Jewish, Jewish, Everywhere, & not a drop to drink
Sunday, December 31, 2006
Pseudo-Kabbalists try to justify their ways
Kabbalah: The Newest Denomination?

While some consider it a split from Judaism, advocates view growing mystical movement as akin to Conservative and Reform.

Ira Rifkin - Special to the Jewish Week
Sunday, December 31, 2006 / 10 Tevet 5767

San Diego

Google “Kabbalah” – the preferred English spelling for Judaism’s mystical tradition – and nearly four million Web pages pop up. But that’s just one way to spell it. Drop one “b” and you get another 1.25 million pages. Spell it “Qabalah” and there’s an additional quarter million. Over at Amazon.com, nearly 6,000 books on the subject are available.

Clearly, Madonna’s not the only one hoping to master Kabbalah’s once-closely guarded esoteric wisdom. She’s just the most famous of the countless individuals, Jews and many more non-Jews, delving into various interpretations of a spiritual path that promises nothing less than full knowledge of divine laws said to underpin the universe, plus techniques for achieving mystical union with the Creator.

Some 100 scholars, teachers, students and practitioners of Kabbalah gathered at a seaside hotel here in an attempt to make sense of Kabbalah’s explosion in popularity. Their only clear agreements were that the phenomenon is incontrollable, that it will continue to grow at breakneck speed, and that it will always be controversial. “We live in the recommendation age,” said Rabbi Yakov Travis, whose Cleveland-based Tiferet Institute sponsored the day-and-a-half conference last week. “There’s so much Kabbalah information out there. There’s more than you can imagine. All we can do is provide guidance.”

To varying degrees, most at the “Kabbalah for the Masses” conference favored Kabbalah’s wide dissemination, although they disagreed over the manner in which it is occurring and the degree to which it should be tied to mainstream rabbinic Judaism. Among those on hand was Rabbi Michael Berg, heir-apparent to the global empire that is the Kabbalah Centre, the non-Jewish Madonna’s spiritual home and the best-known and most controversial of Kabbalah’s non-traditional purveyors.

It was a rare public appearance for Rabbi Berg before a crowd that contained sharp critics of the Los Angeles-based Centre’s methods, in particular its contention that Kabbalah is meant for everyone, Jewish or not. The Centre’s aggressive marketing and pricey courses, products and amulets – including its famous (some would say infamous) red-string bracelets priced online at $26 for a package of seven – also came in for criticism.

Through it all, Rabbi Berg – the son of Rabbi Philip Berg and his wife, Karen, who together grew the Centre to what it is today – stood his ground and maintained his calm. Like it or not, he insisted, the Centre’s approach has antecedents within the broad kabbalistic tradition that give it historical validity equal to that claimed by other approaches. He cited Rav Yehuda Ashlag, a Polish-born Hasid who in 1922 opened in Jerusalem what would evolve into the Berg-run Centre. His untraditional desire to spread kabbalistic knowledge beyond an elite circle was endorsed at the time by important elements of Palestine’s Orthodox establishment.

(In its literature, the Centre also claims connections to kabbalistic writings dating to Adam and the Garden of Eden. Scholars generally agree that the Zohar, Kabbalah’s originating text, dates from 13th century Spain.)

In a brief interview after his presentation, the younger Rabbi Berg said: “We have a lineage like Reform or Conservative or any other stream of Jewish thought.” Kabbalah’s origin within Jewish culture was a divinely planned stepping stone toward its universal dissemination, he argued.

“We don’t want people to become Jewish. We want people to become better people,” he said. “You can’t say God wants his best stuff saved for the Jews.”

In defense of the Centre’s high-priced approach and flashy marketing, Rabbi Berg allowed, “there are times that we might go too far, possibly. But the intention is always good.” Besides, he added, “everybody markets.”

Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, an Arizona State University Jewish history professor, is a harsh critic of the Centre. She followed Rabbi Berg at the conference and rejected his claim of historical validity. She said the Centre does nothing to enhance Judaism and argued that its universalist approach reduces Kabbalah to “a commodity like many other New Age spiritualities” that offer a “plastic reality” in “our age of despair.”

