Cashing in on kabbalah

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/October 28, 2005
By Bo Emerson

How do you get a 16th-century Jewish mystic out on the dance floor?

With Madonna — and kabbalah — anything is possible.

The Material Girl's newest release, due out Nov. 15, includes a tune called "Isaac," a paean to Rabbi Isaac Luria, a master of the arcane tradition known as kabbalah.

Madonna's name-checking of an obscure religious leader may seem an odd formula for a pop song — what's next, Wittgenstein set to a house beat? — but it demonstrates that kabbalah is creeping ever closer to the mainstream.

Other celebrities, including Britney Spears, Barbra Streisand, Paris Hilton and Demi Moore, have attended kabbalah classes or been spotted wearing red-string bracelets believed to ward off the evil eye. Moore recently married Ashton Kutcher at a "kabbalah wedding."

Philip Berg and his sons, creators of a chain of 40 kabbalah centers around the world, are credited with the recent upsurge in interest. They assert that kabbalah transcends Judaism and can give insight to people of all religions. A primer, called "Kabbalah 101," offers "What your rabbi, priest, guru, shaman, lama, shrink and aerobics instructor never told you!"

But not everyone is happy about the new popularity of the old secret knowledge.

Luria, or the "Arizal," was buried in 1572 in Safed, a "Kabbalistic" city in Israel, where his adherents operate a seminary and keep watch over his tomb. They're not impressed with Madonna's musical tribute, and they see her song as an attempt to cash in on his name.

The situation is slightly amusing to Rabbi Daniel Freitag, who teaches adult education courses on Jewish mysticism at Atlanta Scholars Kollel.

Kabbalah, he said is "simply the most deep and mystical teachings of Judaism. In order to incorporate it into one's living, one must be deeply familiar with Jewish texts." He finds it unlikely that a Catholic girl from Bay City, Mich., is adept at Jewish learning.

Study in the Middle Ages was often restricted to Jewish men age 40 or older. Those new to Judaism, Freitag said, are unlikely to grasp the subtleties. "It's basically like trying to understand advanced rocket science without understanding arithmetic."

The origins of kabbalah — the Hebrew word means "reception" and "tradition" — are mysterious. Legend holds that the tradition was handed down to Moses by God on Mount Sinai when the Torah and the 10 Commandments were imparted.

The word in such contexts implies the full range of Judaic tradition, according to Joseph Dan of Jerusalem's Hebrew University, who presents a cogent description of the subject in his book "Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction."

Medieval scholars and mystics contributed their own "secret" writings, often based on visionary experiences, adding an "esoteric stratum" to the shared Jewish traditions, Dan writes.

Around 1280 a Spanish mystic and writer named Moses de Leon composed a commentary on the Torah called the Book of Zohar, one of kabbalah's earliest texts. In the mid-1500s Rabbi Luria contributed his own visions in which he claimed he spoke with Elijah and the prophets. His writings, compiled by a student, became the basis for a school of study termed Lurianic Kabbalah, and helped usher in the modern era of kabbalah.

Various versions of the Zohar surfaced and receded during the next few centuries, and kabbalah and its purported magical powers continued to influence both Jews and gentiles, including Isaac Newton and German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz.

The tradition of gentiles studying kabbalah continues in the present with adherents such as Shirley Chambers of Atlanta. Born and raised Catholic, she became dissatisfied with traditional Christian theology, and "I began to study every 'ism' in the world," she said.

Chambers began teaching a form of kabbalah in 1981, and in 1988 opened the Karin Kabalah Center on North Druid Hills Road. "Kabbalah to me at this point is a label that is put on a flow of understanding about God and life," she said.

While the study of kabbalah is ancient, using kabbalah to brand licensed products is relatively new.

The Bergs have trademarked the phrase "Kabbalah Centre" and attempted to trademark the phrase "Kabbalah red string." The application was rejected, according to the Village Voice, because the red string was only "indefinitely identified" as a religious object.

On the Web site,, one can buy kabbalah water, kabbalah clothing and, for $26, a red string bracelet and book about it.

Rabbi Ephraim Silverman, who directs the congregation at Chabad of Cobb, said kabbalah does, indeed, extend beyond the boundaries of religion. "A lot of it is universal wisdom, universal truth," said Silverman. "There happen to be a lot of parallels between kabbalistic teachings and far Eastern truths."

Silverman includes kabbalah in his teachings, his sermons, and in the way he raises his children.

"If it goes hand-in-hand in inspiring people to grow in all areas of Judaism, that's a wonderful thing," he said. "But if it's just basically kabbalah only and not the rest of it, then I think there's something not right with it."

While pop kabbalah may appeal to a heterogeneous group also fascinated by New Age concepts, traditional kabbalah will continue to thrive in the synagogues, said Bob Menaker, an editor with the Atlanta Jewish Times. "Religious instruction is widely available in the Jewish community," he said. "The organized Jewish community does such a good job with Jewish education that people aren't looking for short cuts."

His only experience with the new "kabbalah" was at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a holy site for Jews. "This old man is trying to wrap one of those red strings around my wrist and says, 'Give me $20.' "

Menaker's response was a dismissive Yiddish phrase loosely translated as "beat it."

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