The Kabbalah Craze

Mention the Jewish mystical tradition called kabbalah can and the
image that comes to mind–if any comes at all–is old men in long
beards chanting divine names and studying esoteric texts. But today
this complex mystical mode of interpreting Jewish theology and
history, which emerged in the 11th century, is surging in
popularity among Jews and non-Jews alike. New books apply its
wisdom to trendy topics such as making money and finding inner
light. Kabbalistic teachings and meditation techniques are now a
fixture of the New Age workshop circuit and at universities and
yeshivas around the world. And its teachings have attracted
celebrities such as Roseanne Barr, Sandra Bernhard, Laura Dern, and
Isaac Mizrahi.

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
(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
(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.’

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