The magic door to Judaism

I GREW UP in a Jewish Orthodox family and my first memories of Kabbalah flow from my childhood in the early 1980s. Kabbalah seemed like Salome – an alluring silhouette blurred by seven mysterious scarves. It was so available, in the next room, where my mother was bent over a typewriter wearing her own (head)scarf, translating the kabbalistic book The Thirteen Petalled Rose. It was also so forbidden. The name of the book smelt of flowers and I wanted to touch, but my mother was very clear: "It is sacred." And I still carry her message: "Kabbalah drives people mad. You have to be ready to study it and even then learning its secrets can be dangerous." I remember waiting behind the closed door, listening to the click-clack of her typewriter, holding my breath and waiting for my mother to go mad.

It is the late 1980s. I follow my father on a visit to a famous kabbalist in Jerusalem. The fear of going mad is sweet like a rosy fragrance. The sensual angels and demons of Bashevis-Zinger fill my head. We enter a spacious office with long leadlight windows and I think about my mother's tiny workroom lit only with a bedside lamp. Somehow it seems a more appropriate setting for the secrets of the universe. The fat kabbalist is seated next to a huge computer. My father explains, "The rabbi invented a computer program to read the hidden Torah messages. It selects Torah letters and words in a particular order, then reconstructs them into new sentences." Both men show me printed lists with numbers and letters. "Look," my usually quiet father grasps my hand, "here is the word ‘Hitler'. And here ‘atomic bomb'. It was all predicted hundreds of years ago." The rabbi smiles at me but talks only with my father. In the bus on our way home I ask, "Can we read the future in the Torah, too?" "Yes," says my pensive father, "but it's not for everyone. It takes years to get close to God's mystery." The bus click-clacks like my mother's typewriter, carrying me towards my own future with the fairytale promise of great secrets yet to be discovered.

THE KABBALAH OF the new millennium is not so much Salome, more Madonna: a practical, self-aware celebrity. Within the fragrant and colourful landscape of New-Age clichés, hairdressers' salons burning aromatic oil, jewellery shops filled with crystals and tarot readers lurking on fashionable streets, the Kabbalah is a newcomer, but its star is rising.

Its resurgence takes many forms, from the revival of ancient exorcism rituals, to the integration of kabbalistic motifs in movies. Hollywood is enamoured of the exotic practice, which even threatens to overwhelm celebrity interest in Scientology. Demi Moore says it changed her life; Rosanne that "it's cheaper than therapy and deeper than therapy"; and Elizabeth Taylor confides it has led her through the darkness. Even Britney Spears is in the picture. She proved her devotion by having some holy words tattooed on the back of her neck, only to find they were misspelt and that Judaism forbids tattoos.

Kabbalah is an ancient Jewish mysticism that asserts that the Bible is a "book inside a book" and that its true meaning – the word of God – is veiled within. Kabbalists claim that beyond its obvious narratives, the Bible offers explanation of the secrets and laws of the universe and its origin. Whereas the traditional Judaism focuses on what God wants from people, Kabbalah attempts to penetrate God's essence and offers an alternative reading of the scriptures, defining its Hebrew letters as the 22 basic spiritual components of the universe. Kabbalah suggests numerous ways to interpret them: through numeric value, shapes and shades, characteristics as symbols or even, like the Jerusalem rabbi does, through computer programs.

In Hebrew, the word "Kabbalah" means "received teachings". It originally applied only to the Oral Law "received" in the form of Talmud (Jewish holy book) from God by Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple. By the 12th century, the term "Kabbalah" was also used to denote mystical teachings known as theYetzira (Book of Creation) and the Bahir (Book of Illumination) "received" by the Jewish communities of that day.

About 1280, the mysticism developed fully with the appearance of what is considered to be the major book of Kabbalah, the Zohar (Book of Splendour). A Castilian Jew, Moses de Leon, began circulating manuscripts in Aramaic, which Jews had not spoken for centuries. He claimed the texts were ancient midrashim(interpretations of biblical texts) and he was merely copying them from a manuscript authored by the second-century rabbi, Shimon bar Yochai. Orthodox Jews still accept this version of events, although they see bar Yochai as a recorder of the mystical traditions dating back to Moses, not the author. Secular scholars believe that de Leon wrote the manuscripts and suggest he denied authorship because of the radical nature of the book. Zohar, written as a commentary on the five books of the Bible, contained the idea – revolutionary at the time for the monotheist Jewish religion – of the division of God's personality into 10 interacting emanations (sefirot in Hebrew), the famous "Tree of Life". Zohar reads as a fascinating mix of commentary, parody, erotic poetry and numerology. By the 17th century, the Zohar had been declared as the third holiest Jewish text, and study of Kabbalah was considered true Jewish theology.

