Two men are coming to Portland to tell secrets, which may or may not have anything to do with Madonna, Demi Moore or Paris Hilton.
The two men are rabbis, coming to talk about kabbalah, an ancient body of Jewish mysticism that has enjoyed, or endured, a star-struck resurgence in the modern world.
Celebrities in Los Angeles, New York and London have been studying it at their branches of the Kabbalah Centre, which is also at the center of swirling allegations about teaching a materialistic brand of “Jewish lite” to stars. Leaders of the center reject this criticism, and defend their followers, who have adopted red string bracelets, and specially bottled kabbalah water as badges of their spiritual journey.
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But Portland doesn’t have a branch of the Kabbalah Centre. What we do have, apparently, are people interested in kabbalah, either because of its star-studded following or in spite of it. Rabbi Moshe Wilhelm of Congregation Bais Menachem, Portland’s Chabad community, says people knock on his door every week wanting to study kabbalah.
“People are searching for meaning,” he says. “You can study all kinds of things and they don’t connect. Kabbalah helps to connect things. With it, you can find meaning in your own life.”
In Portland, we also have a difference of opinion about kabbalah. “Real kabbalah,” says Rabbi Leonard Oppenheimer of the Orthodox Congregation of Kesser Israel, is a “postgraduate study” that one embarks on after deep study of the “non-hidden parts of the Torah.”
Historically speaking, he is right. For centuries, Jewish tradition reserved kabbalah study to men who were at least 40 years old and married.
But, Oppenheimer admits, there is a middle ground, between Hollywood kabbalah and the traditional approach. He teaches that middle ground, as do Wilhelm and a few other teachers in town.
Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield of P’nai Or of Portland, a Jewish Renewal congregation that emphasizes mysticism, teaches kabbalah from a more liberal perspective.
“This knowledge needs to go out right now,” Hirschfield says. “There is a hunger and a thirst in the world for it, and we (teachers of kabbalah) have to make it more available.”
To that end, P’nai Or of Portland and Trinity Cathedral’s Center for Spiritual Development have invited two kabbalah authorities to Portland this month, and neither will be selling bracelets or bottles of water.
“This won’t be Hollywood kabbalah,” says Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, scholar-in-residence at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco and author of 15 books, including half a dozen on kabbalah. A visiting professor at the Graduate Theological Union in San Francisco, he will do a lecture and workshop on May 14 and 15.
First, however, will be Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro, an author in his own right, president of the One River Foundation for the Study of the World’s Religions and founder of Simply Jewish, an organization devoted to authentic Jewish practice in the 21st century. He’ll offer a lecture and workshop, Saturday and Sunday.
The two men approach will approach kabbalah from different directions. Shapiro takes a practical tack, emphasizing ways of chanting and meditation that he says give even beginners a glimpse of their connection to God. In his workshop, he talks about kabbalah’s Tree of Life.
“Each branch has its own voice inside your head. . . . We look to see what these voices are saying and at how to bring them back into balance,” he said. “There is deep, ancient kabbalistic teaching manifested in your own life. You become the text.”
For Kushner, the study of kabbalah is, like Judaism, tied to texts.
“The event that brings Judaism into being is the receipt of a book,” he says in a telephone interview, referring to Moses receiving the Torah. In Kushner’s workshop, he’ll focus on texts, providing English translations for those who don’t read ancient languages.
Kushner, who’s 60 now, has studied kabbalah for the past 30 years. He wrote an annotated mystical Hebrew alphabet in 1975, when there were only a handful of books about mysticism published.
Now dozens have been added to already crowded shelves, and whole publishing houses are devoted to mysticism, he says.
A deep experience of mysticism changes one’s life, says Hirschfield, the P’nai Or rabbi. “There’s more to kabbalah than a red thread. It’s about becoming a vessel to manifest the will of God.”