'Kabbalah for all who seek it.' So read a flier handed to me as I, and hundreds of other Londoners in the bustling underground tunnel of Blackfriars station, elbowed my way towards another day of work. To the young, dark-haired girl advertising free introductory seminars to the 'power of Kabbalah' – the therapeutic, New Age, celebrity-studded version of the centuries-old Jewish strain of mysticism – it must have seemed like we were all in desperate need of joining the ranks of the 3.5million people around the world whose lives allegedly have been 'touched' by the study of Kabbalah.
Just like the Church of Scientology, the Kabbalah movement – which has centres across the world, from Abidjan to Buenos Aires, Tel Aviv to Warsaw – has been 'exposed' numerous times. Journalists have pointed out that the red strings that Kabbalah followers tie around their left wrists, made fashionable by celebrities like Madonna and Stella McCartney, don't have protective powers, and are Made in China; that cancer sufferers who give all their money to Kabbalah centres will not be cured, but may end up bankrupt; that Kabbalistic 'holy water' comes from a bottling plant in Canada, and it cannot, as Madonna and her husband Guy Ritchie recently suggested, neutralise nuclear waste.
But sensationalist exposés, keen to uncover hidden agendas and brainwashing methods, overlook the fact that the attraction of Kabbalah is the same as that of other 'spiritual' lifestyles. It is also similar to more mainstream therapeutic programmes, which all elevate self-improvement, self-fulfilment and self-expression over other pursuits. Though the Kabbalah centre may charge very large sums of money for pieces of string, bottles of tap water and mumbo-jumbo literature, people join voluntarily and no one is forced to buy its products. They are attracted for the same reasons people are attracted to therapy gatherings or Buddhism meetings or any other New Age get-together: for some 'self-discovery' and a sense of purpose in a time of flux.
Today's Kabbalah movement is a family affair, overseen by the American rabbi Philip Berg – or 'the Rav' to his followers – and his wife Karen and their two sons. Together they have popularised a hotchpotch version of an ancient form of Jewish mysticism. They have refashioned what is a complex system of thought and commentary on the Torah, traditionally only available to elderly male Talmudic scholars, into a self-help programme which can be studied by anyone – from London commuters to Hollywood celebs.
According to the original Kabbalists, women can go mad if they read the Zohar, the central text of Kabbalah attributed to the second-century scholar Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and completed in the thirteenth century by the Spanish rabbi, Moses de León. By contrast, Rabbi Philip Berg has claimed that anybody can just scan the Aramaic letters of the Zohar with their fingers in order to absorb its alleged healing powers. So unlike her character in Yentl, Barbara Streisand, another follower of Kabbalah, doesn't have to pretend to be a man in order to join Berg's path to enlightenment.
Curious to see what kind of people are drawn to Kabbalah and why, I signed up for a free introduction seminar at the London centre, which is located off Oxford street, the city's busiest shopping area – and, surely, any materialist-denouncing, spirituality-enthusiast's idea of hell.
When I arrived at the centre, I was surprised to see a couple of orthodox Jews. I imagined they would be the least likely followers of a movement that scraps rigorous engagement with Jewish scriptures in favour of a free-for-all fast track route to happiness. Unsurprisingly, many Jewish leaders and scholars have denounced Berg's movement. One, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, speaking at the 2004 Jewish Book Week in London, said that many people are drawn to cheap imitations of Kabbalah, which are all about 'selling ways to paradise and happiness'. According to the Kabbalah centre's website, the reason why many people are now interested in it is because 'Kabbalah works' and it is a 'way of life that can enhance any religious practice'.
It turned out that a Kabbalah student had approached the two chassids, who had been shopping for a watch on Oxford street, and persuaded them to visit the centre. The staff, mostly Israeli, were not impressed by the presence of these representatives of organised religion. The student, however, seemed enthralled that she had encouraged two men who have studied Judaism their whole lives to pop into the Kabbalah centre. I asked the Kabbalah student, who is already on lesson three of the Power of Kabbalah course, what she does for a living. She makes sex toys for women.
The staff were all keen to meet and greet me and the other seminar participants, and to make sure we had a look at the bookshop. Outside the seminar room a woman with a big smile on her face was having the famous red string tied around her wrist. Much like the ribbons and wristbands that come in every imaginable colour and in support of every imaginable cause – from empathising with AIDS victims to making poverty history – wearing the red string is about making a statement and demonstrating that you Believe in Something.
As the room gradually filled up, a 'mentor' was assigned to each of its round tables. The mentor at my table was an Israeli woman who, in between encouraging us all to introduce ourselves to each other and share our expectations of the evening, was busy taking calls on her mobile. Along with the sex-toy designer, there were others who had already started the course and who were later encouraged to tell us newcomers what we should expect to get out of studying Kabbalah. One told us he has spiritual powers and has met angels; another, wearing a large cross, said she does not like organised religion but appreciates the spirituality that Kabbalah offers. She recommended subscribing to the 'Kabbalah Consciousness Tune Up', a weekly online newsletter.
