The Kabbalah craze

Stars embrace mystic beliefs, and many rabbinical scholars cringe

“Four entered the orchard,” the Talmud relates, in what traditionalists believe is an oblique reference to the study of Jewish mysticism.

It may come as a surprise to some that those four were not named Madonna, Britney, Demi, and Roseanne. And today’s celebrity enthusiasts of Kabbalah, a suddenly popular form of Jewish mysticism, might want to turn to the end of that Talmudic passage about four esteemed rabbis: One died, one went insane, one became a heretic, and only one “entered in peace and left in peace.”

The point of the anecdote is that Jewish mysticism is a tough row to hoe, a line of study that ought to be reserved for the most advanced Jewish scholars – and a dicey undertaking in the hands of novices.

None of that, however, has kept Kabbalah from becoming a Hollywood craze, much to the chagrin of those who have spent their lives studying its ancient practices and tenets.

What is Kabbalah?

The Jewish mystical doctrine of Kabbalah is distinguished by its theory of 10 “divine emanations” (“sefirot”) that are used by the infinite, unknowable God (“ein sof”) to rule the created world.

The forces embody the compassionate (masculine, or right) side and the judgmental (feminine, or left) side of God.

“Whenever Madonna says something about Kabbalah, it seems to be something that isn’t Kabbalah,” said Eliezer Segal, a Judaic studies professor at the University of Calgary. “They’re fine things to be taught. They’re good moral lessons. But I think what she’s getting is some kind of generic Judaism, or even generic monotheistic spirituality.”

If that Talmudic passage about the orchard were written today, it might appear in People and conclude something like this: One got a Hebrew tattoo, one changed her name to Esther, one wrote Kabbalistic children’s books, and one drinks Kabbalah water. (Actually, all four of these refer to Madonna, but you get the point.)


Keter (the supreme crown)

Hokhmah (wisdom)

Binah (understanding)

Hesed (loving kindness)

Gevurah (strength)

Tiferet (beauty)

Netzah (victory)

Hod (splendor)

Yesod (foundation)

Malkhut (sovereignty)

An explanation of each sefirot can be found at
, the Web site of Eliezer Segal, a Judaic studies professor at the University of Calgary.
– Michael Kress, a freelance writer based in Cambridge, Mass., is editor-in-chief of the Web site

She and many other celebrities – Demi Moore, Roseanne Barr, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Barbra Streisand, Courtney Love, Elizabeth Taylor, Jerry Hall, Winona Ryder and Jeff Goldblum, to name a few – are believed to have at one time or another attended events at the Kabbalah Centre, a Los Angeles-based organization that has been the subject of criticism over what many consider its nontraditional teachings and tactics.

According to British papers, even Victoria “Posh” Beckham, wife of the soccer superstar, has been spotted in London wearing a knotted red string around her wrist, a Kabbalah amulet intended to ward off evil spirits.

Hot stuff

It’s not just singers, actors and whatever you’d call Paris Hilton who are embracing this once-obscure stream of Judaism. Nor is the Kabbalah Centre the only place to jump on the mysticism bandwagon.

At universities, classes on Kabbalah are booming. Synagogues advertising Kabbalah lectures can expect a spike in attendance. Kabbalah retreats are increasingly popular, as are books with titles like The Kabbalah of Money. A new translation of the Zohar – Kabbalah’s central text – has some corners of the Jewish world buzzing.

Kabbalah (literally, “that which is received”) is one form of ancient Jewish mysticism, though many people use the term as a catchall for anything Jewish and mystical. Its esoteric teachings supposedly offer adherents a path to experience the transcendent, and to glean insights into the nature of God and the universe. Scholars date Kabbalah to 13th-century Spain.

Despite its current trendiness, explaining traditional Kabbalah is no easy task. (There is a reason Jewish tradition warns the novice against “entering the orchard.”) At its most basic, Kabbalah is a unique way of interpreting the Torah to understand how an infinite and unknowable God – known as “ein sof” (“without end”) – relates to finite and mortal humans.

