Kabbalah came to Phoenix on Sunday, attracting dozens of people and almost as many questions.
Spirituality or superstition?
Deep study or publicity stunt?
True Judaism or cult?
With its evil eye, red strings, specially blessed water, secret codes and celebrity participants, Kabbalah has taken off in recent years among the Hollywood elite and New Age seekers.
"We reach many disenfranchised religious seekers," said Yehuda Berg, part of the founding family of the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles. "This is for a person who feels there is something missing, who is not fulfilled. They want to maximize their potential."
About 70 people attended a seminar at Marriott's Mountain Shadows Resort led by Kabbalah teacher Jonathan Shani. It tackled the Kabbalah system of "spiritual laws" that he says will help individuals navigate life's challenges. Additional classes are planned.
Most outspoken among the Kabbalah Center's adherents is Madonna, the pop singer who last month took on the Hebrew name of Esther. The center also counts actors Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher among its high-profile students.
Madonna, on tour promoting her Re-Invention album, does not perform on Friday nights or Saturdays out of respect for the Jewish Sabbath. She uses the Hebrew letters that spell God projected on a screen during her show. She wears the red string that supposedly wards off the evil eye.
Regardless of whether they are seen as taking their studies seriously, Kabbalah is a long-standing tradition of mystical study of the Torah and the great questions of life.
"It deals with a realm that is not easily in our grasp," said Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky of Beth El Congregation in Phoenix.
The afterlife, angels, secret interpretation of the Torah, prophecies and prediction - all are within the teachings of Kabbalah, he said.
Rabbi Mendy Deitsch of Chabad of the South East Valley says Kabbalah "addresses the innate nature of the human being."
"It uses specific techniques for understanding, and it can uplift and align a person on their spiritual journey," he said.
Many tenets deal with practices that some do not consider Jewish, such as meditation, reincarnation and resurrection, said Deitsch, who has studied and teaches the techniques.
"We talk about balance between the mind and the heart," he said. "There is a lot to learn."
Berg says Kabbalah study begins with a focus on responsibility and on making the most out of situations.
"The final destination is in the day to day, the constant evolution," he said. "This is a philosophy that helps us maximize our potential."
Many Jewish leaders say the system is so difficult to understand that only those who have mastered other Jewish studies should take it up.
"Kabbalah is a serious form of religious and spiritual inquiry," Lavinsky said. "To study it without mastering the basics of the Jewish faith is like trying to study calculus without mastering addition and subtraction."
Lavinsky and other Jewish leaders say they fear this is where the Kabbalah Center and Madonna and friends lose touch with historic Judaism.
"They have gained popularity and a following," he said, "but it does not represent true rabbinic and mystical teaching. This is a capitalist venture."
"They sell a product to make money, and they are not honest about it," he said.
The Kabbalah Center's Web site shows what they mean.
The red string goes for $26. A savvy buyer could get a couple of dozen balls of red string at that price.
"They don't sell rabbits' feet," Lavinsky said. "But it would be the same thing."
As for Madonna, Lavinsky said he believes she is "cheapening a respected Jewish tradition."
It's not just her.
"The list of adherents alone is enough to make you run in the other direction," he said.
Berg contends that the centers are not making tons of money, that Madonna is a serious student and that the only goal is to spread the ideas of the Kabbalah everywhere.
Lavinsky says it does so at the expense of serious study.
"This is the fast food of religion," he said. "People see it as an express lane to spirituality when it's really a dead end."