When Rachel M. graduated from college, she headed for Los Angeles, a city she believed to be a kind of spiritual Mecca for smart young seekers. Like many ethnic Jews, Rachel M. was not deeply religious but had learned about Jewish history as a child. She attended synagogue while growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, and observed the high holidays, but her religion left her unfulfilled. She sensed there was more to learn and was finally drawn to the esoteric Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah. Not only did it promise to address some of life's mysteries, it was connected to the tradition she already knew.
It was not hard for her to find an outlet. The Kabbalah Centre, a worldwide organization headquartered in a Spanish-style building on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles, advertises its classes throughout the city. It was first brought to the U.S. in 1971 by Rabbi Philip Berg. A huge billboard on the side of the building advertises "Free Kabbalah lectures every Tuesday and Thursday night at 7:00." Rachel M. enrolled in a 10-week course.
"It was totally enticing; there was this gorgeous rabbi," she says in a faint Midwestern accent. "He presented this class, The Power of Kabbalah, in such an inspiring light. I just wanted to figure out the quantum physics behind the universe and 'what is this vessel of light?' and all of these uncertainties that they told us we would be able to figure out."
But each class ended with a cliffhanger, with the secrets of the universe conveniently saved for the next week. The experience was like living in a Hitchcock film, keeping her permanently in suspense. But nothing was ever revealed. "All I got out of this class at the end is that we are vessels that receive and give off light," she says.
Oh, and constant reminders to buy something. "They keep calling you," she says. "It is relentless."
The Kabbalah Centre aggressively seeks new students through commercial advertising tactics. And the free weekly lectures serve predominantly as sales pitches to bait prospective students to sign up for the Centre's 10-week introductory course, which costs about $270, not including numerous must-have Kabbalah-related items such as books, CDs, and "spiritual tools." The Centre website boasts: "More than 250 products are available to support and enrich the study of Kabbalah. These include & Kabbalah Mountain Spring Water, whose health-giving benefits have been demonstrated in sophisticated laboratories."
The steep cost of spirituality is only one issue riling the Centre's critics. The story of Kabbalah and its celebrity-fueled rise to star status in modern-day L.A. is a Hollywood tale involving everyone from Madonna to the Dalai Lama. And, its cinematic similarities do not end with celebrity endorsements - there is at least one alleged gangster-style death threat. "It's Kabbalywood," one local observer joked.
Thus far, tabloid-culture icons - Madonna, Britney Spears, and according to The New York Times, even Paris Hilton - have publicly championed the Kabbalah Centre. On CNN's Larry King Live, Madonna announced, "I am a Kabbalist!" And on a November cover of Entertainment Weekly, Spears, her diva-in-training, wore the red string bracelet sold at the Kabbalah Centre, a $26 item that works both as protection against the evil eye and as an enigmatic fashion statement. (Mariah Carey also wears one.) Kabbalah's new 21st-century proletarian incarnation has found real pop culture appeal. Call it Kabbalah-for-the-people. And that, say its ancient guardians, is exactly the problem.
A quick definition of Kabbalah is esoteric Jewish mysticism. According to Chicago-based Rabbi Ariel Bar Tzadok, director of KosherTorah.com, "Real Kabbalah is the metaphysical understandings underlying the physical commandments and stories of the holy Torah given by G-d to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai." On his website, which offers, "Authentic Kabbalah, Sephardic studies and more &," Rabbi Tzadok warns, "One must be completely observant of Jewish Law in order to properly study Kabbalah. Without this, real Kabbalah can be quite dangerous!"
Traditionally, the study and practice of Kabbalah, which originated in the 12th century, is passed from one officially recognized Kabbalist rabbi to another. For thousands of years, the secrets of Kabbalah were known to only a select few, who fit rigid criteria: Jewish, male, more than 40 years old, married with children, a scholar of the Torah, and a strict follower of Jewish law. Thanks to present-day standards of gender equality, many rabbis, including Rabbi Tzadok, believe that women may also study the Kabbalah. He does not waver, however, on the requirement that scholars must observe all 613 commandments outlined in the Torah, which is Judaism's holy book.
Rabbi Tzadok is on a mission, if not from God, at least on behalf of many Orthodox rabbis. Much of his website is devoted to sorting through what "Real Kabbalah" is not.
"The study of Jewish mysticism has not become popular," he states in a slow and authoritative manner, enunciating each syllable as if speaking to a child. "Cultic forms, aberrational forms of Jewish mysticism, which are not Jewish, have become popular. The group out in California in question [read: Kabbalah Centre], which attracts all the pop stars, has been condemned comprehensively by authentic Kabbalists and rabbis alike as being a dangerous cult."
