Hollywood stirs interest in ancient mysticism

Kabbalah: Traditional Jewish scholars look askance at the glitz lent by such recent adherents as Madonna.

September 15, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

In a sign that religion and pop culture are mixing in increasingly curious ways, music superstar Madonna is flying to Israel this week to celebrate the Jewish High Holidays with 2,000 other students of Kabbalah, an ancient form of Jewish mysticism.

The singer will join pilgrims from 22 countries on a trip organized by Los Angeles' controversial Kabbalah Center, which espouses its brand of Jewish mysticism to all comers, regardless of faith.

The tour opens as Jews around the globe celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, which begins at sundown today.

Traditional Jewish scholars dismiss the Kabbalah Center's teaching as New Age nonsense, but even they agree that its celebrity clientele has raised Kabbalah's once-obscure profile.

The Kabbalah, which means "a tradition which has been received," seeks to explain the mysteries of God through the language of symbolism. Kabbalists believe Moses received knowledge of the Kabbalah from God at Mount Sinai.

First gaining a small measure of popularity in 12th-century Provence and 13th-century Spain, Kabbalah was once considered so difficult to grasp that only Jewish men over 40 were permitted to study it.

Since the mid-1990s, though, Hollywood celebrities - including Britney Spears, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher - have reportedly taken up the variety espoused by the Kabbalah Center.

Red-string bracelet

Madonna, born a Roman Catholic, credits Kabbalah with improving her as a person and has appeared in concert wearing a Kabbalistic red-string bracelet - said to protect people from the Evil Eye. Ever the master of reinvention, the singer has even adopted the Hebrew name "Esther."

But scholars such as Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, who has taught Kabbalah classes in Baltimore for three decades, say Hollywood is trivializing an important, spiritual tradition.

"To reduce Kabbalah to a red string ... that's sacrilege," says Kaplan, who calls the Kabbalah Center's version "instant coffee" for the soul. "These celebrities are probably very needy and insecure people."

Kaplan says the High Holidays provide a good opportunity to talk about the true Kabbalah, which is little understood, even among mainstream Jews. Scholars estimate that only a few thousand people worldwide are serious Kabbalists.

The Kabbalah has a distinct interpretation of Rosh Hashana, one that is cited in hundreds of Kabbalistic texts. Rosh Hashana marks a season of judgment, repentance and remembrance that culminates in the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, Sept. 25.

The holiday is traditionally a time for Jews to reflect and evaluate their personal conduct. According to Kaplan, though, Kabbalists also see Rosh Hashana as a time to explore their personal relationship with God.

For example, Kaplan says, a Kabbalist hears the blowing of the shofar, or ram's horn, on Rosh Hashana as "the primal cry of the soul and primal commitment of a person to the authority of God."

"It's that profound commitment that we believe causes God to renew the creative force in the world for the coming year," the rabbi says.

Spiritual questions

Scholars say one of the Kabbalah's great attractions is that it helps people answer some of life's most pressing spiritual questions: Who is God? How does he create? What is man's relationship to God?

Shimon Shokek, a professor of philosophy and mysticism at Baltimore Hebrew University, has written three books on the Kabbalah. People study it, he says, to dig beneath the surface of life's mysteries, using the language of symbolism to draw closer to God.

Shokek cites the Zohar, a central Kabbalistic text, which provides an annotated explanation of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Written in Hebrew and Aramaic, the Zohar, or "Book of Splendor," provides extensive interpretations of each passage.

`In the beginning'

For instance, dozens of pages are devoted to unraveling the meaning of the Hebrew word, bereshit, which literally means, "in the beginning." It is the first word of the Torah and the Hebrew name of its first book, known in English as Genesis.

Ordinarily, people read "in the beginning" as a time, but in the Zohar, it is also a place where God created heaven and Earth, Shokek says.

As Kabbalists study and meditate on such texts, they try to ascend through metaphysical levels to experience various divine qualities and become closer to God. That intensity of spiritual exploration - in ancient writings and daily life - lies at the heart of the Kabbalah.

"For the Kabbalist, there is always a hidden dimension," says Shokek. "If you look at a tree and you only see a tree, you are not a Kabbalist."

Obscure for much its existence, Kabbalah began to catch on during the 1960s as people relied less on science and rationalism to explain the world and gravitated toward spirituality. When Kaplan first began teaching the Kabbalah in the 1970s, he had few students. Today, he has 30 to 40.

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