Mysticism for all?

With more non-Jews than Jews practicing kabbalah, some worry that the tradition could lose its meaning

Ft. Worth Star-Telegram/January 20, 2007
By Ira Rifkin

San Diego -- Madonna may be kabbalah's most visible non-Jewish exponent, but she's hardly the only one. Globally, more non-Jews than Jews are studying Judaism's once-secret mystical tradition, experts say, prompting a growing debate among Jewish scholars and religious leaders over the appropriateness of the rapidly spreading phenomenon.

Some worry that separating kabbalah from its deeply traditional Jewish origins drains it of meaning. Among them is Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, an Arizona State University professor of Jewish history, who warns that kabbalah is becoming "a commodity like many other New Age spiritualities."

Others, such as Rabbi Yakov Travis of Cleveland's Tiferet Institute, argue that the Jewish establishment's harsh criticism of nontraditional groups such as the Kabbalah Centre, Madonna's spiritual home, could push the many Jews attracted to the innovative approach to sever all ties with mainstream Judaism.

"We must find a way to keep the Kabbalah Centre, and Jews into kabbalah in New Age and other settings, within the community. This can't be ignored," Travis said. Otherwise, he added, kabbalah practitioners could, over time, become the start of a separatist movement -- akin to Christianity's start as a Jewish sect that eventually broke away.

Kabbalah's burgeoning popularity is evident by its Web presence. Google kabbalah -- the preferred English spelling -- and more than 4 million Web pages pop up. Another 1.5 million pages are returned using other spellings. lists nearly 6,000 books on the subject.

Traditionalists trace kabbalah's precepts -- which promise full knowledge of what is said to be God's laws underpinning creation -- back to the Hebrew Bible. Scholars generally agree that kabbalah's originating text, the Zohar, dates from 13th-century Spain.

Over time, kabbalah broadened to include folk aspects, such as the use of amulets to which believers ascribe magical powers. It also developed a dense intellectual code that traditionalists maintain was reserved for learned and pious Jewish men. Despite that restriction, Christian mystics and others have long been attracted to kabbalah.

"It is a paradox that kabbalah, the most recondite and esoteric dimension of Judaism, has always been the aspect of Judaism that has crossed over historically," said Rabbi Pinchas Giller, an associate professor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

But previous Gentile interest in kabbalah pales in comparison to current levels, Giller said. Leading the way is the Kabbalah Centre, which is highly controversial in Jewish circles. The center raises eyebrows with its policy of teaching kabbalah to all comers, regardless of background, as well as its slick marketing and pricey product line.

The line includes the red string bracelets ($26 for a package of seven) sported by Madonna and other Hollywood figures.

"We don't want people to become Jewish. We want people to become better people," said Rabbi Michael Berg, the Kabbalah Centre's 33-year-old co-director. "You can't say God wants his best stuff saved for the Jews."

Berg spoke recently at a conference here organized by the Tiferet Institute, which seeks to foster dialogue among Kabbalah's often disparate voices. The conference, "Kabbalah for the Masses?" offered a rare opportunity for the center's many critics to confront Berg face to face.

Berg's parents, Rabbi Philip and Karen Berg, took over a Jerusalem institute in the mid-1970s that became the Kabbalah Centre and fostered its global reach. Today, it has offices in more than a dozen nations, including the U.S., Canada and Israel. vBerg insisted that, like it or not, the center's universalist approach is as valid as any other nontraditional movement that has emerged within modern Judaism, including America's largest branch of Judaism, Reform. He also dismissed criticism about the center's marketing strategies.

"There are times that we might go too far, possibly. But the intention is always good." Besides, he maintained, "everybody markets."

Tamar Frankiel, a dean and professor at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles and the author of Kabbalah: A Brief Introduction for Christians, was among conference speakers who disagreed with the center's approach.

"It's intellectually dishonest to say that kabbalah is not Jewish but a universal teaching," she said.

However, some highly respected leaders of the New Age- and universalist-influenced Jewish Renewal movement were more forgiving of the center's openness to non-Jews, although neither addressed Berg's comments directly.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the movement's unofficial spiritual leader, noted that Jewish Renewal has always borrowed "spiritual technologies from other traditions," so why shouldn't non-Jews borrow from Judaism?"

Rabbi Arthur Green, head of the "transdenominational" Hebrew College Rabbinical School in Newton Centre, Mass., added that kabbalah may be understood as Judaism's version of what is commonly called "perennial philosophy," or religious teachings that cross sectarian boundaries.

His primary concern, Green said, is not who is studying kabbalah but what they are learning.

"I'm all for non-Jews opening to kabbalah," Green said, "as long as they take the best of kabbalah and not the worst."

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