What's the appeal of this strange tradition, which has influenced European thinkers and artists from Emmanuel Swedenborg to Franz Kafka? First of all, it offers a deeper, more spiritual experience of God than traditional worship--something many people are hungry for these days, as the rapid growth of evangelical churches attests. The path toward this goal, symbolized in the rich imagery of the Tree of Life, first attracted Rabbi Shoni Labowitz to the discipline. In her book Miraculous Living: A Guided Journey Through the Ten Gates of the Tree of Life (Simon & Schuster, 1996), a useful primer that mixes kabbalistic concepts with those of Eastern traditions, Labowitz describes her journey: 'I learned that the Tree was an ancient template for living a powerful, joyous, sacred life. When I journeyed the path of the Tree, my life changed. What had been chaotic became simpler, what had been confusing became clear, and what had been sadly ordinary became sacred and extraordinary.'
Other aspects of these 'new-ancient words,' as the Zohar, the main kabbalistic text, describes them, are surprisingly compatible with modern values. Centuries before Jung, its teachings presented a framework based on the feminine and masculine aspects of God and encouraged practitioners to discover both aspects in themselves. And Kabbalistic teachings don't require students to give up their material possessions. 'Jewish mysticism insists on finding God within the world rather than escaping from the world,' says Daniel C. Matt, author of The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995). 'One of the images they use for this is `raising the sparks.' The notion is that there are sparks of God hidden within all material existence. The spiritual path is to discover these sparks, to raise them and restore them to God--to become aware of the divine potential within other people, within life situations.'
For Jews, particularly Reform Jews disenchanted by a style-conscious suburban temple experience, the kabbalah provides a link to their own tradition. 'Reform Judaism in the 19th century went through what they consider a `cleansing,' to make the religion presentable to the Western world,' says Matt. 'And that involved jettisoning what they thought were superstitious and irrational elements, and the whole mystical dimension. I think many of them are now eager to reacquaint themselves with those elements of the tradition that were rejected.'
Thousands have discovered the kabbalah through the controversial Kabbalah Learning Center (KLC), a New York-based organization with dozens of franchises around the world that promotes a version of Jewish mysticism through 12-week courses. But several Jewish religious authorities, including the Orthodox rabbinical councils of Queens and Toronto and kabbalist Rabbi Itzhak Kadourie of Jerusalem, have condemned the center and its leader, Rabbi Philip Berg, calling it, as Vince Beiser writes in The Jerusalem Report (July 25, 1996), 'essentially a pseudo-kabbalist cult that uses mind-control techniques and counterfeit spirituality to exploit its devotees for cash and labor.'
KLC officials deny using any coercive tactics on their followers. 'These are totally baseless accusations,' KLC spokesperson Michael Berg told Beiser. 'Our policy is not to pressure anyone for anything.'
The KLC aside, most Jewish teachers recommend studying useful parts of the tradition--preferably with a partner or a group--rather than blindly accepting the whole. As Matt points out, the tradition has some negative elements--superstition, fundamentalism, chauvinism--that few modern seekers would like to unearth. Even the ancient texts advised treading carefully, since the potentially mind-altering experience could throw the unprepared off balance. 'People should approach kabbalah with an open mind,' says Matt, 'but not let their brains spill out.'