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Celebrities Popularize Kabbalah, but Serious Interest Also on the Rise

September 3, 2004
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In another era, it might have been hard to imagine the likes of Madonna, Ashton Kutcher and Britney Spears spearheading a revival of ancient Jewish mystical traditions. But what began not so long ago as a celebrity fad that turned Kabbalah into the latest Hollywood fashion statement may be translating into a genuine revival of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism in mainstream Jewish institutions.

At the dawn of a new academic year, it seems Kabbalah is hotter than ever at Jewish schools, JCCs, rabbinical seminaries and universities.

“There’s no question that enrollment in courses on Kabbalah is going up,” said Arthur Green, an expert on Jewish mysticism at Brandeis University and dean of the new, nondenominational rabbinical school at Hebrew College, in Massachusetts. “The numbers are growing for courses on Kabbalah in universities, no doubt influenced by the popular interest in Kabbalah.”

At JCCs and other community organizations, ! even a cursory glance at class offerings immediately demonstrates the prevalence of Kabbalah. By many accounts, classes can hardly keep pace with growing demand.

“Unknowingly, Madonna’s interest has generated a huge interest among Jewish people to find out what’s in their own backyard,” said Yossi Offenberg, Jewish program manager at the JCC of San Francisco. “The interest is spreading.”

When the San Francisco JCC first started offering a Kabbalah class seven years ago, fewer than 10 students signed up. Now the JCC has two weekly classes in Kabbalah, one on Jewish texts and one on meditation, and more than 60 people are enrolled.

Rabbis, too, have been seeking out Jewish mysticism.

Green, author of “Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow,” noted that a recent national convention of Reform rabbis invited him to keynote a session on the Zohar — the central work of Kabbalistic literature and perhaps the foremost work of Jewish mysticism.

“That would have been unthinka! ble in Reform Judaism a decade ago,” he said.

At his own rabbinica l school in Massachusetts, Green said, “there’s clamor from students and a sense that there’s a need to teach Kabbalah as part of a rabbinic education. All rabbinical seminaries are looking for faculty to teach Kabbalah.”

At the Siegel College of Judaic Studies, in Cleveland, Yakov Travis has started a new, non-degree-bound, one-year program in Jewish spirituality in response to demand among his students and local Jews generally.

“This is a very important cultural moment in America, in Jewish history,” Travis said, referring to the popular fascination with Kabbalah. “The way it happened is by the Kabbalah Centre opening up in L.A. and attracting stars.”

“On the one hand, it is so superficial and misrepresents a very deep tradition,” he said. “On the other hand, it gives people some kind of connection to this deep, sophisticated tradition.”

Both critics and acolytes of the Kabbalah Centre credit the institution’s activities with reviving Jewish interest in the Je! wish mystical tradition generally — though some say the interest is in part an effort to reclaim Kabbalah for Jews in the wake of what they call the universalization, distortion and dilution of the subject by the Kabbalah Centre.

The Kabbalah Centre, which markets its version of Kabbalah to non-Jews as well as Jews — and has attracted the interest and support of numerous celebrities — has disseminated more than 3.5 million books and tapes on Kabbalah, teaches the subject to tens of thousands of students every week and runs a Web site that gets more than 150,000 unique visitors, according to Rabbi Michael Berg, the center’s co-director.

“We make Kabbalah accessible,” Berg told JTA. “We are the largest organization in the world dedicated to teaching this wisdom. Certainly the fact that non-Jews now have a desire to study Kabbalah, that expanded the universe of people who have access to it.”

Rick Ross, an expert on cults and executive director of the Ross Institute! in New Jersey, says the center is run like a cult and is interested o nly in enriching itself and the Berg family, not teaching Jewish philosophy.

Berg maintains that the center is a nonprofit organization and that all the money it generates goes to support the center’s activities and growth.

Numerous Jewish scholars have described the center’s teachings as cosmetic and superficial, if not misrepresentative of Jewish mysticism.

Berg rejects that notion. He says the revival of interest in the subject at Jewish institutions results from the Kabbalah Centre’s work.

“Today every synagogue has a class on Kabbalah,” Berg said. “Twenty years ago none had. A lot of that has to do with the work that we’re doing.”

Doubtless, much of the public interest in Kabbalah has been cosmetic. Paris Hilton may wear a bendel — a red string bracelet meant to ward off the evil eye, which the Kabbalah Centre sells for $26 but which can be bought from old ladies at Jerusalem’s Western Wall for a few cents — but Hilton hardly is a student of Jewish phil! osophy.

Jonathan Dauber, professor of Jewish studies at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Va., says Kabbalah has no meaning if divorced from the system of Jewish law on which it’s based.

“Quite frankly, selling magic strings is far away from an intellectually honest way of translating Kabbalah to a wider public,” Dauber said. “That’s peddling in folk magic, not in deep philosophical mysteries.”

As far as institutions that teach Kabbalah to the general public, Dauber said, “It’s somewhat absurd to even begin to teach Kabbalah to people without also giving them training in non-Kabbalistic Jewish texts. It’s a bizarre enterprise.”

He explained, “In general, the concerns of Kabbalah are particularly Jewish. They deal with Jewish people and Jewish law. Arguably, the most fundamental form of Kabbalah is texts that deal with explaining the reasons for the commandments along Kabbalistic lines. How does one teach that divorced of knowledge of Jewish law?”

Regardle! ss of how one feels about the Kabbalah Centre, the heated debate and a ngst it has generated among Jews has helped put Jewish mysticism back on the Jewish community’s agenda.

Ross, the cult expert, acknowledged as much.

“Chabad has been talking about Kabbalah. Bureaus of Jewish education are beginning to offer alternatives through courses endorsed by the mainstream,” he said. “Kabbalah has been supercharged by these celebrities, and that’s brought more attention to established Jewish institutions, and I think that’s not a bad thing.”

Seekers of Kabbalah should not be dismissed merely as celebrity-worshiping consumers, scholars cautioned.

“This is all part of a much broader search. Lots of Westerners have been seeking some deeper truth,” Green said.

“You look at all these popular phenomena,” he said, noting the Western interest in Buddhism before the current popularization of Kabbalah. “A lot of it was faddish or superficial. But some serious people started there and then delved more deeply. The same will be true of Kabbalah, I’m! sure.”

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