Apart from a large board with Hebrew symbols – the '72 names of God' – in the seminar room, and the books, candles and other items on sale in the small shop, there were not many decorations. There was also no New Age paraphernalia, astrological charts or batik cloths adorning the walls. To the contrary, with its light blue carpets, whitewashed walls and tablecloths, it looked like a sleek conference centre. The conversion-rate was high. At the end of the seminar everyone around my table signed up to the £180 10-part course covering such topics as the 'limitation of the five senses' and 'the power to break out of our comfort zone'. When my mentor looked me in the eyes and asked 'so, Nathalie, will you join us?', I made a lame excuse about not being quite ready yet.
Offering courses in how to 'open the doors of opportunity, whether in personal relationships, business, marriage, or general health and wellbeing' – and trips to Israel to 'Reignite your purpose. Reengage your mind. Renew your soul' – Kabbalah chimes well with today's fashion for 'spirituality' and esoteric forms of self-improvement. But the young skullcap-wearing man leading the seminar was keen to prove that Kabbalah is different. 'This is not some kind of New Age cult', he said. Kabbalah, meaning 'receipt' in Hebrew, is not something you go out and grab, explained the lecturer who was varyingly setting off brainstorming sessions amongst the new attendees and scribbling down notes on a flip chart. No, Kabbalah is somehow special. Consider the '99 per cent' theory.
Our five senses apparently provide us with access to a mere one per cent of reality, and we must use Kabbalistic wisdom to access the 99 per cent which in fact dictates our lived reality. I was not the only one who seemed confused by the quick breakdown of this 'scientifically proven' state of affairs, so the lecturer elaborated: there are so many things we can't perceive but we know they are there, he said. It's like infrared signals or radio waves, he explained; we can't see radio waves, but when we plug in a radio it starts emitting sound, so the radio waves must be around us. He asked us to suggest ways in which we could try to access the 99 per cent, but everyone still seemed rather perplexed. 'Plug in a radio?' I thought to myself. 'Okay, think of it like a computer', the lecturer tried. There's software, but there's also the hardware without which the computer can't function. So how do you find out about the hardware?' 'And there's also the operational system', suggested a new attendee. So Kabbalah is like a radio or a computer or something.
Using expressions such as 'realising our limitations', 'changing our perception', 'seeking to be fulfilled by The Light', Kabbalah, despite the lecturer's protests, is just another alternative route for those seeking self-fulfilment through New Age spirituality. This was exemplified by a man in his thirties at my table who said he has tried lots of spiritual practices – 'a bit of healing, a bit of tantra' – and now wants to give Kabbalah a shot. But what really gives Kabbalah its edge and air of credibility, amongst its followers anyway, is its ancient roots. 'What makes Kabbalah different?' I asked my mentor. 'Well, each person should follow what's right for them', she answered, 'but Kabbalah is 4,000 years old. It is the source of all other forms of spirituality – everything came from Kabbalah, including Buddhism.'
Some disillusioned former volunteers and Kabbalah students have accused the movement of being a cult which lures vulnerable people into its folds, robs them of all their money and alienates them from friends and families. No doubt the Kabbalah enthusiasts would counter that they in fact encourage doubt, scepticism and questioning; all things that were, indeed, emphasised during the seminar. But after two hours of hearing about the hopes, aspirations and traumas of a bunch of complete strangers, it all just seemed like a glorified form of group therapy to me, with a bit of astrology and some Hebrew symbols thrown in.
When two of the people around my table shared with us their tragic personal stories, someone said this was nothing compared to the emotional release that takes place in later classes: 'people cry and everything.' Like these Kabbalah students, people who undergo therapy are also willing to pay for personal help and guidance and appreciate the support and encouragement they get in therapy groups. And just like those who try out different alternative therapies and esoteric practices – being into reiki one week, yoga the next, and gemstone healing the third – so others look for a therapy programme or form of analysis that will suit them, and then may stay in therapy for years. Those who undergo therapy are encouraged to re-imagine themselves, their friends, families and their past in therapeutic terms; Kabbalah-followers also redefine their worlds in the terms set out by the programme.
In this sense, despite the claims made by exposé-hungry journos, Kabbalah is not that much more controversial than various therapeutic programmes, or popular and mainstream forms of self-help. People are drawn to 'spirituality' because they are looking for meaning and direction in their lives; dabbling with alternative therapies is not an obscure or marginal phenomenon. In fact, it is because of the widespread emphasis on personal wellbeing and self-gratification in the mainstream – from Body & Mind sections in magazines to those numerous TV lifestyle makeover programmes – that lifestyle gurus in various guises can wield such authority. Rather than dismissing Rabbi Berg's Kabbalah movement as a religious cult, no matter how irrational it may be, we should recognise that its popularity is part of the mainstreaming of the therapeutic ethos.
Indeed, the various exposés of Kabbalah as a strange sect probably only reinforces its members' sense of being apart from, and above, the rest of society; it probably confirms for them that they are following a way of life which others either don't quite understand or fear and envy. The mentor at my table emphasised that for a long time the study of Kabbalah was forbidden except to a choice few (in fact, it was Karen Berg, in her book God Wears Lipstick, who opened it up to women just a few years ago). And so it is not surprising that people who seek out the 'Power of Kabbalah' because of their personal disaffection find some kind of comfort at the Kabbalah centre and keep coming back. Just like the characters in the TV series Cheers, they want to be in a place where everybody knows their name, are always glad they came, and where they can see that our troubles are all the same.