Kabbalah: the Jewish mystical tradition that’s attracting high-profile followers

Question: What’s the spiritual link between pop icon Madonna, soccer superstar David Beckham and a room full of local Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders in Bloomfield Township? Answer: A fascination with the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah (pronounced with stress on either the second or third syllable).

This centuries-old tradition is so popular right now that many celebrities are dabbling in its disciplines. But Kabbalah is a far deeper spiritual system than people might guess from celebrity sound bytes.

It’s so intriguing that Rabbi Daniel Syme of Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township invited the top American scholar of Kabbalah to address metro Detroit’s leading interfaith conference: the annual Glazer Institute for clergy that was held last week at Beth El.

“On the whole, there are positive benefits to someone like Madonna expressing her interest,” Daniel Matt said in an interview before his lectures.

Matt is completing the first decade of a 20-year project to translate into English a 6,000-page version of the masterpiece of Kabbalah, a 13th-Century book called the Zohar, which means “Radiance.”

“In someone like Madonna, I can understand the interest in Kabbalah,” said Matt, although he is basing his judgment only on media reports, including stories about her having passed her interest along to celebrities like Beckham.

“If you’re someone who has reached the heights of material success, you realize that there has to be something more to life,” Matt said. “Madonna seems to want to integrate the material and spiritual aspects of life and Kabbalah does offer that pathway.”

In four hours last week, Matt gave clergy a crash course. Then, he closed the conference by signing copies of his 2002 book, “Zohar: Annotated and Explained” (Skylight Paths, $15.99), a breezy introduction to the vast subject that runs a mere 170 pages.

In his lectures, Matt described Kabbalah as a mystical interpretation of Judaism that emerged in 12th-Century France but blossomed in 13th-Century Spain.

“Kabbalah means ‘receiving’ … and refers to receiving wisdom handed down through the years,” Matt said.

Kabbalah’s major innovation was its attempt to throw open the doors of religion to imagine God as far larger than a father figure and God’s involvement in the universe as far broader than that of a powerful creator and judge.

For example, followers believe “that ultimately God is beyond any gender, so that if we regard God as masculine … then we need to balance that by seeing God as feminine.”

The idea of expanding God’s traditional, masculine image was startling, Matt said. But Kabbalah didn’t stop there. Not only is God beyond any gender in Kabbalah, Matt said, but God is present in every corner of the universe.

“This transforms religion from a list of dos and don’ts and dogmas into a spiritual adventure,” Matt said. “God is not sitting outside the world. She can be found right here in the bark of a tree.”

By following this mystical path, he said, “We can trust that we are part of something greater than ourselves, a vast web of creation.”

That spiritual grandeur and sense of adventure is attracting men and women around the world, Matt said.

People are ready for this message, he said, because “our sense of wonder has shriveled in the hectic pace of our lives.”

In Kabbalah, spiritual imagination is encouraged and “God becomes fresh again, revealed in this very moment … continually taking us by surprise.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday February 19, 2007.
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