Madonna's doing it. Britney Spears is doing it. And a host of other celebrities are doing it.
They're studying Kabbalah.
Delving into the topic of Jewish mysticism brought warnings from scholars: Kabbalah is complex and only for the spiritually mature. But with celebrities like Demi Moore and Gwyneth Paltrow flocking to Kabbalah centers and sporting red-string bracelets as a sign of their newfound interest, the question is a natural: What is Kabbalah?
Traditionally, the study of Kabbalah has been reserved for the most learned and pious, not the masses. Jews could not even begin studying it until they were 40 years old.
"There is no simple definition of Kabbalah," said Elliot Wolfson, professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University and a leading scholar of Kabbalah. "The word means tradition, and from some time in the Middle Ages the term began to be used to refer to secrets about the divine nature, the cosmos and the human soul or, principally, the soul of the Jew. Kabbalah relates both to esoteric wisdom and contemplative practices that facilitate communion and sometimes even union of the individual and God."
Kabbalah literally means reception, which is synonymous with the word tradition in Hebrew, said professor Hava Tirosh-Samuelson of Arizona State University, who studies the relationship between philosophy and Kabbalah. It refers to receiving the inner, hidden or esoteric meaning of divine revelation.
It is closely aligned with the Orthodox form of Judaism, said Pinchas Giller, professor of Jewish thought at the University of Judaism in Bel-Air, Calif., and an expert in Kabbalah.
"There are meditative and magical practices, but the main application is to provide a layer of deeper meaning for observing the traditional Jewish commandments," he said.
Practices also include special focus when reciting prayers on colors that correspond to specific potencies of the divine, Wolfson said.
The ideas and teachings of Kabbalah go back 2,000 years and were transmitted orally, Giller said.
"It became a written tradition in the late 12th century and flourished in the 13th century in Spain," Tirosh-Samuelson said. "Several Kabbalistic schools developed concurrently, but the most influential one was the school that produced the magnum opus of Kabbalah, Sefer ha-Zohar (The Book of Enlightenment)."
The Zohar can be described as a mystical commentary on many sections of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. It deals with five theological issues, said Jim Wallis in The Religion Book: the nature of God, the creation of the universe, the destiny of humanity, the nature of evil and the meaning of the Bible.
The flourishing of Kabbalah today has little to do with the tradition but rather reflects the needs of spiritual seekers, Tirosh-Samuelson said.
"The combination of the emotional, the imaginative and the sexual makes Kabbalah extremely attractive to artists, who are seeking new imagery or who are displeased with the shallowness and emptiness of American consumerist culture," she said.
Tirosh-Samuelson thinks its popularity is based on reinterpretation of Jewish mysticism for today but also on misinterpretation of the tradition.
"The main danger in the popularization of Kabbalah is the belief that it has nothing to do with traditional Judaism or that one does not need to live as a Jew in order to engage in Kabbalah," she said. "Kabbalah is an integral part of Judaism and cannot and should not be wrested from its Jewish moorings."