A few years ago I appeared on a TV talk show whose celebrity host was involved with the Kabbalah Centre, the international organization committed to promoting the ancient Jewish mystical tradition. The show offered "Kabbalah mineral water" to the guests, accompanied by literature claiming that the water had been blessed in some way as to alter its atomic composition. I remember thinking how sad it was that many of the influential people who appeared on the show had their first introduction to Judaism through this kind of garbage.

The Kabbalah Centre deserves applause for having taken one of the most significant, yet ignored, disciplines of Judaism and bringing it to the thirsty masses. As an author who has published books on the kabbalah, I consider this a singular and outstanding achievement. No doubt, much of the opposition to the Kabbalah Centre from the established Jewish community is animated by jealousy at the center's having garnered thousands of members studying a subject once considered too abstruse for the public.

Nevertheless, the Kabbalah Centre presents some troubling issues that need to be addressed.

First and foremost, the Kabbalah Centre seems to promote superstition as religion. The two are not the same. Whereas religion inspires, superstition alarms. Religion connects man to the heavens. Superstition focuses him on the grave. And while religion helps us to transcend human limitations, superstition traps us in a prison of anxiety and fear.

The Kabbalah Centre, with its use of ridiculous red strings to ward off the evil eye, is preying on people's fears. Judaism has always believed in the evil eye. But its meaning is that people should maintain a meek and contrite spirit so as not to elicit jealousy. Societies are undermined through boastfulness, which sows enmity and slowly erodes human cohesiveness. Humility is only way to ward off the evil eye. The red string is pure snake oil.

Listen to 'the kabbalist' on the Kabbalah Centre's website: "The Red String protects us from the influences of the Evil Eye. Evil Eye is a very powerful negative force. It refers to the unfriendly stare and unkind glances we sometimes get from people around us. Kabbalah teaches us that we can remove intrusive negative influences by using tools such as the Red String!"

This, of course, is pure drivel and the writer robs kabbalah of a moral or ethical dimension. Are we really to believe that we ward off people's envy not by living modestly, but by driving our overly expensive cars while wearing a red string?

Likewise, the Kabbalah Centre's practice of "scanning" seems designed to ensnare the ignorant. Here is how one practitioner sums it up on the Centre's website: "Scanning is weird, amazing, and magical. I purchased the 'Book of Healing'. And just followed the simple instructions. You let your eyes just look at the Hebrew letters. You just sort of brush your eyes over the printed Hebrew words on the page. You absolutely do not have to understand or know anything about Hebrew or the meaning of the words. They tell you what to scan for whatever specific purpose you have a need for."

How desperate for meaning the lost soul who authored these words must be if he is reduced to such inanities as having his hands scan a text he has no comprehension of, as if it were Braille. How tragic that Kabbalah, the heart and mystical life-force of Judaism, is reduced to moving your hands on a book as if it were a Ouija board.

I fear that the Kabbalah Centre is divorcing Judaism's esoteric wisdom from the demand to lead a righteous life. Studying the mystical secrets of the world's oldest faith should not be akin to taking a yoga class. There must be a demand to lead a life of moral and ethical excellence. But the Kabbalah Centre has established its prominence through celebrities, and sadly, the most damaged ones at that. How convincing is the argument that the public should study Kabbalah because Madonna studies it as well? Would Catholicism use a Mafia boss to promote the virtues of the Church?

The reliance on celebrities for the promotion of its message also reinforces the fact that the Kabbalah Centre plays on people's insecurities. The message is not, 'Study Kabbalah because it will bring you closer to G-d,' but 'Study Kabbalah because it can make you like Madonna.'

Finally, while I commend the Kabbalah Centre for inspiring non-Jews and non-practicing Jews to study Kabbalah even if they have no interest in Jewish rituals and practices, Judaism seems to be playing an increasingly insignificant role in the marketing of kabbalah. While I believe that Judaism is not just for Jews--and in fact can offer the world a great deal of healing without necessarily demanding ritual observance--it is absolutely unacceptable to divorce kabbalah from Jewish ideals and values. The foremost Jewish value, and what most distinguishes Judaism from other religions of the world, is its emphasis on world redemption over personal salvation. Making the world a better place takes precedence over making ourselves more spiritual people.

The test of Jewish authenticity is a lifelong commitment to tikkun olam, fixing our communities, healing the sick, and offering hope to the dispirited.

But the Kabbalah Centre seems to have placed itself squarely in line with the new-age fad of personal growth and spiritual fulfillment, placing terminology like 'cosmic energy' and 'celestial transcendence' over communal commitment and social service. The Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a branch of Hasidism, is also a mystical movement. But it has built soup kitchens and orphanages, trade schools, and elementary schools, all over the world. Christian missionaries have built hospitals and hospices in the most remote corners of the earth. The New Age movement has had much success in heightening the spiritual awareness of its adherents, but it does not contribute as much to the communal good.

Whether or not the Kabbalah Centre is--as it claims to be--an authentic part of Judaism will be evident not in how many secret seventy-two letter names of G-d its followers memorize, but in how many hungry people its followers feed at their weekly Sabbath tables.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad