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Kabbalah: The star-studded spiritualism
Kabbalah comes off well in latest tome but religion professor makes some sweeping statements
01/19/08
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The columnist John Fraser once wrote that religion is one of two great no-go areas in the mainstream media, the other being universities. There are exceptions, he noted, but as a general rule, "stories on religion will break into the media only if they are a. sensational, b. bizarre, c. goofy, d. gee-whiz, or e. contemptuous."

Fraser's theory would explain the reams of coverage of kabbalah and its popularization by some of Hollywood's leading lights. At the top of that heap is Madonna, a Roman Catholic who has proclaimed herself "an ambassador for Judaism."

Loosely defined as Jewish mysticism, kabbalah and its central text, the Zohar, is an amalgam of astrology, cosmology, numerology and esoteric ruminations on the nature of God's very personality. It is cryptic and demanding. Traditionally, it is off limits to all but Jewish men over 40 who have mastered the Bible and Talmud. Even then, kabbalah is to be approached with great care and reverence. Traditional kabbalists really believe that studying kabbalah, if you are not "ready," can be dangerous.

But the kabbalah in the news these days is all that and more, according to the Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre, which spearheaded the movement that has spawned 50 storefront branches around the world.

Kabbalah, the centre says, predates Judaism and is the world's oldest body of spiritual wisdom, containing "the long-hidden keys to the secrets of the universe as well as the keys to the mysteries of the human heart and soul." The centre says kabbalah can help its tens of thousands of devotees remove, with relative ease, "every form of chaos, pain and suffering" on their journey to personal fulfilment.

This has been catnip to the media and there has been no shortage of exposיs of the Kabbalah Centre as a money-grubbing cult. Rabbis and Jewish educators have piled on, too, warning against a movement that peddles watered-down New Age hokum dressed in Judaic garb. They attribute its success to the public's lust for instant spiritual reward without spiritual work.

Anyone expecting another evisceration of the centre is in for a shock with Jody Myers' Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest (Praeger, 254 pp). The first comprehensive, book-length examination of the Kabbalah Centre's founders, philosophy and methods is meaty, dense but readable and generally even-handed.

(Full disclosure: Myers' research includes – and duly credits – information from me, gathered for a 1993 story I wrote on the Toronto Kabbalah Centre.)

A professor of religion at California State University, Myers knows the controversy that has dogged the centres since they set up shop around 1970, including allegations of cult-like behaviour, aggressive sales tactics and the targeting of the vulnerable. She prefers to ponder why there's a demand for the supply, pointing to baby boomers' disaffection from organized religion, even as they search for spiritual and ethical outlets.

Myers delves fairly deeply into kabbalah itself and finds that one major divide with the Kabbalah Centre is the latter's teaching that God's commandments to Jews are "gifts from a loving God that one may accept or refuse" – not directives but merely suggestions. "This was quite unorthodox," she notes. Though Myers details many other differences with normative Judaism – the centre holds that God is like light and it believes in reincarnation and astrology – she says Kabbalah Centre devotees hew to a "behavioural commitment very similar to Orthodox Judaism."

The centre, she adds, can even be viewed as "a sect of Judaism" – another explosive statement.

Myers also finds justifications for the centre's belief that simply scanning the texts is sufficient and for such "spiritual tools" as special "Kabbalah Water" and the red strings adherents wear on their wrists to ward off the "evil eye."

She discounts allegations of coercion, saying centre followers are emotionally manipulated "to an extent no greater than in many other established religions."

Lots of folks aren't going to appreciate such a rare, temperate treatment of a trend that has caused concern for the Jewish establishment. But complaining about it has not derailed the movement.
Myers' book reflects the reality: The Kabbalah Centre continues to thrive because it directly addresses difficult life situations and satisfies a hunger for a faith system that promises tangible results.
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