Kabbalah posits that God interacts with the world through 10 divine powers – known as “sefirot” – which embody attributes of God, such as kindness and strength.

Some scholars have compared the relationship of the ein sof and the sefirot to a person’s soul and body: The amorphous soul controls the tangible body, each of whose parts has a different purpose. In the same way, the indiscernible ein sof controls the diverse sefirot.

Do the right thing

The implication of all this, adherents say, is that human activity influences the cosmos.

“If you observe things properly – if you avoid doing the ‘Thou shalt nots’ and are diligent about doing the ‘Thou shalts’ – then you are promoting harmony in the higher realms,” Dr. Segal said. Following the biblical commandments, he said, is the key to promoting that harmony.

And “if, God forbid, you do the opposite, and you don’t follow the commandments correctly, then you are creating division and blockages, so that the influences or the forces of mercy and compassion do not travel smoothly in the divine realms. And, ultimately, they don’t come down to our world either, and we suffer.”

Many Jewish scholars are dismissive of the popular fascination with Kabbalah. For starters, they say, divorcing Kabbalah from a traditional Jewish lifestyle is impossible.

“It only makes sense if you accept the structure of Jewish law and observance,” Dr. Segal said. “It’s very much an interpretation of Jewish observance.”

Intense study of mainstream Jewish texts and strict fidelity to Jewish law are prerequisites to delving into Kabbalah, said Yitzchok Adlerstein, an Orthodox rabbi and an adjunct professor who teaches Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

“You are just not going to get anything out of an advanced calculus course if you haven’t done algebra first,” he said.

The main text that explains Kabbalah is the Zohar. Academics attribute it to Moses de Leon, a Jewish writer and thinker of 13th-century Spain. Orthodox Jews believe the text is much older, the work of a second-century rabbi, Shimon bar Yohai.

“It is sort of a running commentary on the Bible, but it talks about all kinds of topics: about Jews, about redemption, about the Torah, about the different sefirot,” said Rabbi Adlerstein.

Kabbalah emphasizes practices, such as meditating while visualizing God’s names, that are intended to draw one nearer to God. Some followers believe in the power of amulets and symbols, like Posh’s red string bracelet.

Kabbalah has had its influence on mainstream Judaism, most visibly in the Friday night liturgy, where a central hymn welcoming the Sabbath was written by Kabbalists and is full of Kabbalistic imagery. The hymn was a product of 16th-century Safed, a city in present day Israel that remains a haven for traditional Kabbalists.

Hasidic history

Kabbalah’s most famous popularization (until now) has been Hasidism, a traditionalist movement founded in 18th-century Europe that emphasized an individual’s ability to draw near to the divine. Hasidism presented complicated Kabbalistic ideas in a down-to-earth fashion, and it spread quickly.

Today, Kabbalah also is central to a growing Jewish Renewal movement, which adapts Hasidic and Kabbalistic ideas, such as meditation and dance, to a liberal Jewish setting that embraces feminism, environmentalism, and contemporary spirituality. (This renewal movement is distinct from what critics would dismiss as the New Age “pop” Kabbalah embraced by many in Hollywood.)

The movement’s retreats mix meditation with study and fellowship. Its intent is to connect participants with the divine, said Rabbi Rami Shapiro, who writes on Kabbalistic themes.

“People are starved for an experience of the divine,” he said. “We go to church, or we go to synagogue, or we go to mosque or to temple or wherever we happen to go, and we hear talk about God. But we don’t experience God. I think that’s where mysticism comes in.”

Esther, don’t preach

While this isn’t the first time Kabbalah has been mass-marketed, it’s safe to say that its most visible adherent has never before been someone who simulated masturbation on TV while wearing a wedding dress, produced a banned music video filled with sadomasochistic imagery, or proudly authored a metal-bound book of erotica.

In addition to announcing last month that she’s changed her name to Esther – saying she identifies with the biblical queen and wants the “energy of a new name” – the Material Girl is writing children’s books based on Kabbalah and has reportedly stopped performing on Friday nights, the start of the Jewish Sabbath.

