Kosher Kabbalah

One rabbi who studied it grew crazy, one died and another became so bewildered that he lost his faith. According to Jewish tradition, the study of the Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism is not only powerful but also downright dangerous.

“Woe to the person who says that the Torah shares with us plain stories and mundane matters,” says the Zohar (Radiance), the traditional text of the Kabbalah, “…. rather all the matters in the Torah are supernal matters and supernal secrets.”

For centuries the study of the Kabbalah was forbidden, reserved only for Jewish males over 40, who were well-versed in Torah, but since its recent adoption by Hollywood celebrities, there has been a battle raging over this ancient Jewish wisdom: between traditional Jews—for whom Kabbalah is a mystical complement to one’s religious studies—and those newcomers for whom, according to some, the Kabbalah has been disconnected from it’s greater spiritual whole.

A Mystical Interpretation

Dating back to 13th century Spain, the Zohar was written in Aramaic and offers a mystical interpretation of the first five books of the Bible. Today the Zohar is the authoritative text for most Kabbalistic teachings.

“The difference between philosophy and the Kabbalah is that philosophy is what we think of God, the Universe and man,” says orthodox Rabbi Eyal Rav-Noy of the Jewish Learning Academy (JLA) to a packed classroom of attentive students in Los Angeles. “But the Kabbalah is what God thinks about God, the universe and man.”

Not too far from the JLA building, sits the Kabbalah Centre—a stone’s throw from chic Beverly Hills. Attracting the notice of such celebrities as Madonna, Britney Spears and Roseanne Barr, the star-studded Kabbalah Centre, which describes itself as “the leading educational organization on the wisdom of the Kabbalah worldwide,” is at the cutting edge of promoting Jewish mysticism today.

“The difference between philosophy and the Kabbalah is that philosophy is what we think of God, the Universe and man,” says orthodox Rabbi Eyal Rav-Noy. “But the Kabbalah is what God thinks about God, the universe and man.”

With its sprawling world headquarters on trendy South Robertson Boulevard and 50 locations worldwide, the Kabbalah Centre, which claims to have already reached over three million people, appears to be a hit. But there are those who say the Centre’s spiritual wisdom—along with the selling of red string bracelets that ward off “negative energies” for 26 dollars—is really not that kosher.

Libel and Slander

“Rubbish,” is what Rabbi Dr. Immanuel Schochet, the renowned Hasidic scholar on the Kabbalah, calls what the Kabbalah Centre teaches. “It’s phony; it’s manipulative; it has no spirituality whatsoever. It’s not related to the authentic Kabbalah.”

Schochet, whom the Kabbalah Centre has threatened to sue for 4.5 million for libel and slander, says that one of his main criticisms of the Centre is that it separates the exoteric from the esoteric.

For Schochet and most Hasidic Jews, the meat and potatoes of Judaism is not Jewish mysticism (esoteric) but the study of the Torah and commitment to Jewish Law (exoteric); the Kabbalah is just the spice. “If you eat just the spice and not the meat and potatoes, the meal might be exciting for a bit, but it’s not going to satisfy you much in the end,” says Hasidic Rabbi Dov Wagner of the University of Southern California.

From the Heart

Chery Fenley, an artist and student at the JLA, agrees. Fenley went to the Kabbalah Centre for a while and even moved close to it. But after a while, she began to feel that the Centre’s religious foundation was shaky, without adequate emphasis on the Torah or mitzvoth.

Fenley says that even though she’s not a fully observant Jew, her soul still knows what’s Jewish. “I’m not putting down the Kabbalah Centre,” she insists, “but it just wasn’t for me.”

But when Fenley enrolled in the Kabbalah course at the JLA, an orthodox Jewish organization, she felt home again. “I know that what they teach about the Kabbalah is sincere and comes from the heart.”