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Ask the Rabbi: Kabbalah Craze

Dear Rabbi;

What is the deal with the Kabbalah craze?  Madonna, Britney, Demi, Paris… all these celebs have been spotted wearing red yarn bracelets and some even brag about how Kabbalah enhances their lives.  I visited Israel in High School, and we went to Safed and were taught that you can’t even study Kabbalah unless you are a learned old man.  I feel pretty Jewishly educated and know so little about Kabbalah.  I especially don’t know how to answer friends when they ask me why Hollywood is obsessed with it.  What are some basics facts I should know about this mysterious Kabbalah, and is the Kabbalah the celebrities are latching onto authentic?

Rabbi Ilana Baden was ordained from the HUC-JIR Cincinnati campus in 1999.  She served at the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation for three years before returning to Cincinnati as an associate rabbi at Wise Temple.  She is the current treasurer of the Greater Cincinnati Board of Rabbis. 




 Dear Mystified,

Yes, it certainly does seem like whenever you peruse a celebrity magazine or tune into an entertainment “news” show, you will more likely than not find stars – both Jewish and non-Jewish – wearing red string bracelets or talking about how Kabbalah has changed their lives.  And, yes, you are right in alluding to the fact that Kabbalah is traditionally regarded as being taboo for anyone who is not yet a forty-year-old married man with children who has already mastered Torah, Talmud, and other Jewish texts.  Because of this, many younger Jews never hear about Kabbalah or are only exposed to it in terms of its historical context.  So, let me first approach your question by giving a very brief overview of Kabbalah. 

Basically, Kabbalah is understood within the Jewish community as a mystical approach to our religion.  While Torah, Talmud, and other traditional texts tell us what God wants and expects from us, Kabbalah seeks to gain deeper understanding of God’s very nature and essence.   This is a risky and even dangerous proposition, according to the rabbis – for are we as humans even capable of facing and absorbing the mysteries of the Divine?  Thus, the Jewish authorities cautioned anyone who was not sufficiently “settled” in life against pursuing Kabbalah.

Today, it is said that there are three different types of Kabbalists (those who engage in this mystical pursuit).  The first type is the scholarly master who pores over sacred texts in order to feel more closely bonded with God.  This Kabbalist is likely to apply the techniques such as gematria – assigning a numerical value to each Hebrew letter in order to uncover hidden mathematical relationships and meanings of words.  The second type is the person who is intrigued by knowing what we should not know and loves the challenge of cracking the code, so to speak.  This Kabbalist wants to “break into the palace”, or – to use a modern metaphor – to hack into the mainframe of God.  Finally, the third type is the individual who wants his soul to return to God, much as it will (God-willing!) when he has died.  This Kabbalist desires to experience divine unity during his lifetime so that he can enjoy this sort of intense spiritual bond and enlightenment.

So what kind of Kabbalist is Madonna, Brittney, Demi, or Ashton?  I am tempted to create a fourth category for them.  This category would include people who want to find meaning and purpose in a life that can seem overwhelmingly chaotic and even absurd.  These individuals see Kabbalah not as an expression of Jewish spirituality, but rather as a universal approach to the enigmatic nature of the human condition.  It is interesting to note that the Kabbalah Centre, which many of these celebrities visit on a regular basis, states on its website that Kabbalah “was never meant for a specific sect…  Rather, it was intended to be used by all humanity to unify the world.”

And so we reach the last part of your question: is this “fourth category” of Kabbalists an authentic expression of this ancient practice?  Well, it depends whom you ask.  I am sure that the celebrities who follow the teachings of the Kabbalah Centre believe that they are truly engaging in the art of Kabbalah.  However, if you read any of the works of Gershom Scholem, the premier scholar of Kabbalah, or if you ask most academics who have studied Kabbalah, you will learn that this form of mysticism is rooted in the most complex foundations of Jewish text and understanding, and cannot be fully appreciated or applied without first mastering and even embracing our “normative” traditions.

As you can surmise, I have some major issues and concerns with “Pop” Kabbalah.  At the same time, I can appreciate the fact that there are elements of Kabbalah that can be applied to life in general, and that these elements can be helpful to anyone of any background who is searching for deeper meaning.  Just as there are many Jews who engage in Yoga in order to achieve a more serene and balanced lifestyle, these celebrities (and others!) are employing some of the basic approaches and techniques of Kabbalah in an attempt to make sense out of their lives. 

Rabbi Baden

What are your thoughts about "Pop" Kabbalah?