Centerpiece: Mystical Kabbalah
In a long path to enlightenment, locals are opening the door to ancient Jewish philosophy
It’s called Kabbalah and it’s known as the “why” of life. It has several spellings and numerous interpretations to go along with it.
This study of an ancient Jewish philosophy has been embraced recently by celebrities such as Madonna, Demi Moore, Roseanne Barr and Courtney Love — each of whom are touting its power to whomever will listen.
Madonna has donated millions to build a center near her California home. Moore has sung the praises of its lasting effects on the set of her recent comeback movie “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.”
Kabbalah is not a cult. It’s not a religion either. Practitioners say it’s simply a way of thinking about reality and the surrounding world. But the reality of Kabbalah is as complicated and multifaceted as its various practitioners. There is a traditional view and a modern view (sometimes called Kabbalah Lite), both of which are taught in Southwest Florida in very different, yet similar classes — one by a rabbi and the other by a psychic medium.
Kabbalah is about science, ethics and reality, according to Kabala.com, one many Web sites dedicated to the practice of Kabbalah.
The word “Kabbalah” stems from the Hebrew root word “kabel,” which means “to receive.” And in order to function on a “kabbalistic level,” one must be willing to let in ideas and accept information from a higher force or being. The thought in Kabbalah is to let go of preconceived notions, selfishness and fear.
There are no real rules or religious dogma associated with Kabbalah. What’s agreed by modern and more traditional Kabbalists is this: It’s about a way of life, a way of seeing things and people in a more positive light. It’s about realizing that reality is not always what is perceived.
A traditional look at Kabbalah
Rabbi Yitzchok Minkowicz, director of Chabad Lubavitch of Southwest Florida and teacher of Kabbalah, is no-nonsense in discussing what Kabbalah means to him.
“Kabbalah doesn’t add or subtract from anything in the Torah,” he said, tugging gently on his long dark beard. “The ultimate is to create a transformation.”
This transformation can only be done through reading the Torah, the Jewish holy book, which he said was a gift from God. And once the gift is opened “Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find.”
There are several levels in which individuals can understand the world and the Torah:
Simple meaning — where one reads and takes things at face value;
Hints — where one realizes things are alluded to;
Inspirational ideas; and
Secrets of the Torah.
That’s where Kabbalah comes in, he said — on that last level. It’s about digging out the true meaning of what’s important in life and in the world, and forgetting the rest.
On a recent Wednesday evening, Minkowicz sat at a table at the Chabad in Fort Myers with two students — Melissa Jeda and Ian Petersen. Dressed in his usual formal white shirt, black pants and wire-rimmed glasses, Minkowicz led a discussion of just one verse of the Torah. Their chat — which revolved around the importance of having a gate to a city — lasted more than an hour.
“How does mysticism work with this verse?” he finally asked the students. There was no answer. He went on to explain that the verse, of course, has a simple meaning: Every city needs a gate of some sort for protection. He discussed the hints and inspirational ideas that come from that verse. Then he came to the secrets. He mentioned that maybe every person is his own city and there needs to be a gate to protect that city.
Eyes widened with interest. The discussion became more intense, and Minkowicz took his glasses off and rubbed his nose. “The reality is …We want to be successful … protect what you see, protect what you hear, protect what you take in and you’re guaranteed success (with your city).” And with that, a mystical part of Kabbalah was revealed.
The night ended with what was supposed to be a simple prayer, yet even that was dissected and searched for hidden meaning.
“Every single time you read the Torah, you’ll get something different,” Minkowicz said, noting that is what is so wonderful about it. Class was then dismissed until the next week.
Until about 300 years ago, Kabbalah class was taught on a one-on-one basis, Minkowicz said. Student had to be a well-versed and “spiritually perfect” male who studied the Torah and all of its levels of meaning.
Later it was decided that people wanted more. Laymen were taught this inner dimension and inner reasoning, he said. They were taught there should be a greater amount of joy in life and it could be found through training.
Kabbalah isn’t about just studying mystical Torah verses, though. “It’s to create a healthy communication with the mind and the heart,” he said.
“Joy is one of the strongest foundations of mysticism. Sadness hinders divine inspiration.”
It’s this sadness that has probably led celebrities like Madonna and Moore to research ancient Kabbalah, he said — sadness and coming to grips with their two souls.
Minkowicz said it’s believed that every Jewish person is born with two souls — an animal one and a godly one. “It’s a daily battle of who’s in charge,” he said. The animal powers the heart and the godly soul has control over the mind.
“The fact is that the animal soul needs to be fed,” he said. “With proper studying, the animal soul can be a vehicle for godliness … The idea is transformation.”
Without the transformation, sadness takes over. But transformation takes time, he stressed. The key is to find a teacher who’s qualified to teach Kabbalah and learn what joy really is. The teacher should be someone who lives a life of a kabbalist. One who eats and sleeps it.