Rabbi Tzadok has three issues with the Kabbalah Centre. First, he says, the Kabbalah it teaches is not authentic. Rather, it is a combination of new-age spirituality and pop psychology, with a sprinkling of Jewish ethnicity to make it look like Kabbalah. The second issue is that, for the centre, everything revolves around money.
"They sell a copy of one of the Jewish religion's holy books, the Zohar," he says. "They charge $400 for a set of books. You can acquire that exact, exact set of books in any Jewish bookstore for $100. You can get a cheaper version of the Zohar for as little as $30. Of course, they do not tell their unsuspecting clients that such deals are available."
In fact, the Kabbalah Centre charges $415 for a copy of the Zohar. A trip to the Living Torah Center, a Judaica shop on Wilshire Boulevard, reveals a copy of the same Zohar for $105. The store's salesman, a young boy dressed in the Orthodox fashion, including yarmulke, the traditional skullcap worn by religious Jews, and tzitzis, the traditional white tassels hanging from men's shirts, quickly renounces the Kabbalah Centre as a cult, when he is informed of the price difference of the books. The boy is obviously familiar with this topic.
Rabbi Tzadok's third grievance with the Kabbalah Centre is that it uses missionary-like tactics to convert newcomers, which is a practice antithetical to Judaism.
"Many times, when they grab one member of a family, they will try to get as much money out of that person as possible, and if the spouse objects, they concoct a story that the spouse is not the soul mate, that the spouse is holding the person back, and encourage divorce with pursuit of a large financial settlement, a large portion of which would go to the organization," Rabbi Tzadok claims.
But this is all hearsay. To be fair, the only evidence of missionary activity in the neighborhood of the Kabbalah Centre are the piles of pamphlets left everywhere, advertising class schedules.
Besides, what if it really works?
On a recent Tuesday night, the front door of the Kabbalah Centre is wide open to the public. A warm light illuminates colorful stained-glass windows and spills out onto the doorstep, as the breeze ushers a young woman from across the street, where she disappears into the entrance. She is greeted by the bustle of an event-in-the- making - tables and chairs are being set up in circular formations. Two young volunteers quickly take down her name, address, and phone number and draw up a "Hello my name is&" badge.
Once inside, a friendly hostess guides newcomers through a gift shop stocked with books, including such titles as Dialing God and Taming Chaos. The store also sells jewelry with promised protective qualities, candles with healing properties, and semi-precious stones, "that have been empowered with the 72 names of God."
After winding through the gift shop, ´´ visitors are led through a courtyard, surrounded by banana trees, which serves as a café offering drinks made with "pure Kabbalah water." Several labyrinthine hallways lead away from the courtyard, and it is down one of these passages that the free lecture is held beneath the vaulted ceiling of a sparsely decorated meeting room. Tonight, there is standing room only.
In the room, a young man wearing a somber black suit and yarmulke stands at a podium in front of a marker board with "Kabbalah = Receive" written on it. He speaks with a British accent. There are about 30 people of various ages and ethnicities in the room, and they are busy contributing words - love, money, purpose, health, wisdom, peace - to a list on the board labeled "Things people want." Not surprisingly, there is no shortage of suggestions.
"You are not completely fulfilled," the young man says. "That is why you came here tonight."
He scribbles a second list next to the first: chaos, stress, frustration, sadness, anxiety. This list, which represents "Things people have," quickly dwarfs the first. But all hope is not lost, the young man explains, as there are laws governing endless prosperity that are as simple as the laws of gravity. He offers a quick-fix - a 10-week course on the law of cause and effect.
It is not quite an infomercial - the sales pitch is understated - but nonetheless, The Power of Kabbalah and other books are propped up around the room. The Kabbalah Centre's 10-week course, he says earnestly, is just $270 and with a one-time-only 15 percent discount, the secrets of the universe are now on sale.
As he wraps up this evening's presentation, the young man asks the class if they have any questions. One seeker in the audience raises his hand. "All of the rabbis have said you shouldn't study Kabbalah until you are 40," he says, adding that he wants to know if this is true.
The young host is unfazed by the question, and takes the opportunity to praise the Centre and its role in taking Jewish mysticism beyond the rabbinical elite. "Until 1971, the only people who could study were rabbis," the young man says. "We are at a time now where everyone can study Kabbalah."
When Jonas Agin signed up for a 10-week course at the Kabbalah Centre, he hoped to better understand his own religion. Raised a conservative Jew, he knew the traditions of his religion, but wanted a more philosophical connection to Judaism. "I was just deadening my brain in the entertainment industry," says the screenwriter and former entertainment executive. "I missed being academic."