“I was looking for something,” she told Larry King in 2002. “I mean, I’d begun practicing yoga and, you know, I was looking for the answers to life. Why am I here? What am I doing here? What is my purpose? How do I fit into the big picture?”

In an interview last month on ABC-TV’s 20-20, Madonna said critics have no right to poke fun at her interest in Kabbalah.

“I’m a little bit irritated that people think that it’s like some celebrity bandwagon that I’ve jumped on, or that, say, somebody like Demi [Moore] has jumped on,” said the 45-year-old singer, who was raised in a devoutly Catholic family.

“We don’t take it lightly.”

At her concerts, fans can buy T-shirts featuring the Kabbalistic names for God – in Hebrew – and posters with depictions of the sefirot.

During a recent performance, she briefly donned a T-shirt that read, “Kabbalists Do It Better.”

Still, Madonna has never publicly mentioned any desire to convert to Judaism. Neither have any of the other non-Jewish celebrities who’ve associated themselves with the Kabbalah Centre.

Many people view Kabbalah “as some kind of biblical Judeo-Christian alternative to both Judaism and Christianity,” said Shaul Magid, an associate professor of Jewish thought at Indiana University.

It’s an attractive alternative, he said, for those who regard institutional religions as corrupt.

“It’s free-form, it’s spiritual, it believes in the connection between the material and the transcendent – and yet it’s not religion in the ‘bad’ way,” he said.

Centre of the storm

The Kabbalah Centre is led by Rabbi Philip Berg, his wife Karen, and their sons Michael and Yehuda. The Centre is not directly connected to Kabbalah to Jewish observance. Rather, the emphasis is on the Zohar as a self-help book.

“It’s a system of how to enhance our lives, how to maximize our potential and overcome obstacles,” Yehuda Berg said.

Founded in the early 1970s, the Centre runs 50 locations worldwide. It boasts that 3 million people have come through its doors.

At a recent lecture at the group’s Boston-area location, a video promised that one’s life could be enriched by mere possession of the Zohar, or by scanning its pages meditatively. For those who need a copy, the Centre sells Philip Berg’s 23-volume Zohar translation for $415. Other items for sale include the red-string bracelets ($26), “Kabbalah Cures” headache ointment ($10), and a Kabbalah baby crib set ($280).

Many Jewish scholars say the Centre’s teachings bear little resemblance to traditional Jewish mysticism.

“I have looked at some of their texts and tapes, and to say I found them sorely wanting is an understatement,” Rabbi Adlerstein said. He called the Centre’s approach “a perversion of everything Kabbalah is about.”

Yehuda Berg – like his father, a rabbi – dismissed such criticism. The Centre’s teachings are true to ancient Kabbalah, he said, adding, “There’s really no direct connect between Judaism and Kabbalah. … Historically, Jews and non-Jews have studied Kabbalah.”

Rick Ross, who runs a New Jersey-based center that monitors controversial religious movements, said he receives roughly a call a week about the Kabbalah Centre.

Many callers, he said, claimed that the Centre pressured them to buy costly merchandise. Others said people who joined the Centre were advised to end relationships with mates who had not joined, according to Mr. Ross. And some, he said, claimed that leaving the Centre can be difficult because its teachings instill fear of the outside world.

Yehuda Berg denied that anyone is pressured to buy goods, end a relationship, or remain affiliated with the Centre. Since the organization is financed through sales and donations, he said, there is a need to solicit those. And some people gravitate to the Centre, he said, while in the midst of failing relationships.

“People who have perfect lives don’t try to start a spiritual system. It’s people who have chaos who study a spiritual system,” he said.

Filling a void

Whatever the reasons people seek out Kabbalah this esoteric system seems to fill a spiritual need for many in 21st-century America (or London).

Groups promoting Kabbalah “are part of this whole shift in human consciousness of trying to find the truths without getting bogged down in any specific system,” Rabbi Shapiro said.

“It’s part of the times. It’s happening everywhere.”

Even at Esther concerts.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Dallas Morning News, USA
July 23, 2004
Michael Kress
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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday July 25, 2004.
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