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Jewish Journal

Going Kabbalistic

Crash course provides insights to Jewish mysticism.

by Vivian LeTran

May 1, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Andrew Eiser of Los Alamitos doesn't have the time in his busy work schedule to devote to the teachings of kabbalah, the study of Jewish mysticism.

"But I'm definitely interested in learning more about it," said Eiser, 30, a Reform Jew who is drawn to kabbalah's mysticism, spirituality, numerology and blend of Eastern traditions.

Jews who are curious about kabbalah, but neither want to delve into lengthy books nor attend long meetings, may find practical answers in crash courses, such as Going Kabbalistic at Chabad of Irvine.

"Everything in America has a two-day crash course," Eiser said. "Why not the kabbalah? It's the best way to teach it in America and inform people who want to be informed."

Going Kabbalistic offers two hour-and-a-half sessions held over two weeks, introducing the mystic text of guiding principles that some believe is the essence of Judaism. "God's blueprint of the universe," as adherents call kabbalah, is said to answer questions about the meaning of life, human existence, purpose, the afterlife and fulfillment. Among its main tenets are a belief in reincarnation, the significance of numbers as a code to unlock the secrets to creation and the notion of freewill.

The kabbalah may seem enticing, given the broad-based, soul-searching that's taken place across many cultures since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, religious scholars say. Its popularity has grown in recent years, especially in California, where the diverse mix of cultures is fertile ground for sampling and new religious offshoots.

However, many Jews remain skeptical of kabbalah, which means "that which is received," partly because it is esoteric in nature and traditionally elitist, requiring that only a worthy in-crowd of people over 40 years old are entitled to God's truths.

"It's an elitism that can be dangerous," said Benjamin J. Hubbard, professor and chairman of comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton.

Some see kabbalah as a distraction away from the essentials to Jews, which are to do justice, love, mercy and "walk humbly before your God," Hubbard said.

"Those who delve into the kabbalah tend to see it as a shortcut to God or end up neglecting their grandmother in her nursing home, their family and society," Hubbard said.

"Crash course" and "kabbalah" may seem like oxymoronic terms, because traditionally, the ancient study is reserved for men who have been well-versed in Jewish texts, such as the Talmud.

"It's only to whet the appetite," said Rabbi Alter Tenenbaum, who led a two-day crash course of about two-dozen people at Chabad of Irvine in March. The crash course is part of the temple's adult education lecture series.

"I try to keep it tangible to give people a small exposure, so they can grasp what kabbalah is," Tenenbaum said. "It's not by any means a serious study of kabbalah. Our goal is not the education of kabbalah for the academic sense."

Using lay terms and real-life analogies, such as a "car wash" for the cleansing of the soul, the course strives to inspire participants -- Jews and non-Jews -- with a positive outlook and greater sense of purpose to everyday life.

Tenenbaum opened the start of the first course with a list of disclaimers: "First let me begin by saying that we're not going to learn how to do any magic tricks. The kabbalah is not superstition, and there's no magical hocus-pocus."

The introduction of disclaimers underscored the complexities of understanding the kabbalah. Historically, the kabbalah was never widely known or practiced.

Kabbalah is never explicitly mentioned in the Bible. It was not documented to exist until the Zohar, written by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai around 200 C.E. Still, many writings available on the kabbalah remain vague and unclear.

The Chasidic movement centuries ago made kabbalah accessible to the masses for the first time and taught it in a practical way, so ordinary people could benefit, Tenenbaum said.

"It teaches us sensitivity, that all things in creation are interconnected and endowed with a sense of purpose," Tenenbaum said.

Spreading the word of kabbalah has become such a sensible and practical matter for kabbalists, that the last decade has witnessed a growing number of study programs, lectures, seminars, Web sites, workshops, online courses, kabbalah centers and media attention focused on disseminating information about the kabbalah.

The upsurge of interest in kabbalah among mainline Jews comes with an increase in the pursuit of spirituality, especially in light of the conflict in the Middle East, said Rabbi Alan Henkin of the Union of American Hebrew of Congregations, which represents about 80 Reform synagogues.

"It's a way of achieving a deeper insight into reality, bringing spiritual meditation into everyday life," he said.

Kabbalists even see crash courses as inevitable for the curious but uncommitted.

"It's a sampling," Tenenbaum said. "So if they're still interested, they'll come back. But if they don't make it back, at least they can feel they've taken something useful with them."

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