Agin was optimistic after his first class at the Kabbalah Centre. "It was like: 'We're going to learn how to self-actualize and things that have been espoused in Judaism that you don't know. It's mystical, and it's great, and it has tradition, and it appeals to everybody, and people are embracing it, and it is the thing to do," he says, pausing to flash a sarcastic grin, "'and give us money.'"
Agin was also drawn to the fact that the Kabbalah Centre's teachings were intended for everybody, regardless of such factors as marital status or religious background. But after a few weeks of classes, he began to feel like he got duped.
"I never did the homework, and the reason I never did the homework is that once we had the first class, it was very basic: 'You are a vessel, and the energy is the light, and it will unite you, and something about the 99 percent and the one percent and you'll see the truth through the one percent,' and it was vague and ambiguous," he says.
In what seemed like an effort to draw universal comparisons that were accessible to everybody in the class, Agin recalls that the teacher made a lot of baseball metaphors. "But nothing metaphysical or religious was ever said. People were like, 'I usually get pissed at a red light, or I'm usually a road-rage driver, and this time I didn't honk,' and [the teacher's] like, 'See, you found your one percent,' like she had just achieved Kabbalah.'"
Agin dropped out after attending only half of his pre-paid classes.
When Rachel M. stopped taking the Centre's classes, her spiritual journey did not end. Through what she refers to as a "synchronicity" - a favorite buzzword of the new-age Kabbalists - she discovered an alternative to the alternative. Still sweaty from a kundalini yoga class at Golden Bridge Yoga Center, she noticed a sign for a Tree of Life - more Kabbalah lingo - workshop offered by a man named Gahl Sasson. The workshop, synchronistically also a 10-week course, turned out to be a gift from the gods - or, in this case, G-d.
"So, what else came up this week?" Gahl Sasson casually asks his class in a thick Israeli accent.
Tonight, there are about 20 people sitting in a U-shape on the hardwood floor of a room in the yoga center. Sasson, also sitting on the floor, is bald and wearing a bright orange sweatshirt that is reminiscent of the saffron robes worn by Buddhist monks. Next to him is a colorful diagram of the tree of life, a Kabbalistic road map, which he refers to throughout the class.
One student confesses she got into an argument with her boyfriend this week, but, she continues, this time things did not get blown out of proportion. She maintained a "professional" demeanor, she says. It turns out she is her actor boyfriend's agent. This admission opens the floodgates, and other students share vignettes of their recent emotional victories. Sasson listens to these testimonials and then launches into his lesson plan - love, balance, sacrifice. The walls of the classroom are covered with images of serenely smiling spiritual masters, and there is a steady din of Sanskrit chanting leaking in from the next room.
Sasson's workshop is as multiculti as the who's who of enlightened gurus hanging on the walls around him. He cross-references Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism with Christianity, Greek mythology, astrology, numerology, and a healthy dose of pop culture. Each synchronicity - for example, Buddha attained his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, while Moses found God in a burning bush; "Tree, bush - in the desert, even God must improvise" - seems to forge another link in the chain of history, or as Sasson might say, in the tree of life.
While most of the class listens intently to Sasson's streamlined spiritual system, one student in the back of the room can't help but crack a joke. But the heckler is Steve Weinstein, a tall man with wild hair, thick black-rimmed glasses, and a quick wit. He is actually Sasson's most committed student. After ending a 10-year career as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Weinstein hooked up with Sasson and coauthored A Wish Can Change Your Life: How To Use the Ancient Wisdom of Kabbalah To Make Your Dreams Come True. Based on Sasson's 10-week workshop, the 10-chapter Kabbalah manual promises that the reader's wish will be fulfilled.
"You start by making a wish - any wish, from earning more money to finding your true love, from renewed intimacy with your spouse to a bigger house or a smaller waistline," Weinstein wrote in the book's introduction. "Then you simply follow God's recipe, surfing the Tree of Life from one archetypal energy to the next."
There is a catch. The wish-maker must give something back, which is why, as Sasson explains, "Kabbalah = Receive." Acceptable wishes should also have some redeemable quality that benefits humankind, a notion most likely responsible for the book's endorsement by the 14th Dalai Lama, which appears on the first page.
But an official endorsement by the Dalai Lama seems to be mostly an acknowledgement that people need something like this. A spiritual element is missing from the lives of many Angelenos, and not just Jews.
Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, the executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, sees the popularity of Kabbalah as a symptom, not a conspiracy. He is no hardcore traditionalist. In fact, the Board of Rabbis includes 270 Southern California-based rabbis representing all of the Jewish movements, from hardline orthodoxy to more liberal reform. While Rabbi Diamond warns against "spirituality lite," he agrees that it is time for Kabbalah to be made more accessible to non-rabbis.
