Kabbalah in Kansas City

The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle/January 15, 2005
By Marcia L. Horn

Knowing virtually nothing about Kabbalah, I set out to see just what the fuss is about among Hollywood celebrities. All I had heard about Kabbalah was that the study of Jewish mysticism could be very dangerous if you didn't know what you were doing.

After reading dozens of articles on the subject and conducting several interviews, I learned more about what Kabbalah isn't (or shouldn't be) than what it is, simply because so much more is written about pop cultural Kabbalah than legitimate Kabbalah. Forget all the rhetoric coming out of Rabbi Philip Berg's phenomenally popular Kabbalah Centres - made so famous, or infamous, by adherents Madonna, Britney Spears, Demi Moore, Paris Hilton, et al. Who doesn't want to unlock the secrets of the universe, become more God-like and live forever? These are just a few of the (erroneous) promises made by Rabbi Berg.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of Union for Reform Judaism in his column in the magazine Reform Judaism said, "Pop Kabbalah is mostly a simplistic self-help philosophy that makes use of magic strings, amulets and other superstitious practices while drawing on enough Hebrew words and letters to lend it a patina of Jewish legitimacy. Meant for mass consumption, it is consoling and nonjudgmental and requires no serious religious commitment."

This appears to be the general consensus of those who are knowledgeable about the "legitimate" study of Kabbalah. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, author of "Opening the Tanya: Discovering the Moral and Mystical Teachings of a Classic Work of Kabbalah," was interviewed last year by The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and proffered his opinion of Hollywood's obsession with Kabbalah:"There is no spirit in it, no message in it. This is part of a general term toward the esoteric that seems to be a' la mode for the time being, but it is not important on any real level. At best, it is shallow and unimportant. At worst, it may become slightly dangerous for Judaism and for the people who get involved in it. To get involved in any kind of pseudo-science or pseudo-religion is always slightly dangerous for the religion."

Rabbi David Fine, senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel Abraham & Voliner, said Hollywood stars advocating Kabbalah is both good and bad. Any attention paid to traditional Jewish practices educates Jews and non-Jews about it, and that's a good thing. Plus these stars reach a lot of people and bring a lot of awareness.

On the other hand, he said, the Kabbalah Centre suggests that you don't have to be connected to the system; you can just walk in, take what you want from it and leave the rest behind.

"This is not something that is going to change your life by going to a few classes," said Rabbi Fine. "Kabbalah is a system of thought and develops new theories about the nature of God. It's not a way of life, and that's how it's being portrayed."

Ask a rabbi

If you want the real deal, ask a rabbi.

"Do not learn Kabbalah from a book; learn it from a teacher," said Rabbi Sholom Wineberg of Chabad House, "because you would read into the book your experience, and Kabbalah is basically taking from a higher level, trying to bring you down into your world. When you read a book, you're trying to have your world enter the other world."

Rabbi Wineberg teaches Kabbalah on several levels, using the basic text "Lessons in Tanya," which is his translation of the original Tanya written in 1797 by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad movement.

Rabbi Wineberg says that to be a student of mysticism means to be aware of the fact that there are sub-layers and deeper meanings to the Torah and deeper levels of understanding. "Each time you can go further and further and plumb the depths almost infinitely," he said.

He likens it to studying the body. There's the revealed part of the body, the skin and the skeletal structure, and then there's the inner dimension: the blood, heart, lungs, liver, brain. Going even deeper, there's DNA.

It's like a puzzle -- you have to have all the pieces before you can put it all together.

"When you come to Jewish mysticism, it's taken as a given that the first step is knowledge and adherence to the Jewish life, because, for a Jew, the Torah and the commandments are the spiritual roadmap or computer program, the manual by which we live," Rabbi Wineberg said. "Once you know the manual itself, you can go down deeper to the codes on which the program is built. But without knowing the externals, you really can't get anyplace."

Rabbi Wineberg says that in order to study Kabbalah, you must be Jewish or at least have some knowledge of Judaism. Torah Learning Center's Rabbi Ben Zion Friedman, however, said non-Jews can benefit from Kabbalah, too. In his classes, he uses Rabbi Steinsaltz's book, which is also a translation of Rabbi Shneur Zalman's Tanya.

"Some parts of Kabbalah we can teach," he said. "If we can tell a person the purpose in life and the spark of God that everything has, these things relate to everybody. There's a relationship between them and God and Divine Providence, and all these concepts are for everybody -- Jew or non-Jew alike."

Rabbi Friedman says Kabbalah came from Mount Sinai. "Nobody just thought up this mystical stuff," he said. "Like everything else from Torah, it came from Mount Sinai. Some people studied it; most people didn't."

The literal meaning of Kabbalah is "to receive," said Rabbi Wineberg. Tradition has it that the Torah was given in two parts: oral and written. "Oral tradition includes many of the laws we now have in our Talmud. Another section of the Torah is Kabbalah, the mystical tradition, which is part and parcel of the Torah itself."

