What was once shrouded in mystery and the exclusive domain of educated Jewish males over the age of 40 is now as accessible as the King James Bible. At the same time that more and more non-Jews unite to study and engage in some of Judaism's most sacred and intimate texts, the schisms among Jews who draw upon the same teachings grow ever wider.
In light of this, the ever-expanding world of Kabbalah scholars are increasingly asking: What are the ramifications of Kabbalah becoming a universal spiritual path? Is there a way to keep it authentic and anchored to its Jewish roots?
These were some of the concerns that compelled Rabbi Yakov Travis of Tiferet Institute in Cleveland to orchestrate an unprecedented forum of rabbis, professors, authors, scholars and spiritual seekers with radically different approaches to Jewish mysticism. Travis is the founder and director of Tiferet Institute's two-year home-based study program via Web conferencing, "Kabbalistic Spirituality: Principles, Pathways and Practices," which is designed to foster a serious and stimulating learning community of kindred spirits across the country.
The forum, "Kabbalah for the Masses? The Promise and Problems in Mainstreaming Jewish Mysticism," was held at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego at the tail end of the Association for Jewish Studies annual meeting on Dec. 18 and 19, the fourth and fifth days of Chanukah. The forum's goal was to begin a constructive conversation on the contemporary phenomenon of mainstream Jewish mysticism. In a structured format, presentations by panelists were followed by respondents from the academic community, as well as an open question-and-answer session.
Included in the lineup of presenters was Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, author of the novel, "Kabbalah: A Love Story"; Rabbi Berg of Los Angeles, heir to the Kabbalah Centre dynasty; and Tamar Frankiel, dean of students and professor of comparative religion at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles and author of "Kabbalah: A Brief Introduction for Christians."
Also included were Mark Elber, author of "The Everything Kabbalah Book"; Arthur Kurzweil, author of "Kabbalah for Dummies"; Rabbi Pinchas Giller, professor of Kabbalah at University of Judaism; Rabbi Moshe Genuth of the Baal Shem Tov Center in Toronto; and Rabbi Wayne Dosick of San Diego's Elijah Minyan.
In the realm of Kabbalah, time and space take on a whole new meaning, so it was appropriate that two of contemporary mystical Judaism's most beloved and vibrant teachers -- Rebbe Zalman Schachter Shalomi, one of the major founders of the Jewish Renewal Movement, and Rabbi Arthur Green, rector of Hebrew College's Rabbinical School -- were beamed in via live, interactive audio-video Web conferencing.
At a panel discussion on "Kabballah for Non-Jews?" speakers represented a variety of viewpoints. Whereas Giller sees the Kabbalah Centre as an answer to the declaration, "I am not religious, I am spiritual," Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, professor of Jewish intellectual history at Arizona State University, accused Berg and the center of hawking spiritual wares, hedonism, self-centeredness and material secularism.
Berg's response was that the center was many things to many people -- that it is up to the individual to choose how deeply he will immerse himself in what the center offers.
"We don't have to study Kabbalah or understand the Zohar [the pivotal texts of Kabbalah] to become better people," he said.
"I wanted this forum to be as inclusive as possible, to bring all Jews to the table," Travis said in his opening remarks. Then he half joked, "Even those that are wrong. Even those that have ideas that are the opposite of mine."
When the laughter died down, he looked around the room.
"Where is the vision?" he asked. "If we want to be a light to the nations, we need to talk."
There was not only talk but deep listening. There was also storytelling, laughter and an abundance of metaphors. Sparks flew, too. Rabbi Elliott Ginsburg described the experience of such a meeting of minds and hearts as "cognitive whiplash."
On the subject of Madonna, which was inevitably raised, Kurzweil came to her defense.
"I'd like to defend Madonna," he said. "The media have made it all a joke. She's an easy target. Doesn't she have the right to her own spiritual journey?"
However, most present seemed to hold Frankiel's view that "it's intellectually dishonest if someone presents Kabbalah as simply a universal philosophy and not as something essentially Jewish."
Many of the 102 people at the forum arrived holding strong opinions and concerns about the Kabbalah Centre, with its slick marketing strategies, pop-culture appeal and "mercantile dimension," yet this was the first opportunity they had to listen to and question Berg.
"If ever there was an occasion to recite the 'Shehecheyanu,'" said Rachel Miller of Los Angeles, as she glanced at the list of presenters, "this is it."
Although all the presenters were united by their passion for the study and practice of Kabbalah, the most observable differences lay in their approaches as to how Judaism's most sacred and intimate teachings should be disseminated.
"The Bnei Noah movement is going to explode in the next 10 to 20 years," said Genuth, referring to the growing number of Christians who, disillusioned with their religion, have found their way to Kabbalah through the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh and the new Ba'al Shem Tov Center in Toronto. Here, the "holiest of holies" is shared with non-Jews within the framework of the seven principles of the Covenant of Noah.
In the esoteric teachings of the Zohar, the work of Jewish mysticism, what you see is only a fraction of what really exists. And what exists at the Kabbalah Centre goes far beyond Madonna and the sale of red string, Berg said. His lineage dates back to Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag (1885-1954), who believed that only Kabbalah can save the world from disaster. "Not only do we now have permission to reveal the great secrets," Berg said, "but we are standing on the threshold of a new spiritual era, and only the wide dissemination of the Zohar, through the writing of many books and the opening of many centers of study, will be able to end global pain, suffering and even death."
Although the centre already has more than 50 branches worldwide, a children's education program called "Spirituality for Kids" and a sizeable charity foundation, Berg said they feel their work has only just begun.
Another powerful Ashlagian force, Rav Michael Laitman of Bnei Baruch, wasn't able to attend, although two of his students came to distribute free copies of his book, "From Chaos to Harmony: The Solution to the Global Crisis According to Kabbalah." Laitman sees the world in terms of Kabbalists and non-Kabbalists and is also on a mission to bring not only personal transformation but global redemption through Kabbalah.
The logo of Tiferet Institute is the "seed of life." Although there were still more questions than answers by the end of the forum, some seeds of understanding had been planted in the most fertile soil.
"I always had a negative impression of the Kabbalah Centre," Frankiel said, "but I don't feel that way anymore.... The problem is, we all have ideas that we believe passionately in, and it becomes very important to prove we're right and the other wrong...."
At the end of the conference, people filtered outside for the lighting of a six-foot-high menorah. "Although I've hardly eaten all day, I feel as if I've come away from a really satisfying meal," said Ariella Shira of Covina.
The lights in San Diego Bay quivered, and it took a few tries for the menorah candles to catch. As a military plane flew overhead, Rabbi Moshe Halfon played his guitar, and the group sang the perennial Chanukah song, "Maoz Tzur" -- "Rock of Ages."
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