Old-time religion of Madonna and child

Evening News (Scotland), Feb. 6, 2003
Gina Davidson

For the last six years, only the most eagle-eyed of celebrity watchers will have noticed a new phenomenon.

A thin red thread is being worn on the wrists of some of the most famous people in the world, denoting their latest fascination with how to improve their lives. They’ve already worked on the physical, everything from pilates to surgery, and the internal, macrobiotic diets to blood group diagnoses, so now it’s the turn of the spiritual. And the ancient Hebrew teachings of Kabbalah is the way they have chosen to seek fulfilment.

Madonna, originally a Roman Catholic, is perhaps the foremost of the religious sect’s celebrants. She has said it is helping her “unpick her ego” and she has also claimed that she followed Kabbalah’s teachings on the best times to make love, which has resulted in her conceiving her third child at the age of 44. Meanwhile, her husband Guy Ritchie is believed to be writing a script for a film called The 49th Gate, a Kabbalah-inspired drama about people trapped between heaven and hell as well as a children’s book based on its parables.

Jerry Hall is another convert and is said to have met her former partner, banker Tim Attias, at a Kabbalah gathering, and Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, Roseanne Barr, Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, Courtney Love and Naomi Campbell have all been spotted wearing the tell-tale red thread which is worn to “ward off the evil eye”. All seem to believe that by following the teachings of Kabbalah – which means “receiving” in Hebrew – they will find true fulfilment.

But just what is Kabbalah, besides being one of the fastest growing spiritual organisations in the world, and what does it offer that more mainstream religions do not?

Perhaps for some of its celebrity followers, Kabbalah is no more than the latest mystical fad, an alternative to Buddhism or Scientology, two other favourites with stars. And as the London Kabbalah Centre offers lectures on What Women Want (For Men Only), Making Love Last, Overcoming Our Hidden Addictions, and How to Read People in Five Minutes or Less, it is easy to understand its attractions.

The icing on the cake for celebrities, however, is that as well as offering peace of mind, it also promises to stop the ageing process. It claims we are naturally rejuvenated every seven years, and that we only age if we are unreceptive to this fact. To this end, the London centre also sells a range of Kabbalah products. As well as Kabbalah mineral water, which offers “centuries of wisdom in every drop”, there is a new Kabbalah skincare range, with “rejuvenating daycream” at £48 and a “pure Kabbalah water” under-eye treatment at £90.

It’s hardly surprising then that some in the Jewish community are angry at the way the centuries-old spiritualism is being used as a catch-all life improvement service.

“The Kabbalah is an incredibly powerful tradition going back thousands of years,” says Jeremy Rosen, a London-based Rabbi. “What’s being peddled at the moment is like a comic book version.

“Everyone wants an overnight solution to their problems. People have this attitude that you just have to take this water and it performs magic. That’s ridiculous. It may have a placebo effect, but that’s nothing to do with its intrinsic qualities. This is the new Kabbalah of hocus pocus.”

Yet in its proper form, Kabbalah is a serious religious tradition, often described as a mystical offshoot of Judaism that dates back centuries and is usually only studied by those over the age of 40 who are believed to have the required spiritual maturity to deal with its teachings.

According to its followers, Kabbalah goes all the way back to the creation of the world when it was “given to mankind by the Creator” and it teaches that only by learning to “understand and act in accordance” with the powerful principles which operate the universe, will people improve their lives.

“Just as basic physical laws such as gravity and magnetism exist independ-ently of our will and awareness, the spiritual laws of the universe influence our lives every day and every moment,” a spokesman for the London Kabbalah Centre says. “Kabbalah empowers us to understand and live in harmony with these laws, and use them for the benefit of ourselves and the world.”

Tradition has it that Adam was the first to receive the wisdom of Kabbalah – not that he was a man but a “being who lives in a dimension beyond our physical universe” – and the book of Kabbalah he was given by the entity Raziel is so profound “that by today’s standards one would not be allowed to pronounce its words”.

Later, the teachings were also passed on to Moses while he was on Mount Sinai being given the Ten Commandments. But the Kabbalah was tightly guarded and only transmitted by word of mouth to a small circle in each succeeding gener-ation. It was believed that if the “extraordinary power” of the teachings fell into the wrong hands, it could be used for destructive purposes.

However in the first or second century AD, a Rabbi called Simeon Bar Yochei dictated a book of parables based on the oral teachings. It was called the Zohar – the light – and was a deeply complex text that offers a philosophy for life including meditation, yoga and astrology.

The book was rediscovered in the 13th century and, in the centuries since, the Kabbalah has had a strong background presence in Judaism.

But with the current celebrity interest and the Kabbalah skincare range it’s not surprising that some rabbis have their doubts, with one even describing it as “Judaism with bacon sandwiches”.

Rabbi Pinni Dunner, of the Saatchi Synagogue, says he suspects that the reason Kabbalah has become so popular outside mainstream Judaism is that it demands little commitment or self-discipline and makes few demands of the people who study it. It doesn’t require you to keep the Sabbath or eat Kosher or follow any of the rules that make a religious Jewish life.

“What Kabbalah does is make people feel good. They can feel very holy without having done anything more than drinking some water over which someone has chanted a few prayers,” he adds.

However, Rabbi Dunner does stress the respect the Jewish community has for Kabbalah’s role in the spiritual life of Judaism, and he describes it as having three distinct elements.

The first is a series of parables about life, the universe and everything that is, on one level at least, easy to understand.

The second is a chunk of text that is extremely difficult to get to grips with.

The third, and perhaps most contentious, side is what some describe as practical Kabbalism. This covers such issues as amulets, miracles and charms. This area, as far as Jewish scholars are concerned, is for experts only.

The red threads worn by followers are what Rabbi Dunner calls “soft-core” practical Kabbalah.

“It’s part of the teaching that red is a colour that wards off evil spirits but wearing a red thread around the wrist also has its roots in a Jewish custom. This involves walking seven times around the tomb of Rachel saying psalms, unwinding thread as you go and then transforming the thread into a protective bracelet,” he says. A spokesman for the centre adds: “The wisdom of Kabbalah has been passed down to us by Abraham, Moses and the other patriarchs and matriarchs of the Bible, and by the great kabbalists of history, including Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochei. Indeed, one of the most important aspects of Kabbalah is the passing of its teachings from master to student over many generations.

“For centuries, Kabbalah was suppressed by those who did understand it, but even the ancient Kabbalistic sages chose to keep their knowledge hidden because they realised it was not the time to make this wisdom available to humanity in general. That time has now come, and the world is now beginning to receive the wisdom of Kabbalah.”

Even Rabbi Rosen, who has his reservations about the popularisation of Kabbalah, is a passionate exponent of the real thing.

“At a time when western religion has concentrated too much on the rational, there is something very powerful and appealing about the mystical side of the Kabbalah for all of us,” he says. “But it is no quick fix to anything – and there are no short cuts.”


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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday February 8, 2003.
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