Traditionally, Kabbalah has been the domain of a select group of scholars. The heart of Jewish mysticism, in previous centuries only married men over the age of forty, who were already learned in the Talmud and sacred texts were allowed to delve into its secrets.
Not so these days, where McKabbalah seems to be everywhere. In effect, the re-invention of the Kabbalah's meaning and applications caters to a growing number of spiritually starved converts. One must acknowledge that organizations such as the Kabbalah Learning Center exist because there is demand for the services they claim to provide, answering to the old adage of "build a better mouse trap and they will come". If it were any other product being marketed and sold, the center would be hailed as a business and marketing genius. The center has revamped a secretive, demanding tradition into the mass-market answer to life, the universe and everything. What is the secret of such success?
Spiritual starvation is not a phenomenon unique to Jewish tradition; there is an undeniable thirst for answers, for comfort, for understanding. People reach out to Buddhism, Sufism, and other mystic traditions in general in the hope of better understanding their place in the universe. This is not an inherently negative trend, rather a purpose to be commended. Nevertheless, we do not live in an age of deep mystical quests--for the most part, the answers we are after revolve around quick fixes, and 10-week seminars. We are not after spiritual sustenance; it seems we will settle for the equivalent of spiritual fast food.
It is precisely to this type of person that the Kabbalah Learning Center appeals. The Center's fix-it-all approach includes assertions that "with the tools of Kabbalah, you will be better able to confront such problems as: cancer--healing and prevention" and so on. They also claim that knowledge of Hebrew or Aramaic, the traditional languages of Kabbalah are not necessary for the learning process, as the power resides within the words themselves, and it is sufficient to scan them. This idea implies that there is no need for understanding, but rather that the surface is the essence. Such an assertion would be acknowledged as nonsensical in most circumstances, and it should be even more so when the subject deals with what can be arguably seen as one of the most intellectually challenging facets of Judaism. What can be found instead is a New Age version touted by Hollywood stars, being sold by an organization with an uncanny resemblance to a cult. Jews for Judaism highlights three "red flags," or warning signs, that would point to a cult. First of all, there usually is a self-appointed, charismatic leader, or leadership. They are held up as the paragons of ultimate virtue, are accountable to no one, and tend in some way to exploit the group. They demand complete loyalty. Secondly, they use deception in the process of recruitment; thirdly, there usually is psychological manipulation to conserve membership. According to Dr. Margaret Singer "Cults practice systematic manipulation of social and psychological influences." What are people involved in cults giving up? Often it is their time, their work, the allegiance to their family and social groups, sometimes money is involved as well.Tales abound of experiences that can be classified under these conditions; reports of followers torn away from family members who do not support the center, pledges of money, exorbitant mark-ups for religious paraphernalia and texts. The most frightening aspect of this proliferation of pop-Kabbalah is its trendiness. Hollywood personalities such as Roseanne Barr and Madonna have embraced the Kabbalah Learning Center, bringing the profile of the organization even higher. The danger is not in the existence of these type of groups, but in society's willful blindness to their effects. It is said that there is nothing more dangerous than a bit of knowledge. In accepting our ignorance we are more open-minded and willing to consider other viewpoints. Believing that scanning a page will reveal the secrets of the universe is not only arrogant but also dangerous, for when we truly stop our spiritual search, we are prey to the would-be prophets.