Kabbalah and the snake

I have been asked three times this week by radio or the press to comment on the Kabbalah Centres and their galaxy of Hollywood devotees.

You may have noticed that David Beckham (he of the cross tattooed on his neck) was wearing a red Kabbalah band around his wrist when he missed the penalty for England in the European Cup match with France. It didn’t do him much good. And the pop star Britney Spears strips with one too. Madonna’s husband Guy Ritchie is not only a film producer but also an expert on Jewish Mysticism and assures us in The Times that he has never met a C****  amongst the devotees of the centre. Clearly it hasn’t been having a positive effect on his language! And for every article telling us how credulous victims are fleeced there are plenty of others written that assert how people have been helped find their true selves by going to Kabbalah Centres. How very reassuring.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Jeremy Rosen is the director of Yakar, London, and the professor at the Faculty of Comparative Religion (F.V.G.) in Antwerp. He has been involved in the Rabbinate and Jewish education for Britain, Belgium and America for over 20 years.

I am a serious devotee of Kabbalah. The real thing of course. Not the hocus pocus, Madonna in tefillin, red cotton band on your wrist, spend £7 on a bottle of water, ‘give me your money and you’ll feel better or cure your cancer for a thousand dollar’ sort of Kabbalah.

Serious Kabbalah is a very complex mystical tradition that is an integral part of Judaism. But it is a highly complex layer that only makes sense if it comes on the basis of a really solid foundation in knowledge and practice of traditional Judaism. Otherwise it is just like judging a person entirely by his clothes. To think that one can understand it without a mastery of the original language is like being an expert in Shakespeare through translation into Hindustani. My father often used the expression of an ignoramus that ‘He knows about as much as a Cossack does of Kabbalah.’

Kabbalah is both a theological system that understands the world very differently to rational philosophy and it is a system of practices that are designed to help a person get closer to God and to better understand the nature of spirituality. There are hundreds of different systems, ideas and practices in Kabbalah spanning over two thousand years of intense mystical activity from Israel to Spain and Provence, back to Safed and even to the Klois in Brody in Lithuania. Included in some of its writings are snippets of astrology, alchemy and magic as well as some common sense.  It is this very minor aspect has now been distilled into a new Hollywood fad that calls itself Kabbalah when in fact it is to the real thing as Superman Comics are to Milton or Tolstoy.

It does seem to appeal to those same lost souls who desperately search for meaning in life by going off East and are impressed by gurus who do tricks. Anyone who knows anything about Buddhism knows full well that it is a highly complex system that requires years of devotion and discipline and dedication to a very strict monastic existence. But a watered down popular Richard Gere version is very attractive to those who want more meaning in life without having to do too much hard work to achieve it. Our society is awash with salesmen of life styles, who recruit film stars to sell their wares, from Scientology with John Travolta to EST, all offering certainties and reassurances. Astrology is the most widely read section of popular newspapers and astrologists the highest paid journalists. I guess the publishers need to cover their bases.  They all highlight the failure of traditional religions to do their jobs properly.

A fool and his money are easily parted and anyone who thinks that buying a £400 set of the Zohar (when perfectly good £50 versions abound) and passing ones hands over it or scanning the letters will bring them nearer to God or closer to their first million is as credulous as those who take placebos made of chalk and sugar. But human beings are eminently suggestible, as many a religious fraud has discovered.

I have no grouse with people who need placebos or crutches. ‘Better hocus pocus than heavy drugs’ I say. In an era where Judaism is vilified by millions of primitive fanatics as well as Left Wing Intellectuals (funny how they make common cause) it is reassuring that something we have produced is given positive publicity in certain quarters. So I am not rubbishing Kabbalah Centres or snake oil salesmen. They perform useful functions on the margins of society.

My only gripe is with those who believe or claim the ‘sweety’ they sell  it is the real thing, the genuine article.

If you want an idea of how complex Kabbalah is, read Gershom Scholem or better still the current academic expert Moshe Idel. If you want to encounter a flavour read anything by Aryeh Kaplan. You will soon realize that it is heavy-duty not Hollywood pap. I think it has a lot to offer.

I teach popular Kabbalah because I realize that too many Jews have no idea of the richness of our spiritual and mystical heritage and all they see of Judaism are boring synagogues, uninspiring rabbis and a religion that has become preoccupied with externality. A dose of Avraham Abulafia soon reassures them that yoga, meditation and deep spirituality have been part of our heritage for as long as in India. But to get it to work, as with any skill, takes application, dedication and commitment and this usually goes hand in hand with deep religious belief and practice. I give tastes in the hope that my pupils will take it further but I do not kid them that they are Kabbalists.

The biblical keeps warning us about being seduced by easy answers. In this week’s Torah reading there is the story of the Snake on the Mast ( still the symbol of the medical profession to this day). When there was a plague of snakes Moses set this banner up and people who looked at it were cured. The Mishna in Rosh Hashanna asks the obvious question of how a symbol could cure. It replies that by looking upwards and conducting ones thoughts to God one finds the will to fight the poison and gets cured. It really depends on us rather than the symbol. The Talmud says that King Hezekia destroyed the Snake on the Banner because people started worshipping it instead of God. This is the very mistake people make when they think the answer to their problems lies in popular Kabbalah. Plus Ca Change etc

Shabbat Shalom


This article has been posted to Religion News Blog with the kind permission of Rabbi Jeremy Rosen. Visit Jeremy Rosen Online.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday June 25, 2004.
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