation and a strictly ascetic lifestyle.
But fuelled by interest from celebrities like Madonna, Demi Moore and Britney Spears, it has become more and more popular with people like Sharan.
“It offers a lot of practical applications to daily life,” she says as she eats lunch with fellow Kabbalah enthusiasts in between classes. “It’s a formula to explain things in very logical terms.”
Twenty-four-year-old Devori Sacks came from New York City to “center myself,” charging that Kabbalah goes far beyond the razzmatazz that Madonna initially brought to the tradition.
“I wanted to focus on myself, to forget the material aspects of life,” she says. Kabbalah “explains your behaviour, it improves your life.”
“It was a catchphrase when Madonna started Kabbalah. People are becoming more attracted to it because there is a deep ancient answer to all the aspects of human beings,” she says.
Shlomo Schwartz, who teaches Kabbalah in Los Angeles, has watched with pleasure the popularity of mysticism, which he has studied for the past 30 years, take off recently.
“Kabbalah has become popular. Thank God for Madonna, she is responsible for putting Kabbalah on the front pages. The rabbis are not as popular as Madonna, they are not on MTV,” he says, grinning.
Indeed a visit by Madonna to the Holy Land in September 2004 sparked a media frenzy and put a spotlight on the centuries-old tradition.
But away from the media glare, Schwartz says, the appetite for the Kabbalah is nourished by the weakening of moral values in a globalised world.
“Take marriage — people are divorcing everywhere,” he says, stroking his long white beard. “People are desperately seeking for meaning in life.”
And while welcoming the newly-found publicity for Kabbalah, some of its followers warn against disingenuous imitations.
Some centres, Schwartz says, “are more of sects. They don’t teach the Kabbalah, but how to use it to succeed in life. I call it the ‘flufflology’.”