However, neither Rabbi Wineberg nor Rabbi Friedman think it is necessarily a negative for the non-Jewish Madonna to be a spokesperson for Kabbalah.

"People say, 'It's horrible; it's disgusting. What kind of people are dealing with this kind of stuff, degrading it?' On the other hand," Rabbi Friedman said, "if it's becoming so popular and people are going to come to me because they heard that Kabbalah is so interesting and so exciting that 'I'd also like to study it,' great!

"So if that awakens in somebody an interest in this, and they go to the right places, then there must be something good to it. How much money would it cost me to get such interest in Kabbalah? The whole world knows about it.

Why so popular?

Kabbalah has become the latest "new age" religious craze. But other than publicity from pop artists like Madonna, why has it reached such phenomenal proportions?

"People are looking for some inner insight into themselves, into the world, and somehow Kabbalah seems to some people to answer that search," said Rabbi Friedman. "When you say 'mystical,' everybody's jumping; it feels secret. It's going to give us the meaning of life."

Rabbi Wineberg also said people are seeking meaning and direction in life. You can follow a certain path, but if you don't know why, the path loses its meaning.

"In Judaism, as well, you practice Torah and mitzvahs, but the deeper you go and the more you're aware of the cosmic significance of the events, the more it puts you in touch with your inner self, as well as the soul of the commandments," Rabbi Wineberg said. "So you feel an added dimension, both to yourself as well as to your practice and your fellow persons. "You're not looking at them in their physicality, but you're seeing their spiritual structure more than their physical structure. You're seeing the things that bring them together, rather than that which divides. The danger is only when you take the trappings and the trimmings without taking the bread to the butter. Then you're losing it; it's not authentic."

Dangers of Kabbalah

For many years, the study of Kabbalah was secretive and considered dangerous if the person was not ready for it. Rabbis believed it should only be studied by married men, over the age of 40. Now, Rabbi Friedman says, Chassidists teach that it is important to study Kabbalah; it's a commandment to be revealed.

"I'm not saying everybody should study it. The study that is dangerous is the study of the names of God, the names of the angels, the planets and the constellations that were functioning at that time that you want to manipulate nature," Rabbi Friedman said. "That's like making the golem. ... So you use Kabbalah to make a golem, the words, the letters, how to manipulate angels and demons, whatever. I think that's why people are interested in it because they think they can change things."

Inmates in the prisons Rabbi Friedman visits are studying Kabbalah, he said, Jews and non-Jews alike. "Thinking what? That the bars will just part or they'll levitate to something and float out? So that kind of stuff is dangerous because if you're not truly holy and Godly, it can hurt you. You have to be a scholar and be righteous, to be married and you have to be anchored so you don't lift yourself and take yourself out of this world, which is dangerous.

"But on the other hand, what Kabbalah can teach a person is about the hidden parts of the world. ... What is the soul of everything, the soul of the world, the soul of a human being, the soul of divinity, the essence of things. What is it, what are things really made of? So that's what we can study and we can make our lives a little bit better. That's the study of Kabbalah. So the angel stuff and manipulation of names and letters and all that stuff, we don't study."

Rabbi Wineberg said you can't expect to just jump right into mysticism -- you have to first have a foundation. Studying a raw mystical text without the elucidation of the Tanya would be very abstract and hard to understand. The textual language does not translate easily into a language that is understandable to modern, unschooled readers.

"Jewish mysticism has the capacity of revealing to the individual their dynamic, spiritual self, which is unique," he said. "You can take pride and achieve something that nobody else can achieve because everything in the mystical dimension has purpose and meaning. ... When somebody studies mysticism, when they begin applying it to their lives, then they are able to see and gain insight as to their own inherent spiritual qualities. It enables them to bring that to the floor, so it makes for a much happier individual and a much deeper individual because there's a path in front of them where they are integrating their practice, their knowledge and their being, their inner self. Like mind, body and soul, it becomes one integrated whole."

Rabbi Fine of BIAV teaches classes about Kabbalah; he does not teach the practice of it.

"People who don't know all that much and are coming to study Kabbalah, are people who don't know Talmud and who don't know Jewish law, and some of them don't even know Hebrew," he said. "That's like studying advanced calculus without knowing basic arithmetic. ... My point is to read the texts with people and have them understand the system and understand the theory behind the system, not to actually do it, not to have these kinds of ecstatic experiences."

What Kabbalah can do for us

Studying Kabbalah with a rabbi can enhance a person's Judaism as well as his or her life, Rabbi Fine said. "It's a very rich system and is something that has had a profound influence on our whole religion. It will absolutely enrich people's lives. Kabbalah has some very profound ideas of God, the nature of God and how God interacts with the world and evil in the world." Rabbi Friedman agrees.

"Kabbalah is not a quick fix; it's a study; it's a philosophy," he said.

The Tanya is a philosophical work, Rabbi Friedman said. If you read and understand it, you will develop a love and understanding of God and Torah mitzvot that help you in your daily life. This is the purpose of Kabbalah.

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