It used to be said that kabbalah should only be studied by the very old or very learned, otherwise it could inspire madness. In his book "Practical Kabbalah: A Guide to Jewish Wisdom in Everyday Life," Rabbi Laibl Wolf attempts both to dispel the mythology surrounding this ancient, mystical teaching and to demonstrate its necessity for those of us living in the modern world.
The Australian native recently stopped in Los Angeles during his annual world tour, the first of two planned visits here. One might expect the renowned kabbalah teacher to be a great, dark force with penetrating eyes that could gaze directly into one's soul, perhaps or a remote, silent sage. Instead, he looks like a sweet, fatherly man who speaks with a charming Australian accent that can make someone immediately feel welcome. His voice was infinitely gentle, even when his gaze grew intense while discussing the current situation in the Middle East.
The main thing that struck, though, was how down-to-earth and essential he makes kabbalah seem.
"The Zohar itself -- the Zohar being the primary work of kabbalah -- predicted a time would come when the fountains of knowledge would burst open from above and below, meaning spiritually and technologically; and the resulting confusion would require us, all of us, to access the deeper wisdom to gain balance," he began with quiet intensity. "You and I are the heirs to this radical change."
Wolf says he feels it is time for a "paradigm shift" in the way we see the world, and his book contains exercises and meditations to help alter readers' perspectives. The key, he said, involves making the change from a self-centered point of view to an other-centered one.
In addition to being an ordained rabbi and studying with such luminaries as the revered Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson and the Dalai Lama, Wolf is also an educational psychologist specializing in working with teenagers.
When not on tour, the rabbi resides in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife, Leah, and the two youngest of their seven children. He is currently working on producing a documentary that will combine his meditation exercises with the music of Peter Himmelman.
Like his mentor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Wolf has a loyal following among the religious, the non-religious and those on the path to Jewish observance.
"Unfortunately, in the Jewish world, we were Johnny-come-latelys in terms of teaching the spiritual side of Jewish life," he said. "Because of that, thousands of truly questing Jewish people turned eastward to Buddhism or to New Age. They were being cheated by the Jewish establishment, which didn't offer that meaningful approach to life. Therefore it's not surprising that kabbalah became popular, because Jewish people saw it as the spiritual side of Judaism."
Although happy that the community has taken a greater interest in kabbalah, the rabbi admits he was disappointed to see it turn into a fad, a la Madonna.
"I'm not at all impressed by the promotion of Jewish spirituality by highlighting glamour," he said. "The way I approach the teaching of kabbalah is much more down to earth. I want people to learn not about how they can project astrally, speak with angels or even create miracles in their lives. I'm interested in using the spiritual teachings to assist people to understand the amazing nature of who they are as a creation, their attributes."
The rabbi also does not recommend the study of what he calls "hard-core kabbalah" by novices. Downloading the texts off the Internet or buying a Zohar at Barnes & Noble and attempting to struggle through it alone or with a few friends, as has been popular for several years are, in his opinion, a waste of time.
"There's a difference between studying explanations of the Zohar and studying the Zohar itself, and I do not advocate the latter," he said. Instead, he advocates learning about kabbalah through classes.
Wolf admits, however, that he is not above a bit of commercialism, hence the name for his newest methodology, MindYoga. He said he picked the term deliberately as a metaphor for the series of meditation and interpersonal exercises in his books and tapes. For Wolf, a spiritual exercise session is every bit as essential as a daily physical workout.
"We can practice daily stretching our soul, so that in the moment when the appropriate emotion is needed, we are flexible spiritually. Because at the end of the day, whether we are able to sleep well or sleep fitfully depends on how masterful we were during that day in our relationships, in our family, in our professional or business arena or with a stranger. This is the core of Torah."
Rabbi Laibl Wolf will join recording artist Peter Himmelman at a benefit for the rabbi's foundation, the Human Development Institute, on Wednesday, Nov. 28 at the Luxe Summit Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. For more information, call Lisa Schneiderman at (310) 314-2213.