Focus: Mysterious, lucrative, cool. So what is the secret of Kabbalah?

As Madonna must have told Britney and will no doubt tell Posh, there’s more to keeping the faith than a little red string bracelet. There’s the moisturiser, the bottled water, oh, and a splash of mysticism

Celebrity and mysticism do not, on the face of it, mix. It is hard to imagine Julian of Norwich fluffing up her hair extensions to go before the cameras and declare her “long-term commitment” to living a luxurious life in a glamorous foreign city, as Victoria Beckham did last week. But the red string bracelet that Posh has been wearing on her wrist of late indicates that a mystical path nourished by 4,000 years of Jewish religious tradition has acquired yet another convert. Or rather a modern version of it has.

The Kabbalah Centre, based in Los Angeles but with branches in London and elsewhere, has devised a trendy interpretation of an ancient belief system that seems particularly attractive to the superstar classes. From Madonna to Britney and the Beckhams, a growing band of celebs appear to have supplemented their daily workout at the gym with a quick dip into the unfathomable complexities of Kabbalah‘s sacred text, the Zohar, while the nanny looks after Apple Blossom and Pixie Blue. Or at least they’re wearing the bracelets.

The Unknowable God who inhabits eternity has been given a make-over, and in an engagingly hands-on manner, is now appearing online on behalf of the Kabbalah Centre, offering to improve your cash flow, take your sexual energy to new levels, arrange for you to meet your true soul-mate, predict your future, and ensure that you radiate beauty to all who see you.

It’s a tall order, of course, but devotees definitely get a new religious name. The singer Madonna, for instance, is now Esther (though some might have felt that Madonna as a name was already religious enough).

You will also need one of those bracelets (said to ward off the Evil Eye of people jealous of your success) for £27, and “holy water” at £2.70 a small bottle which may sound pricey until you learn “there are centuries of wisdom in every drop”. Fair enough. And although it is not explicitly stated, the same is probably true of the Blessed Restoring Face Cream available at £78. Suddenly the unknowable and unreachable god is all too knowable and reachable. In fact, I think I saw him recently on a lifestyle programme. He was the one who hated grey hair and saggy skin, wanted everyone to look as young as possible and have themselves a really good time. Enlightenment. But it’s all a long way from the esoteric musings of ancient texts. Particularly the face cream.

Every religion has its own theory of the universe, its own set of moral goals, its own grubby history, and its particular spiritual practices. Kabbalah is no different. The name means “tradition” and as a form of mysticism it is rooted in traditional Jewish practices such as the study of the sacred Torah, worship, dedication to communal institutions, caring family relations and repentance. Its moral purpose is to purify the human character and soul, help people to commune with others and God, promote worship and loving deeds, identify with the Divine and strengthen the power of the Holy Presence in the heaven above and the world below.

Mysticism and institutional religion have always had a difficult relationship, however. A pattern repeats itself across all faiths: the mystics read and enjoy the original holy text, are even inspired by it, but instead of stopping there they pick up the holy text again and this time, start to read in between the lines. That’s when institutional religion gets nervous – for once between the lines, as between the sheets, you are very free indeed.

If you strip away the colourfully Baroque cosmology of the movement, the Kabbalah is an ancient and profound form of personality typing, arising out of the Image of God. This may seem presumptuous, but the Jewish Torah describes God’s features and emotions in very human terms, and the Kabbalah continues this tradition.

Its guiding principle, therefore, is that the Unknowable God has made himself known by revealing himself in 10 different manifestations. Each of these manifestations or Sefirot corresponds to a particular human personality type. And so it is that all Kabbalists, as they reflect on their character, the light and the shadow, can find themselves in the divine form. In themselves, they represent a particular truth about God, and are thus part of the image of God.

In its purest form, the Kabbalah promotes personal awareness, helping individuals to see the particular gifts they bring to the world, and their place in the wider community, and also gives the individual a deep sense of integration or union with the divine. Its moral energy comes from the call to each individual to restore a glory to their particular manifestation which is perceived to have been lost. Such is the Kabbalist path to union with God.

Perhaps surprisingly, the defining work on the Kabbalah was compiled in 13th century Spain. The Zohar or Divine Splendour was written by the Rabbi Moses de Leon of Granada, and claimed to be a treasury of knowledge from the second century. With its own Holy Text at last, the Kabbalah reached its peak of popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Sadly, the naughty but profitable fun of having perceived secret powers came to preoccupy Kabbalists. The chief concern of many was in the sphere of magic, concocting and deciphering charms for people, and composing mystical anagrams with strange combinations of letters, words and numbers. They busied themselves also with prognostication and prophecy, attempting communion with the dead, and a host of other fantasies. No wonder a rabbinic proscription warned that the hidden names of God – those 10 personality types – should only be revealed to a man “who is modest and meek, in the midway of life, not easily provoked to anger, temperate and free from vengeful feelings”.

Whether, in the light of that final injunction, this is the best time for Victoria Beckham to be embarking on this particular journey, only she knows. And of course, it is true – as you need only turn on Songs of Praise to see – that religion cannot be watched, only experienced; you really do have to be there. Nevertheless, it is hard not to conclude that the fashionable version of the Kabbalah draws more on magic than insight, and secrets rather than union with God.

The Kabbalah Centre is said to be worth at least $23m and its founder, Rabbi Philip Berg, has three homes in Beverly Hills. Rather than the demanding spiritual discipline traditionally associated with the Kabbalah, modern followers are told they can practise 20-second “speed meditation” and understand ancient text subconsciously by running their hands over the words. “We feel very strongly that we need to warn people that this is a cult,” Rabbi Barry Marcus of the Central London Synagogue has said; and the Chief Rabbi has stressed the Kabbalah Centre “does not fall within the remit” of any Jewish authority in Britain.

However, while the supposed secret on offer continues to seem clever and remains reassuringly expensive, I prophesy a financially blessed future for the Kabbalah Centre. So come on Candy Floss, hurry up – or we’ll be late for Peach Bowl’s party. I’ve bought her a nice red string bracelet.

Simon Parke is the author of ‘One Minute Mystic‘ published by Azur


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Independent, UK
May 23, 2004
Simon Parke
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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday May 24, 2004.
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