Tirosh-Samuelson acknowledged that non-Jews from at least the Middle Ages on have appropriated kabbalistic teachings for their own spiritual advancement. However, she noted that Christian interest was often a ploy to convert Jews. She worried that Kabbalah’s contemporary spread could lead inadvertently to a similar situation today – although she was quick to add that this was “obviously not Berg’s intention.”

In an interview, Rabbi Travis, a professor at Cleveland’s Siegal College of Judaic Studies, cautioned that if the mainstream Jewish community continues to reject the Kabbalah Centre outright – even as many Jews in the United States, Israel and elsewhere continue to takes its classes and read its books – there is a risk of spawning “another offshoot of Judaism, like Christianity.”

“We must find a way to keep the Kabbalah Centre -- and Jews into Kabbalah in New Age and other settings -- within the community. This can’t be ignored,” he said.

Rabbi Berg’s appearance was the conference’s dramatic highpoint. A distant second was the joint appearance via computer hookups of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Jewish Renewal’s unofficial spiritual leader, and Rabbi Arthur Green, the former Reconstructionist Rabbinical College dean who now heads the “transdenominational” Hebrew College Rabbinical School in Newton Centre, Mass.

Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi noted that Jewish Renewal has always borrowed “spiritual technologies from other traditions” so why shouldn’t non-Jews borrow from Judaism? “HaShem speaks through other people and to other people also,” he said.

Neither rabbi addressed questions about the Kabbalah Centre directly. However, Rabbi Green appeared to indirectly address the concern raised by others that the Centre and similar approaches trivialize Kabbalah’s many-layered complexities.

Kabbalah, he said, is Judaism’s version of what is commonly referred to as the perennial philosophy that crosses religious boundaries. “Kabbalah is a Jewish way into the deeper level of reality,” he said. But not everything about the tradition is worthwhile, he continued. Historically, some kabbalists expressed “great anger toward the gentile world.” Dubious amulets purporting to provide physical protection have always been a part of Kabbalah, he said.

The primary question, he added, is not who is studying Kabbalah but what they are learning. “What’s happening now is the Jewish people are deciding 200 years [after rationalist movements within Judaism] swept Kabbalah aside and created the notion of mainstream Judaism ... to reclaim Kabbalah for the mainstream ... as an essential part of post-modernity.

“The question is, what are we rediscovering and reclaiming?...I’m all for non-Jews opening to Kabbalah as long as they take the best of Kabbalah and not the worst.”

Rabbi Green was one of many emphasizing that Kabbalah is best studied by non-Jews – or by Jews, for that matter – in a serious manner and with qualified teachers. However, Rabbi Moshe Genuth alone among the two-dozen or so speakers argued flat out that non-Jews should not be taught Kabbalah.

Rabbi Genuth, director of Toronto’s Ba’al Shem Tov Center, came as a disciple of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, a Lubavitcher-Chabad Hasid who has aroused controversy within that movement – not least of all because his Website calls him “the world’s foremost authority on Kabbalah.”

Kabbalah, said Rabbi Genuth, is for Jews alone. “The Jewish people are the bride of the Almighty...and in the end you don’t let anyone into your bedroom.” Teaching gentiles Kabbalah “is like a couple exposing their most intimate secrets to the world.”

God’s intention, he went on, is that non-Jews abide by the Noahide covenant, whose seven principles include prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery, theft, eating parts of a live animal or its blood, and the directive to establish a legal code. “The Torah was betrothed to the Jewish people [and] the Noahide covenant is a basis for teaching Torah to non-Jews,” he said.

Rabbi Genuth wore the only black hat at the conference. But Rabbi Travis did try to get other fervently Orthodox voices to attend. He particularly wanted more Hasidic participants, for whom traditional kabbalistic thinking is key to their understanding of Judaism and way of life.

However, he said he encountered resistance to sharing a platform with Rabbi Berg from some who feared appearing would lend credence to his position. Others declined to appear publicly with non-Orthodox speakers or women. Rabbi Travis said he is planning private discussions more agreeable to some of those who spurned the public dialogue.

“We’ve planted a seed. Hopefully we can make it grow in many ways,” he said. “We have all these people talking about Kabbalah. Getting them to talk to each other can only be for the good, especially when it comes to the Jewish world...We need to progress from Kabbalah 101 to Kabbalah 501.
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