A Surge in Popularity in Jewish Mysticism

It became official when Britney Spears appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly in November, wearing little but a white bustier, a pouty look and a red string around her wrist: Kabbalah has entered the realm of pop culture.

Of course, Madonna has led the way in promoting Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. She evangelizes Kabbalah Centre International teachings to her celebrity pals – perhaps she told Britney about the red string’s power to turn away others’ jealous looks as they kissed on the MTV Video Music Awards.

Even Paris Hilton, the videotape-beleaguered socialite heiress, stopped in at the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre late last month to pick up her own red string bracelet for protection against the evil eye, said the center’s co-director, Rabbi Yehuda Berg.

This can hardly be the fate that the Kabbalah’s creators, Jewish mystics in the 13th through 16th centuries who wrote the Zohar and related writings, could have imagined for their teachings, which were intended to reveal the inner meaning of the Torah.

And it has traditionalists up in arms. The phenomenon has been derided on some Jewish Web sites as “McMysticism.”

The connection between pop-culture Kabbalah and the real thing “is the relationship between pornography and love,” said Adin Steinsaltz, a Hasidic rabbi in Jerusalem who has written several books about Jewish mysticism, including the newly published “Opening the Tanya: Discovering the Moral and Mystical Teachings of a Classical Work of Kabbalah” (Jossey-Bass, 2003).

“Pornography is intrinsically soul-less, and doesn’t have any obligations attached,” Rabbi Steinsaltz said. “It’s just using externals. They are doing exactly the same thing.” Most of the traditionalists’ fury is directed at the Kabbalah Centre International, a religious nonprofit organization run by Rabbi Philip Berg of Los Angeles, his wife, Karen, and his sons. They have 10 locations in the United States and 13, in other countries, like Israel and Chile. The Kabbalah Centre markets Jewish mysticism to everyone, Gentile and Jew, adults and children, as a system of tools for self-understanding, to be acquired through its courses, books, tapes and “gear” like T-shirts and key rings. But scholars of Jewish mysticism say the center divorces Kabbalah from the obligations, or mitzvot, of traditional Judaism.

“What they teach is heresy,” said Rabbi J. Immanuel Schochet, the author of 30 books on Jewish mysticism. Rabbi Schochet then went on to quote one of Kabbalah’s architects, Rabbi Isaac Luria, who was born in Jerusalem in 1534 and believed that each commandment has a mystical meaning, “`Just as the body cannot live without the soul, the soul cannot function without the body,”’

“All the Kabbalists without exception emphasize that there has to be a preliminary commitment to Torah and halacha [Jewish law] before one can engage in it,” Rabbi Schochet said.

Because of the potency of its language and imagery, as well as the fact that it is, in essence, a commentary on the inner meaning of the Torah, Kabbalah study has historically been open only to married, observant Jewish men old enough to be grounded in Judaism’s core texts.

But Kabbalah Centre teachers say their teachings have little to do with Judaism and need not be restricted to anyone.

Kabbalah is “a universal system for self-improvement,” said Rabbi Yehuda Berg, a son of Philip Berg and the author of “The 72 Names of God: Technology for the Soul” (Kabbalah Publishing, 2003). “A lot of people are disenfranchised from religion, and Kabbalah offers them a very nonjudgmental way to connect.”

At a recent introductory lecture at the Manhattan Kabbalah Centre, a representative told two dozen newcomers why they should enroll.

“We understand how everything works. Kabbalah helps us not be afraid,” the teacher said. “It shows us how to connect with the source of the universe and give us a sense of why we’re here, what our purpose is. Kabbalah will give you all these answers and tell you why these things are the way they are.”

Rabbi Schochet said that approach was `manipulating religion so that God becomes a tool in your hand, and if you know what buttons to press you can get whatever you need.”

But no matter how the traditionalists object, the reality is that the Kabbalah Centre International reaches a lot of people.

More than 18,000 students are enrolled in its classes in the United States and an additional 90,000 are “active members,” Rabbi Yehuda Berg said. The organization’s Web site, kabbalah.com, is visited by 90,000 people each month, he said, and 30,000 call a toll-free number for advice or “student support.” About 3,000 people came to the organization’s Rosh Hashana worship service in Manhattan this year, he said. The prayers were in Hebrew, and though few in attendance spoke or read Hebrew, Rabbi Yehuda Berg said they all benefited just by listening.

In part because of the Kabbalah Centre’s work, interest in Jewish mysticism has spread far beyond it. Synagogues, Jewish community centers and colleges now offer classes on the topic, as do New Age spirituality centers.

To the extent that it is taught authentically, tied into Jewish practice, it is a welcome development, some scholars say. It is all part of Americans’ hunger for self-help, and for answers to the big metaphysical questions that people confront as they age. It can also be seen as a backlash against contemporary Western Judaism, which in the 19th century ditched everything nonrational in an effort to be modern.

“Kabbalah was seen as irrational, as superstitious,” said Daniel Matt, author of a newly released translation of its core text, “The Zohar: The Prizker Edition” (Stanford University Press).

Kabbalah is becoming so mainstream that even the Reform movement, which for nearly all its history rejected most of Judaism’s traditions and metaphysical elements, recently hired its first professor of Jewish mysticism for its rabbinical seminary.

Much of Kabbalah’s popularity is with the New Age crowd, which blends the practices of many traditions. That is the version put forward by the Kabbalah Centre, too, which sells items like a $415 translation of the Zohar, $10 scented candles and $303 diamond necklaces.

But the most talked-about Kabbalah Centre products are its water and red strings. A plastic bottle of Kabbalah water sells for $3.50. Cartons are stacked in the synagogue, so that when the Torah is read, the water absorbs the Torah’s holy energy.

“Drinking it changes you on a molecular level,” said a clerk standing in front of a wall-high display of the water near the entrance of the center’s Manhattan building.

The red string has become the center’s best-known product, seen on the wrists of celebrities from Los Angeles to London.

Jewish tradition holds that wearing a red string that has been brought to the grave site of the biblical matriarch Rachel, in Hebron, can bring children to the infertile and protection from the evil eye. Such strings can be bought cheaply all over Israel and in Judaica stores elsewhere.

The Kabbalah Centre tried this year to get a trademark for the red string, which it sells for $26 to $36, but the Patent and Trademark Office turned it down.

Selling the bracelets to celebrities who don’t seem to change their lifestyles, as a way of protecting them from the negative looks of others, puts the emphasis in the wrong place, some say.

“The whole idea of the evil eye in Judaism is to become more humble so people don’t envy you,” said Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a friend of many celebrities and author of several books on Jewish mysticism and others, including “Kosher Sex.”

“Anything else is just selling snake oil,” Rabbi Boteach said.

Rabbi Boteach was introduced to the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles several years ago by Roseanne Barr, on whose talk show he appeared.

While the rabbi said he was skeptical about the center’s methods, he said, “They’ve taken what was seen as a dormant element of Judaism and shown its application to modern life, something that should have been done by mainstream Judaism.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The New York Times, USA
Dec. 13, 2003
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday December 15, 2003.
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