What do Madonna, Demi Moore and Britney Spears have in common with 16th-century Kabbalist 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 Centre has transformed Kabbalah considered by Jews to be the inner sanctum of Jewish devotion and thought into something like McMysticism, a generic, nondenominational form of magical thinking. According to the Centres website, this Kabbalah 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 G-d to prophetic dreams and visions.
Kabbalah, which in Hebrew means to receive or accept 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 Kabbalah) has a dark meaning; it is a secret group of conspirators. But contrary to many contemporary misconceptions about Kabbalah, there are no evil or sinister practices, potions or devices associated with Kabbalah.
While books of Jewish law tend to focus on what G-d wants from us, the Kabbalah looks at the deeper meaning and essence of G-d 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. 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 Kabbalah 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. 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 by Moses De Leon, who said that it contained the writings of 2nd-century Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.
Like most areas of Jewish thinking, Kabbalah 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 G-d, as well as bring G-ds 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 Centres store advertises religious objects like the red string that protects against the influences of the evil eye and advertises that Kabbalah teaches that we can remove negative influences in our lives by using the red 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 Centres association with authentic Jewish mysticism because this dishonors an ancient, intricate and complex Jewish mystical tradition, reducing it to a pop-cultural phenomenon.