As cool as Kabbalah

Celebrities popularize ancient Jewish mysticism. Is that a good thing?

In the beginning, God created light. And much later, he created Madonna, who then tried to shed light on Kabbalah, an obscure branch of Judaism. Confusion followed.

Kabbalah is an ancient form of Jewish mysticism. Traditionally, only married Jewish men over 40 had been allowed to study the teachings because rabbinic scholars believed they alone had both the proper education and life experience to understand it.

Enter the Material Girl.

Although not the first celebrity to dabble in Kabbalah, Madonna, a lapsed Roman Catholic, has embraced it. And recently, other Hollywood types, perhaps following her lead, have been spotted seeking spiritual enlightenment at the trendy Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles.

Kabbalah has firmly moved into the Material World as well, with Kabbalah baby wear, jewelry and robes emblazoned with the number 72 (Kabbalists believe there are 72 words of God) now available.

What does all this mean? Reaction from rabbis has been mixed.

Some, particularly the Orthodox, have denounced the involvement of Madonna and other celebrities, and have accused the Los Angeles center of being more interested in marketing – it sells a package of red Kabbalah strings, to be worn on the wrist and said to ward off the evil eye, for $25, and a Kabbalah crib sheet set for $280 – than the sacred.

Others are either amused or amazed that this esoteric and complicated belief system has been thrust from parchment scroll to the pages of People magazine, from contemplative rooms to concert stadiums.

They are happy that people are asking questions – interest in Kabbalah classes has shot up (both Jews and non-Jews are signing up) and sales of Kabbalah books have jumped.

But most rabbinic scholars say the hype has led to misunderstanding.

“What they’re doing is a hodgepodge of New Age stuff and elements of Kabbalah,” says Alan Mittleman, a rabbi who teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. “It’s cartoon Kabbalah.”

So what, exactly, is Kabbalah?

First, the word is pronounced kab-ba-LAH, with the emphasis on the last syllable. (It often has been mispronounced by the media, something that gets under the skin of serious Kabbalah students.) The word means receiving, as in open to receiving new insights. The major religious text in Kabbalah is the Zohar.

Kabbalists believe the universe was shattered at the moment of creation. This shattering disrupted the flow of divine energy, or “sparks,” causing these sparks to be trapped within the world. They believe it is humanity’s job to take that energy and return it to God.

“The essence of Kabbalah is aligning oneself with the divine and bringing about the repair of oneself and the world,” says Rabbi David Wechsler-Azen of Congregation Beth Shalom in Carmichael. “We believe our job is to be co-partners with God in repairing the world.”

Kabbalists also believe that understanding the energy structure leads to a better understanding of oneself.

Sound a little complicated?

It is. Wechsler-Azen, 46, says he attempted to learn Kabbalah when he was 27 years old but was overwhelmed by it.

“I quickly realized that this was powerful stuff and should wait,” he says. He officially began his study on his 40th birthday.

Like many rabbis, Wechlser-Azen has had many people ask him about Kabbalah in the last few months.

“They’ve heard so much about it because of the celebrities … but they don’t know what it is.”

He understands the need to make it approachable. So in October, the rabbi started a class that combines Kabbalah with yoga. He calls it Kabballoga.

On Tuesday night, 10 students of all ages gathered at Congregation Beth Shalom. Stretched out on their yoga mats, they were working on their bodies but thinking about their souls.

After a 10-minute warmup, the rabbi started talking about spiritual harmony.

“In Kabbalah, being centered means firing on all cylinders – everything is in balance,” said Wechsler-Azen, standing at the front of the class.

Four miles away, another Kabbalah class was in session. Hollywood stars and their religious beliefs were the farthest things from the minds of the 18 students sitting around a U-shaped table at the Chabad of Sacramento.

These students – mostly men and women in their 40s and older – were in the middle of an eight-week course on how Kabbalah teachings address the Bible. Many of the students speak Hebrew and have studied religious texts for years.

They listened closely as the rabbi talked about good, evil and Kabbalah.

“The Zohar says evil was created to bring out the good in us,” said Rabbi Mendy Cohen, punching the air for exclamation.

Later, during a break, some of the students talked about the challenge of learning Kabbalah.

“It’s very difficult to understand,” said Sandra Bear of San Francisco, who travels to Sacramento for the class. “It really is a lifelong process.”

With interest exhibited in various – and some say, frivolous – ways.

Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher have been seen wearing matching red strings. Britney Spears gave her bridesmaids bags with the Kabbalah word for “the power to heal.” Paris Hilton has been spotted wearing Kabbalah T-shirts.

Two weeks ago, Madonna and Moore threw a lavish party celebrating the publication of “The Red String Book” by Rabbi Yehuda Berg, co-director of the Kabbalah Centre. A billboard promoting the book and featuring Marla Maples, the ex-wife of Donald Trump, is scheduled to be unveiled in Times Square on Monday . Maples reportedly will wear nothing but a red string strategically placed around her.

“It amazes me that of all the things in Kabbalah, the things they have chosen to focus on,” says Mittleman of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Much of the blame has been aimed at the Berg family, which is widely believed to have created the Hollywood version of Kabbalah. That version focuses on self-help and speaks about how followers can get closer to “the light.”

No one can predict how long celebrity interest in Kabbalah will last.

“From what I’ve read, she (Madonna) seems to be sincere in her search for spirituality,” Wechsler-Azen says.

But experts agree on one thing: Two years ago, most of the public had never heard of Kabbalah. Now, thanks to a pop icon and her friends, they have.

Read The Sacramento Bee online

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
The Sacramento Bee, USA
Nov. 13, 2004
Jennifer Garza, Bee Staff Writer

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