Madonna visiting the Kabbalah Centre in 2004.
July 3, 2008
What do Madonna, Demi Moore, and Britney Spears have in common with 16th-century kabalist Rabbi Isaac Luria?
If you ask most Jews, absolutely nothing but a misguided belief that new-age teachings promoted at the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre represent authentic Jewish mysticism. With all the accoutrements of an Orthodox shul, including separate seating for men and women, the center has transformed Kabala — considered by Jews to be the inner sanctum of Jewish devotion and thought — into something like McMysticism, a generic, nondenominational form of magical thinking.
And, according to the center’s Web site, this Kabala is “the Secret of the universe as well as the keys to the mysteries of the human heart and soul.”
Mysticism and mystical encounters have been a part of Judaism since the earliest of times. The Torah contains many stories of mystical experiences, from visitations by angels to conversations with God to prophetic dreams and visions. Kabala (“to receive or accept” in Hebrew) is the name used to refer to a broad range of Jewish mystical thinking and traditions. In English the word “cabal” (derived from the word Kabala) has a dark meaning; it is a secret group of conspirators. But contrary to many contemporary misconceptions about Kabala, there are no evil or sinister practices, potions, or devices associated with Kabala.
While books of Jewish law tend to focus on what God wants from us, the Kabala looks at the deeper meaning and essence of God and the mysteries of creation. But this type of inquiry can be dangerous, and the rabbis of the Talmud cautioned against it.
A famous talmudic story tells how four rabbis, Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha ben Abuyah, and Akiva, attempted to study Jewish mysticism together. The results were disastrous: Azzai went mad, Ben Zoma died, and Elisha ben Abuyah became a heretic and left Judaism altogether. Only Rabbi Akiva survived the experience in peace. The episode suggests that there is great danger for those who engage in the study of mysticism without sufficient maturity and knowledge. As a result, Jewish law evolved over time to limit the study of Kabala to married men over 40 who were scholars of Torah and Talmud. Today, contemporary scholars of Jewish mysticism include both men and women, but the caveat remains: It should not be studied without a solid foundation of traditional Judaism because without that, the esoteric aspects of its wisdom can easily be misunderstood.
In the Middle Ages, many of the Jewish mystical teachings were committed to writing and were asserted to be ancient, secret texts. The Zohar itself was revealed in the 13th century by Moses De Leon, who claimed that it contained the writings of second-century Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
Like most areas of Jewish thinking, Kabala is open to a wide range of interpretations, and it is both daunting and impossible to summarize its teachings. But at its core is the belief that through our conscious efforts, by performing mitzvot and acts of love, kindness, charity, and mercy, we can positively affect our inner lives, one another, and even the divine aspects of God, as well as bring God’s presence into the world.
So, as my father would ask: “Is it good for the Jews” that Madonna has donated over $5 million to promote the Kabbalah Centre worldwide? Is it dangerous that the center’s store advertises religious objects like the red string that “protects against the influences of the evil eye,” and advertises that Kabala teaches that we can remove negative influences in our lives by using the string? I may be a cynic, but I think there are better ways to spend $26 than buying a few pieces of cord.
I am all for promoting conscious efforts that are dedicated to bringing about positive self-transformation and promoting world harmony. But I resent the Kabbalah Centre’s association with authentic Jewish mysticism because it dishonors an ancient, intricate, and complex Jewish mystical tradition and reduces it to a pop-cultural phenomenon.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, and the author of To Life! Jewish Reflections on Everyday Living. Her Web site is www.amyhirshberglederman.com.
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