Some religious teachers might welcome the media profile that celebrity recruitment brings, but not Rabbi David Cooper, a Kabbalah teacher from the US.
Thanks to Madonna’s red thread, Rabbi Cooper concedes Kabbalah, a kind of Jewish mysticism, is going through a faddish and commercial phase.
Wearing a red bracelet supposedly to ward off evil held as much value and meaning as buying a hula hoop, he told the Herald. “Anything can be made commercial … It is faddish to the extent it interferes with true spiritual seeking. It is a negative. Truth will outlive the commercialism.”
But Rabbi Cooper, on his first tour of Australia, gives Madonna – the singer who sparked celebrity interest in Kabbalah – the benefit of the doubt.
“I think she’s an intelligent person; there is nothing to gain for her by playing this out as a fad. At this point I’d like to believe she is a serious spiritual seeker, but that doesn’t translate to her followers. For people running out to a store to buy a red thread, that won’t last, but for the people interested in looking for an authentically spiritual experience …”
Rabbi Cooper is the author of the best-selling guide to Kabbalah titled God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism and is part of the Jewish Renewal movement, founded by Jews making their way back to Judaism after exploring Eastern traditions such as Buddhism. After a 30-year personal journey, his approach to Kabbalistic teachings focus on the little-known contemplative side of Judaism, using meditation to achieve communion with what he describes as the ultimate boundlessness of the divine.
“How do we connect with something totally beyond? The answer is: if God is everything, then we take out limited concepts of time and space. What is happening right now, in the moment, is presence with a capital P. If we drop our sense of past and future and the concept of here and there, then we come to just here and just now. It’s the closest we can come to the unknowable.”
For beginners “coming to the moment” requires practice of at least 45 minutes a day – and to this end he is hosting his first Australian mediation retreat in Leura from next weekend – until it can be accomplished in everyday life.
The Hebrew word Kabbalah means to receive, and Kabbalists focused on understanding the secret teachings of the Torah.
“Jewish practices of prayer and service and of charity are informed by this understanding that ultimately everything is one.”
Jeremy Jones, director of community affairs for the Australia/Israel Jewish Affairs Council, said Kabbalah was a great source of personal exploration. But he expressed reservations about those who “use the brand name to promote some fast-food spirituality or the cult of the celebrity … You need to immerse yourself in Judaism before the next levels make any sense.”
Rabbi Cooper says genuine interest has come at a time when people are tiring of institutionalised religions. “We are shopping for religion … we are seeing the fallacies of many religions, and people are more and more willing to allow a cross fertilisation of traditions.”