There are books and Web sites, all of which can be helpful, but “Most of it is the commitment,” he said. “It’s like getting (physically) fit — you do things in moderation.”
“It’s not a quick-fix approach,” he said. “Whatever you put in, you get out of it.”
But when a student of Kabbalah puts in a lot, it gives back meaning, purpose and peace. “The rewards are enormous,” Minkowicz said. “The sky’s the limit.”
The new Kabbalah way
The evening began with a meditation. The lights were turned off and there were several candles burning — one on a desk and another on a nearby coffee table.
When psychic medium Alan Arcieri spoke there was a lilt to his voice. He spoke of Kabbalah on a recent Tuesday as a life-changing experience.
“It’s the spiritual heritage of all mankind,” said Alan Arcieri, a student of Kabbalah who teaches at the Agape Center in Bonita Springs and other metaphysical venues in Southwest Florida. “It’s not about obedience … It’s called the tree of life.”
The way he puts it during this class is simple, “Ninety-nine percent of what makes up the world is invisible. One percent is visible information.” That means, “Only 1 percent of what we see in the mirror is who we actually are.”
Also a psychic medium and teacher, Arcieri sounds like a scientist, discussing atoms and mass and Albert Einstein’s theories as well as those of other great analytical minds in history. Arcieri said now is the time when science is finally meeting spirituality.
“There are many levels of Kabbalah,” he said, noting the basic premise is that the life we have is divided into realms. And there are illusions in our lives that the five senses present us — “The biggest is that we’re the center of the universe.” And that’s just not true, he adds.
He spent nearly three hours explaining to his class the intricacies of Kabbalah, a way of lighting the light within the soul and ridding oneself of darkness.
“What we really want isn’t in the physical world,” he said. It’s not material. “We’ve lost touch with what we really want.”
Although people may think they want money, fame and possessions, that’s just a farce. “This physical place is really a school — it’s the Earth School,” Arcieri said. Humans are here to learn. “We’re here to exercise our free will.” And with that free will comes mistakes. But the key is learning from those mistakes.
Arcieri presented several books during his laid-back Kabbalah class. They aren’t the Bible or the Torah, they are books written by rabbis who run the Kabbalah Centres across the country.
He sat in the corner of the room in a black T-shirt and khaki pants. He smiled constantly and expressed a bubbly enthusiasm as he shared a chart which he said contains the 72 names of God written in Hebrew. The black symbols seem simple enough. Then he mentioned how the key to happiness within is as easy as focusing and meditating on these ancient symbols, which are the letters of the Hebrew Aleph Beth (alphabet). Kabbalists believe these letters have hidden meaning, he said.
There are no real rules to Kabbalah, he said, only teachings. “Kabbalah teaches us to move our spiritual body … We’re not really separate from God.”
“Every one of us is God … God is everything.”
He notes that he isn’t trying to preach or change anyone’s religious beliefs, though. “I’m not saying religion is bad, you just don’t need it (for Kabbalah).”
Arcieri calls himself a “recovering” Catholic. He has been a student of Buddhism, Hinduism and now Kabbalah. He has spent years searching for life’s answers and now has found some studying the teachings of the Rabbi Philip Berg who heads up the Kabbalah Centre. The Kabbalah Centre claims to be the largest organization in the world exclusively studying Kabbalah. The are 40 centers worldwide which have sold millions of books translated into almost a dozen languages. It is not connected to Judaism.
The closest centers here in Florida are in Miami and Boca Raton where — according to the Web site Kabbalah.com — there are free introduction classes to Kabbalah every week for those interested in the search for truth.
“It’s about us being more proactive than reactive,” Arcieri said.
Meditation is the key. It shuts down the five senses and lets a person truly see what’s going on.
“People don’t realize how magical we really are,” Arcieri said. “Kabbalah teaches us to connect with that magic.”
Benefits of the teachings
No matter what form of Kabbalah a student chooses — be it the traditional philosophy of Minkowicz or the magical of Arcieri, both instructors have enthusiastic followers.
Jeda and Petersen say the year they’ve studied with Minkowicz has opened their eyes not only to Jewish tradition, but to mysticism that they never knew existed. They both know that it’s a long process to truly understand all Kabbalah has to offer, but they’re willing to study.
Arcieri’s students are just as excited, if not a little more vocal. Beverly Miller said she’s learned a lot since taking Arcieri’s class and realizes “It’s something you can study for years and years.” She’s continuing to read about Kabbalah and learn daily.
Catherine Blair, who participated in Arcieri’s recent introductory class, agrees.
“It’s finally changed my life,” she said of the course combined with a Kabbalah book she recently read called “The 72 Names of God,” by Yehuda Berg. “I’m more calm and centered. Everything’s finally making sense.”
Those words are music to Kabbalah teacher Arcieri’s ears. It means, “They’re opening up to the levels of Kabbalah, a higher level of consciousness,” he said excitedly.
It doesn’t matter if students are learning the traditional way or his way. “There’s a common thread that brings them all together — truth.”
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