Throughout its history Kabbalah has appealed to the non-Jewish world. During the Renaissance, virtually all European occult philosophers and magicians of note had a working knowledge of Kabbalah. For a while there was even an attempt by some scholars to Christianise Kabbalah. This began to change in the 18th century with the spread of the Enlightenment, when rational thinking was more revered than mystical; by the beginning of the 20th century, Kabbalah had become a historical curiosity – except in Jewish Orthodox circles.

THE RECENT REVIVAL of Kabbalah is not rooted in Hollywood of the 1990s, it dates from the ferment of the late 1960s when the Jewish Renewal movement, largely basing itself on a more modern and accessible interpretation of Kabbalah, emerged as an alternative to traditional Judaism. The movement gained popularity by recasting kabbalistic and Hasidic theory and practice within a non-Orthodox, egalitarian framework, and incorporating environmentalism, feminism and pacifism. Traditional Kabbalah scholars criticise this interpretation as historically inaccurate. Some maintain that the movement has been more successful in providing occasional ecstatic "peak experiences" at worship services and spiritual retreats (where meditation, chant and dance are practised), than in inculcating a daily discipline of religious practice. Yet the movement has spread strongly among Jews in Western countries and has a substantial following in Australia.

Only in the early 1990s did the study of Kabbalah begin to gain real impetus, both in Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. A major part of the revival was initiated by the Kabbalah Learning Centre, set up by the controversial Rabbi Phillip Berg initially in Los Angeles, but now with branches in 18 cities, including Tokyo and Buenos Aires. The centre is said to be worth at least $23 million. Its disciples sell the Zohar door to door, with the promise that studying Kabbalah will provide business success, raise sexual energy, guide your search for a soul mate and more. Madonna was one of the centre's initial famous recruits.

Rabbi Laibl Wolf, an international lecturer on Kabbalah based in Melbourne, told The Age in 2000, "There is a lot of exploitation in the spiritual marketplace nowadays." However, Wolf an orthodox Hasidic rabbi and author of the international best-seller Practical Kabbalah (Three Rivers Press, 1999), spends his time conducting expensive workshops throughout the world. The Australian Jewish Renewal's advertisements invite followers to a residential retreat with a famous American rabbi for $400 a person and one is encouraged to buy wisdom courses online for "$US19.95 only".

Irina Begelfour, a thirtysomething professional and pupil of Wolf in Australia, tells me she doesn't mind the price. She, like many young secular Jews around the world, is fascinated with her people's legacy. Professor Robert Eisen of George Washington University believes that, for some young Jews living in the diaspora, the attraction to Kabbalah stems from rebellion against the traditional Judaism they grew up with.

The situation in Israel is similar, with interest in Kabbalah crossing the secular and religious divide. At the Hebrew University in Israel, enrolment in the Kabbalah course has tripled since the mid-'90s. It is not uncommon to see young Israelis dancing the night away ecstatically during the Lag Ba'omer (Jewish religious festival) at the tomb of the kabbalist Rabbi bar Yohai on Mount Meron in Galilee in preference to dancing at raves in Goa. Members of the new generation, having travelled extensively in the Far East after their compulsory army service, are not as alienated from spirituality as their parents, who grew up on secular Zionistic values.

Begelfour's voice is deep and dreamy as she describes how Kabbalah studies help her lead a happier life. When meeting secular students, I notice their use of language as they speak of their religious experience. Their sentences suddenly turn into mashed potato. Kabbalah changes their lives, brings meaning and gives the answers. To discover this meaning, the answers and changes is almost an impossible mission. Further clarifications only confuse me. Begelfour, when pressured, is happy to talk about "the practical implications of Kabbalah". Her words become a fascinating mixture of self-help and corporate jargon: Wolf teaches her anger management and how to accept life for what it is, the communal study of Kabbalah facilitates empathy more effectively than in synagogues. After an hour of conversation I am still confused, just as I was when I listened to my parents as a child, though not as enchanted.

