Sometimes a movie can be important for its inaccuracies. Take "Bee Season," for example. The story takes place in Oakland, Calif., and ricochets off the foibles of the members of the Naumann family: Eliza, a grade school girl with a gift for spelling; Aaron, her older brother, who is a spiritual seeker; their mother who, it turns out, is basically bonkers; and their father, who is a religion professor and failed Kabbalist (Jewish mystic). It is a beautifully photographed but unsatisfying rendition of Myla Goldberg's beautifully written but unsatisfying novel of the same name. Despite its disappointments, however, "Bee Season" inadvertently offers some highly instructive insights into the state of religion--and, specifically, Kabbalah--in America today. Permit me three examples.

Its most insidious mistake comes from Professor Saul Naumann, played by Richard Gere, when he tells his daughter Eliza that "a mystic can talk with God and have God listen." This should come as a big surprise to anyone who has ever offered a prayer, because it means that he or she is now a de facto mystic. (And you thought that communicating with God in and of itself, in any form, made you religious!) Sorry, professor, you get that one wrong on the exam. Mysticism, unlike religion in general, is not about communicating with God; it is about dissolving yourself into the divine All and becoming one with God.

Far more fascinating, however, is the damning implication here that, if the only way to commune with God is to be a mystic, then mysticism therefore must be the only bona fide form of religion. Therefore, all other non-mystical forms of religion are really just condemning their practitioners to spinning their (prayer) wheels. In other words: According to the movie's error, we realize that in America today, perhaps the only way to be truly religious is to be a mystic.

A second instructive error concerns Jewish kids becoming Hare Krishnas. Seeking love, we suspect, more than spirituality, Aaron eventually dons the saffron robe that made the Hare Krishnas an icon--and flashpoint--of the 1970s and '80s. (Although Aaron's defection, in the movie unlike the book, does require a blonde knock-out as bait.) But given the absence of any expression of Judaism whatsoever in the Naumann home--no candles, no religious books, no blessings, no melodies, no prayer--it is at least encouraging that the kid has enough good sense to try to find something religious somewhere else. (In the novel, Saul Naumann, is a cantor which, we suspect, might have been an easier reach for Gere but also a box office albatross). There's only one problem: Though the Hare Krishnas are still around, Jewish kids aren't running off to join them in large numbers these days, nor are Hare Krishnas aggressively pursuing converts like they once were. Thirty years ago it was different. Then, virtually everyone in the Jewish community knew of a kid who went off and became a Hare Krishna, joined an ashram, took up Zen Buddhism, or pledged their allegiance to something else Eastern or even more esoteric.

Why does Aaron's heresy, even in Oakland, seem so dated? The instructive answer is that nowadays a young Jew on a spiritual search need look no farther than--of all places--the local synagogue. Today, Judaism's own mystical tradition, Kabbalah, is not only out of the closet, you can learn about it in People Magazine. Everyone, it seems, is eager to know and observe some recondite tradition. (Haven't you heard? Organized religion is boring, secular and irrelevant.) And, while "Bee Season" tries to employ this new mystical paradigm, its Kabbalah seems tacked onto the plot with little authentic substance.

This may be another inadvertent insight: Kabbalah is in. And why is it all the rage? Contemporary Judaism, now finally beginning to recover theologically from the Holocaust, has begun to re-encounter its own mystic heritage. And now that it's accessible again, Hollywood has found it. To be sure--as throughout so much of Jewish history--charlatans, mountebanks, and quacks still abound. Yet, with even modest persistence, anyone can learn a lot about real Kabbalah, and, if you are also willing to commit yourself to a traditional Jewish lifestyle, you can even practice it, too.

Abracadabra, and the world's created--in Hebrew

_Related Features
  • What Is Kabbalah?
  • What I Know From Kabbalah
  •">The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah