Are we supposed to laugh or cry when we read about Madonna and her celebrity pals embracing Kabbalah?
There's an element of admiration I have for a (former?) sex symbol who refuses to perform at Madison Square Garden on Friday night or Shabbat. After all, she isn't even Jewish and she's more respectful of Sabbath rituals and restrictions than most Jews. And she traveled to Israel several weeks ago despite her fears about the violence there, something many American Jews have not brought themselves to do since the outbreak of violence four years ago. What's more, she spent Rosh HaShanah in prayer however inauthentic we may believe such worship to be and made a pilgrimage to the grave of a rabbinic mystic, an act of great respect.
The truth is that Kabbalah, that most secret of Jewish disciplines, is everywhere these days and we don't quite know what to make of it all. We pick up a style magazine and here's Britney wearing a red bendel (or string, to ward off the Evil Eye) and we watch TV and there's Madonna calling herself Esther and covering her hair as she prays.
What's heartening is that Judaism, or at least elements of it, appears deeply appealing to pop culture stars and other non-Jews, and we feel a tug of pride and wonderment that so many "outsiders" have found comfort, healing and spirituality in our traditions.
What's distressing, though, is that those traditions have been bastardized by the purveyors of New Age Kabbalah who are selling an easy-to-digest form of Jewish mysticism that not only doesn't represent authentic Judaism but contradicts it.
In establishing the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles, New York, 10 other U.S. cities and a dozen countries, Philip Berg and his sons, Yehuda and Michael, who call themselves rabbis, have dispensed with the deeply serious study long associated with Kabbalah. (Because of the complexities of the Zohar, the 13th century mystical text central to the discipline, scholars were warned not to delve into its pages before the age of 40 and only after having mastered the Talmud.) Instead, the Bergs offer a simplistic blend of pop psychobabble and mysticism, promising adherents happiness, fulfillment and success through the power of Hebrew letters that one need not be able to read to benefit from. Just looking at the Hebrew alphabet, devotees are told, is enough to gain wisdom.
Sadly, the Kabbalah Centre has gained a wide following and made a fortune by banking on the strong spiritual yearnings within so many seekers who are willing to pay thousands of dollars for texts and classes geared to improve their lives, and who feel empowered by buying red strings for their wrists and bottles of waters blessed by the center's leaders, at outrageous prices. (Curiously, a catalogue of a dozen courses offered at the center in New York never mentions the words "Jewish" or "Judaism," describing Kabbalah as "a 4,000 year old wisdom of life.") What the center is selling is superstition, not religion, and ultimately the belief that adherents can achieve control over life itself.
That such nonsense is so popular, seemingly unquestioned, and reflects on what others may think of Judaism is what grates at many of us. We may harbor jealousy at the Bergs' success in taking a mystic Jewish discipline and making it so well known worldwide. We may feel frustrated that the leaders of the movement have misrepresented our religion, ignoring Judaism's emphasis on mitzvos, Torah study, helping others and improving the world rather than just focusing on our own desires.
Further, though, the zealousness and seeming happiness of the Kabbalah Centre's followers may evoke pangs of doubt in those of us who wish we could feel such utter contentment with our own spiritual lives.
What are we missing? we may ask ourselves during this High Holy Days season, reading of Madonna's declarations of bliss. What does she know that we don't?
But the issue isn't what the Kabbalah Centre's followers know, it's what they don't know. In choosing to trust that the Bergs' bromides and instructions will bring "the light" and unending fulfillment through "the secret" of life, according to the center's teachings, these people are underscoring the enormous search for meaning in our postmodern society and the deep emotional power of belief itself.
That's the challenge to us as Jews, to be able to provide meaning and faith within the boundaries of our religion, recognizing that while we can't offer or achieve heaven on earth, we can be part of a faith that nurtures the soul and helps repair the world.
One positive outcome of the Kabbalah craze is that some disaffected Jews may now be willing to reconsider a religion that spawned such avid interest in Mick Jagger, Demi Moore and other stars. But we have to be prepared to provide a response that speaks not only to timeless questions about why we are alive and what our purpose is on earth, but how authentic Judaism is relevant (at least for Jews) in the 21st century to a high-speed society not known for self-reflection.
Ironically, as millions show interest in the Bergs' form of Kabbalah to find happiness for themselves, the fact is that mysticism has always been the most secret path in Jewish life, and one based on man's partnership with God. A central theme of the Zohar is that the world is flawed and we can help bring perfection by freeing up divine sparks, through the observance of the commandments.
While the "Material Girl" praises the Kabbalah Centre for focusing her life, surely if we can infuse a bit more holiness into ours through the genuine practice of our religion, we and the world will benefit.