I hope that the answers to my questions about the secrets of Kabbalah lie within the tiny apartment of an orthodox Rabbi David Tsap, in East St Kilda. Rabbi Tsap, a skinny man with shiny black eyes, greets me from among piles of books, washing and toys. At 27, he is already a prominent Kabbalah scholar and teaches about 20 classes a week voluntarily. Most of his students are religious or secular Jews, but he also has non-Jewish students.

I join a lesson. Tsap, a shy young Russian-Jewish couple and I are seated around a dining table used for teaching. Tsap's toddler daughter smiles at us but knows not to interrupt. He speaks in a low but excited voice, and looks very boyish despite his long beard. I am fascinated by his impossible mixture of modesty and almost erotic passion, especially when he inserts the not-so-subtle messages of God's greatness in between the Torah stories I already know. I hold my breath, waiting childishly for some great mystery to be revealed, that same mystery that will change my life and drive me mad. Instead we end up discussing the particulars of Eliahu's rise to heaven in his chariot, a story I already know.

Riva and Ilya Furman, who, like many ex-Soviet Jews, grew up detached from the Jewish traditions, do not share my disappointment and listen attentively. They are in search of God. Tsap and his students share similar stories. Like his students, Tsap was born a secular Jew and enrolled in university philosophy studies, only to discover something was missing in the education, for which he had held big hopes. When a religious friend introduced him to Kabbalah, he felt the text was so noble in comparison to his university studies (where he was learning about witchcraft and time travel) that he decided to change his life and become an Orthodox rabbi. Like Begelfour, he talks about finding secure answers in Judaism.

Riva Furman can relate to his brief experience in an academy. She was already doing her master's in psychology when she started to doubt whether psychology had the tools to help people. She posed the question to herself: psychology is supposed to cure the soul, but what does a "soul" mean to me? To clarify it, she began investigating Eastern religions. But it was only when she read Jewish texts that she felt she could truly relate to spirituality. She decided that Kabbalah has a greater effect on a person's life than psychology, so she quit her studies and now she and her husband spend their evenings studying the Torah, Hebrew and Kabbalah. I ask her: "But how? How do you relate to spirituality? What is spirituality for you?"

IT IS EMBARRASSING to admit, but like Begelfour, Tsap and Riva Furman, I too still crave answers. It has been years since I left my family's religious ways, rejected the morning prayers, long skirts and kosher food, but never Kabbalah. There is something very humane about its core concept – an attempt to decipher life's secrets – something rooted in childhood when we never tired of looking for that magical key, or words, to open the magical door.

I stare intently at Furman as she continues describing how Kabbalah is so complex and thorough, because it relates to each moment of a person's life. Her words echo the others. Eventually she adds, "Kabbalah emphasises personal responsibility and now I know that, as an individual, I still have the power to change things in the world." But what things? What is the secret of Kabbalah's appeal? Why has it been such a successful historical phenomenon, inspiring both Jewish and non-Jewish masses for centuries?

Partially, the answer would be to look across other religions. Like Hellenistic mysterias and Islamic Sufi, Kabbalah is linked to a natural sense of wonder, the promise of mystery and magic, the essence of any spiritual feelings before they were captured by religion. Mystic practices are the la crème de la crème for believers and also practical – sharing sacred secrets. The complicated rituals of mysteries are difficult to follow today, but many are eager to embrace the easygoing, eclectic Kabbalah. There are so many parallels between the Kabbalah, Hinduism and Buddhism – the cornerstones of the New Age – that the more appropriate question is: why has it taken New Agers so long to rediscover it?

Both Kabbalah and the Eastern religions share a belief in reincarnation (Gilgul in Hebrew), the unity of the cosmos and infinity (Ein Sof) and they all practise meditation. A major difference in approaches to meditation is that, according to kabbalistic teachings, the idea of breathing and emptying the mind for meditation is not an end in itself, its purpose is to master conscious thinking. Let the rabbis argue the differences, the New Agers don't mind.

