Kabbalah consciousness

It's not all about pop stars and red strings

DailyCamera.com/August 7, 2004
By Mary Butler

About a year ago, Adele Noll and her husband, Drew, signed up for a class offered through the Jewish Community Center in Boulder on Kabbalah, the spiritual movement rooted in Jewish mysticism.

Out of 18 participants, 16 were Christians.

"It was very weird for me. I thought, 'What the hell is going on?'" said Noll, who is Jewish.

But studying Kabbalah with the group, called Soul Talk, sharpened Noll's understanding of spirituality, she said.

"When you strip all religions down to their mystical level, the message is the same," she said. "It's all about how we want to live our lives."

Kabbalistic beliefs - which focus on slowing down life as a means of connecting with a higher power - have become popularized by pop star followers Madonna and Britney Spears, members of the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre.

But in Boulder County, Kabbalah long has had a loyal following, thanks in part to the area's Jewish Renewal community. Retired Naropa professor Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who lives in Boulder, is a founder of the renewal movement.

Jewish Renewal is rooted in Judaism's prophetic and mystical traditions, including Kabbalah and Hasidism, and is in Schachter-Shalomi's words, "how to be Jewish while being ecological, friendly to gays and lesbians and dealing with civil rights the right way."

If the Jewish traditions were branches of a family tree, he said, Kabbalah would be the grandfather, Hasidism would be the father and Jewish Renewal would be the son.

Depending on whom you ask, Kabbalah, or the mystical interpretation of Jewish scriptures, dates back to somewhere between about 2,000 years ago and the beginning of time.

The Zohar, the primary text for kabbalistic writings, was published in the 13th century in Spain. An earlier text, the Sepher Yetzirah, or Book of Formation, is believed to have been passed down by oral tradition until put into writing in the second century.

"Just like Islam has Sufism, Judaism has Kabbalah as its mystical part," Schachter-Shalomi said. "It's when people begin to understand much deeper than the physical world and the shopping mall mentality. It's about reaching sacred space."

What it's not about is wearing $26 Red String bracelets - advertised to avert "unfriendly stares and unkind glances" - or cube necklaces, as are promoted by the Kabbalah Centre, the rabbi said.

"I'm not going to say they're wrong or doing bad stuff," Schachter-Shalomi said. "Anything that will help a person live a less chaotic life and a more moral life, I'm for it."

But, he and other rabbis and teachers of all forms of Judaism are clear that Kabbalah is not something that can be bought.

Faith and practice

Dorit Ori Har, a Boulder teacher of Kabbalah and Hebrew, first began to study Kabbalah when she was living in Fairfield, Iowa, which is known as a center for transcendental meditative living.

"I met a kabbalist and started to study with him," she said. That was about 12 years ago.

Today, Har is co-founder of the Conscious Learning Community, which seeks to give unaffiliated Jews, as well as affiliated Jews and non-Jews, a place for spiritual development.

"It's a community-wide offering based in Jewish wisdom, but open to anyone interested," Har said. In fact, the Soul Talk group has since folded into CLC.

Har estimates there are about 15,000 people who are Jewish in Boulder County, but only about 2,000 belong to local synagogues. In 2002, a national religion survey showed Boulder County as having about 13,200 adherents to the Jewish faith.

Many Jews don't practice their faith, Har said, because they have had an experience that turned them off to it. Har's said she hopes Conscious Learning Community will help reinvigorate people to explore their spirituality. Studying Kabbalah is one way to do that, she said. Jews of all stripes - from ultra-orthodox to renewal - can appreciate what Kabbalah has to offer, she said.

"Kabbalah is always talked about in terms of white fire and black fire," Har said. "Black fire usually refers to the actual world, what you see. The white fire is everything around it, what's between the lines."

Madonna's 1998 album "Ray of Light" makes reference to this belief. Kabbalah Centre member and sitcom star Ashton Kutcher has been spotted wearing a white uniform (yet another gimmick in the eyes of some kabbalists) meant to attract positive energy.

To get past the physical world, Kabbalah calls for exploring the Torah, the Zohar and other Judaic texts through the lenses of Kabbalah's four levels: action, formation, creation and nearness. Each relates to the elements earth, water, air and fire. Every letter is assigned a numerical value, so every word can be broken down.

"Kabbalah is looking at the text, the Torah as a mantra, as a meditation or as a direct path to experience God or at least get close to God," Har said.

Getting past the words

The word Kabbalah means "to receive."

Receiving is the key principal in how Rabbi David Cooper approaches kabbalism. In his book, "God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism," Cooper argues that God is not a deity or a thing but the boundless source of everything.

"Kabbalah academically means the study of the esoteric Torah. The teachings are a way to metaphorically understand the architecture of creation," Cooper said.

"There's another form of Kabbalah, which has to do with the communion of the source of being. That is much more moment-by-moment, revealed through nature and life and being in the moment."

Cooper, whose Heart of Stillness retreat was based in Jamestown from 1991 to 1999, said he eschews the esoteric in favor of experience and what he calls "being present."

"I do my study often by sitting quietly and gazing over the mountains ... as we quiet down, we begin to connect with something that's the source of each moment. So I don't need a lot of books and to study a lot of words to be a kabbalist."

Boulder Rabbi Gavriel Goldfeder agrees.

"Some people think in words they'll find a formula for God," Goldfeder said. "Those people end up over intellectualized and quasi-spiritual."

Kabbalah in his eyes, Goldfeder said, is about how one's life is lived. There's plenty of contemplation, hard work and no magic.

"Any spiritual discipline involves investment of self," he said.

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