Kosher Kabbalah

Battling for the heart of Jewish mysticism, Hollywood and the Hasidim offer different paths

Addressing the criticism that the Kabbalah Centre emphasizes the mystical part of Judaism over the Torah and Jewish law, the Centre offered only this vague email reply: “The goal of the Centre is to make Kabbalah and its life enhancing benefits available to everyone…bringing forth more and more wisdom that was once concealed, and making it revealed.”

And perhaps part of the bringing forth of this concealed wisdom, according to the Kabbalah Centre, is explaining that the Kabbalah offers insight into the spiritual laws that govern our universe. The Centre’s website reads: “Just as basic physical laws such as gravity and magnetism exist independently of our will and awareness, the spiritual laws of the universe influence our lives every day and every moment.” Consequently, an aim of the Centre is to help its students recognize these laws and live in agreement with them.

Not viewing the Kabbalah as the keys to unlocking the laws of the universe, Hasidic Jews—who played the leading role in the studying, teaching and spreading of Kabbalah wisdom throughout the ages—say the Kabbalah is more about revealing divine knowledge, inner dimensions of the Torah and understanding the right questions to ask.

Spiritual Questions

Rabbi Rav-Noy says the Kabbalah doesn’t answer scientific questions but rather spiritual ones. “A scientific question might be, ‘Why do people sleep?’ Science has its answer: to repair and regenerate the body. But a Kabbalistic question might be, ‘Why did God create people in such a way that they need to sleep?’” The Kabbalistic answer, he explains, is that people were created with the need to sleep in order to give them down time to reflect, ponder and grow.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, who teaches Jewish Law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, says a concern he has about the Kabbalah Centre is that it often represents Jewish mysticism as a way of getting what you want, of finding your destiny or achieving your dreams.

Rabbi Adlerstein is concerned that the Kabbalah Centre often represents Jewish mysticism as a way

of getting what you want, of finding your destiny or achieving your dreams.

“But this is the opposite of the real Kabbalah,” Adlerstein says, “which stresses more of an understanding of how awesome God is which leads to a diminution of ego rather than an exaggeration of it.”

In the end, Adlerstein says, you can’t do any serious study of Judaism—mystical or otherwise—without reducing the size of yourself and seeing yourself as something that is tiny in comparison to God.

Kabbalah Centre supporters like Madonna, though, claim that there is value to what is taught at the Kabbalah Centre. USA Today writes: “Madonna… has credited Kabbalah with helping to quash her Material Girl persona and achieve spiritual clarity.” USA Today also quotes Roseanne Barr as saying, “(Kabbalah) helped me to totally reconfigure my entire being, the way I thought, the way I did everything.”

Someone Else’s Property

Andrei Simic, professor of anthropology at USC, explains that orthodox Jews who object to how the Kabbalah Centre teaches Jewish mysticism might be doing so on the basis that they—as Hasidic Jews—“own” certain religious practices or traditions.

“A group’s particular culture and traditions are, in fact, property to them,” says Simic, “and if people usurp them and distort them, outside of their original context, this causes a great deal of resentment.”

In a similar circumstance, Simic says that one of his graduate students once made a film called “Sweating Indian Style,” about a group of upper-middle class feminist women who reconstructed American Indian sweat lodges. But the problem, says Simic, was that sweat lodges weren’t meant for women, and the feminists were re-casting the ritual in an elitist or “isn’t-this-fun-to-create-a-sweat lodge” manner.

When his graduate student interviewed Native Americans about the film, they were resentful, feeling that the feminists were taking the sacred sweat lodge ritual and exploiting it.

“Ultimately, if you want to reinvent a traditional religious ceremony, established institution or quasi-mystical belief system, that’s fine,” says Simic. “Just don’t call it a Catholic mass, an American Indian sweat lodge or the Kabbalah.”

[Some readers may wonder why Busted Halo®—which is sponsored by a Catholic organization—addresses various approaches to belief (or non-belief) and spirituality like the one above. Busted Halo® is an online magazine for the millions of spiritual seekers who already live in a competitive marketplace of ideas, philosophies and beliefs; our mission is to empower them to explore their own faith journeys through an open, honest discussion of their fellow seekers’ experiences. -Editor]