The book Practical Kabbalah traces parallels between Eastern religions and Judaism along its entire narrative, despite its orthodox author. Its opening words define the Kabbalah as explaining "the eternal laws of how spiritual energy moves through the cosmos". It emphasises different principles that are common among New-Age gurus, such as "self work" (cheshbon nefesh in Hebrew) and the importance of intuition. There is even a brief description of the author's encounter with Dalai Lama (and a photo, of course) and some "recipes" of A Star of David meditations. Along with insights into kabbalistic teachings, Wolf often uses New-Age phrases, such as "everything that happens in our lives is a lesson to be learned" or "we must find the wisdom within ourselves". On the other hand, his book contains a refreshing message of the ultimate "Jewish wisdom": "One doesn't have to be a full-time saint to achieve greatness."

Even yoga is linked. Its Jewish version was introduced in the 13th century by Abraham Abulafia, a contemporary of de Leon, known among other things for his notorious attempt to convert Pope Nicholas III to Judaism, a venture that almost cost him his life. During the Inquisition, Abulafia, an influential kabbalist, made Judaism more pluralistic. He introduced the practice of numerology and preached the highest potentiality of the spirit, which he tried to achieve through yoga and meditation. He was also the first to allow the Christian notion of the Trinity into Judaism, thus making kabbalist teachings more universal and eclectic, and attractive to the non-Jewish world.

Abulafia's seeds have germinated in our era. According to prominent Israeli Rabbi Moshe Schatz, "Kabbalah teaches us not to reject anything. We can integrate the insights not only of science but of Buddhism, Hinduism – all human knowledge."

Not accidentally, both de Leon and Abulafia were originally from Spain when it had become a cradle of religious ecstasy and crusades; many thinkers longed to see the barriers separating Judaism, Christianity and Islam broken down. The current Kabbalah revival also coincides with the rise of religious fundamentalism around the world: the strengthening grip of Islamic ayatollahs, the intertwining of Christianity with American politics, the refusal of religious Israeli settlers to withdraw from the occupied territories and the violence of Buddhists against Muslims. The general interest in the New Age can be interpreted as a reaction and an attempt to fight the separatist tendencies of our times.

GENUINELY INTERESTING DEBATE on the nature of rediscovered Kabbalah occurs not in Hollywood's gossip magazines, but between academics, orthodox and non-orthodox, Jewish and non-Jewish Kabbalah scholars, as they argue the various ways to interpret and convey the Kabbalah. Some religious authors call Kabbalah a "back door to Judaism". Its emphasis on learning, self-improvement, search for meaning and inclusion rather than rituals may be a better-adjusted-to-modern-times version of Judaism. However, the danger is that, in its openness, Kabbalah may hold the same appeal as the New Age – with answers that do not leave room for intelligent debate on the nature of spirituality. Hopefully, the modern version of Kabbalah won't lose its tradition of study, which valued the process of deciphering the mystery and the philosophical complexities of essential questions, such as: why we are here? or, how do we lead a meaningful life? rather than trying to provide answers at the tempo of the internet and MTV.

Most of the orthodox world regards popularisation of the Kabbalah with scepticism, seeing it as a way of avoiding traditional Jewish ritualistic responsibilities. They even dispute the term "kabbalist", claiming that there are very few mekubalim, or true scholars of Kabbalah, who are authorised to teach this mysticism. These mekubalim are treated with majesty in the orthodox world; they often hold real courts with sets of rules and protocols to guide the relationship between them and their followers and visitors. For example, some courts maintain that everyone should always stand in the presence of the mekubal, and no one is allowed to shake his hand.

Yet the number of books being written by orthodox Jews on Kabbalah has increased markedly. Even orthodox Jews no longer maintain that kabbalistic studies be restricted to married male Torah and Talmud scholars aged over 40.

Tsap doesn't mind teaching non-Jewish students as he thinks this way he hastens Messiah's arrival, because it is said that when Dvar Torah (the Word of Bible) spreads to the world outside, the Messiah will come. Unlike many in his circle, he even approves of the Kabbalah Learning Centre, believing it will assist the Messiah's coming.

I CALL MY mother. Her voice sounds clear even though she lives in New York now among her peers, the followers of Rabbi Lubavitch.

"Have you read my article?" I ask, quite fearful. There are so many ways to hurt her feelings and unfortunately I am good at this, especially since the divergence in our spiritual paths.

"It is well researched," she surprises me.


"Yes ..." she pauses for a moment, "Too much research. You misunderstand things. You can't explain Kabbalah intellectually. It is a passion, a feeling. You can't just go and write about it, it is something you live."

Click-clack. Click-clack. Is it the line or her typewriter? 

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