"I think for too long in the Jewish tradition, we have suppressed the study of Kabbalah, we have discouraged the study of Kabbalah, we have shunted it aside and perhaps kept it out of the mainstream, and I think that was probably not a good thing," Rabbi Diamond says. "At the same time, I want to be very clear here: Kabbalah is clearly intended for Jews. Kabbalah is clearly intended as a serious discipline for Jewish people who are observant of Jewish law and well grounded in other normative Jewish texts, such as Bible, Talmud, Midrash."
Without being grounded in Jewish law there is only "faux or pseudo Kabbalah," Rabbi Diamond said. "Some of what is marketed today as Kabbalah is at best naïve and at worst potentially dangerous."
Synchronistically, the rabbi's warnings that Kabbalah study can actually be dangerous echo the story of Genesis. Adam and Eve are kicked out of the Garden of Eden after eating fruit from the tree of knowledge. So why is knowledge - and, in this case, the Kabbalah - dangerous?
In his workshops, Gahl Sasson ignores the traditional rules, which govern who is eligible to study Kabbalah, but says he understands why they exist. "Back then [during Kabbalah's origins], if you would have gone really into the study of Kabbalah, it's like smoking crack or like smoking dope all night long and in the morning: If you don't have children, if you are not like 40 and got over your trips, you'll just get sucked into it," Sasson says. "You do have the chance of losing your grip on reality because Kabbalah, what it tries to do is get you to the other side. The other side is beyond body, beyond material, and you can be sucked into that dimension, and if you are not ready, if you are not backed up by what is called the 'law' in Judaism & you are in danger of losing your mind."
Yet, Sasson continues, the problem is not with the practice, but with who is practicing. "It is like saying computers are dangerous or the Internet is dangerous because you might go on a porn site or you might go on a neo-Nazi site and your kids might be corrupted," he said. "The problem is who is clicking on the keyboard. The problem is not with the computer."
The benefits of studying Kabbalah far outweigh the possible dangers, Sasson insists. In particular, he hopes that his multicultural approach to Kabbalah helps his students to accept other people. "Next time they meet a Muslim, they don't think about him as a terrorist, but they think about him, 'Ah, that is the story of Muhammad and the mountains and it is similar to the story of Christ.'"
Perhaps it will make traditionalists happy that Sasson also encourages his students to read the Torah. "I never do it through, 'You have to do the laws of the Torah,'" he says in a mock-authoritative tone. "I just tell them it is the bestseller of the West."
One well-known story begins: Four Rabbis go into an orange grove ... One of the rabbis is the great Jewish sage, Rabbi Akiva, and the "grove" is actually Kabbalistic code for a place closer to God. By the end of the story, only Rabbi Akiva returns unharmed. "They went in, they did these meditations with the Hebrew letters, who knows what they did," Steve Weinstein recalls. "They could have been eating the equivalent of peyote. Let's say they were all doing these meditations, and they all ascend via this chariot to the throne of God & One of them got killed, one of them went mad, and the third lost his faith."
For Rabbi Akiva, however, it was a glorious experience.
"So that is a big warning story," Weinstein said. "Unless you are as wise and pious and wonderful as Rabbi Akiva, if you play with Kabbalah, you are in trouble."
Despite these red flags on the path of spirituality, Weinstein credits Rabbi Berg, founder of the Kabbalah Centre, for bringing Kabbalah to the people. "He must have decided to ignore all of this stuff and just decided that it is time to spread the message of Kabbalah, and its ideas to the world," Weinstein said. "And he has been immensely successful with the help of Madonna and people like that - at least it is known. Because 15 years ago, your average person in Ohio did not know the word 'Kabbalah.'"
Even now, with Kabbalah sharing headlines with pop culture stars, some secrets remain. In 1997, The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles reported the ramifications of a letter criticizing the Kabbalah Centre, faxed to colleagues in 1992 by Rabbi Abraham Union, the Rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of California. When Union arrived at his office the following day, he found a severed sheep's head at his doorstep. Several young men appeared at his home that evening and asked in Hebrew, "Did you get our message?"
Rabbi Union said then that he was certain the men were from the Kabbalah Centre, while spokesmen from the Centre denied any involvement in the incident, according to The Jewish Journal. To date, no one is talking. Numerous calls to the Kabbalah Centre for comment were never returned. And Rabbi Diamond of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California also said he knows nothing of the incident. "It's strange, but I wasn't here. It was before my time."
And so it seems that even in modern-day Los Angeles, the ancient secrets of Kabbalah still remain a mystery.