Rabbi fuses kabbalistic wisdom and psychic channeling

It teaches joy.

"I make a distinction between happiness and joy," said the 85-year-old Gelberman. "Happiness is outer-centered." To be happy, he said, we need "things" — a condo, a car, a sweetheart.

"To be joyous, you need no `things' at all."

The New York rabbi will lecture about the Kabbalah on Tuesday and Wednesday, May 27 and 28 in San Francisco for the Learning Annex and for the Sivananda Vedanta Yoga Center.

He will also offer "psychic Kabbalah readings" at the yoga center during his visit. These private, 36-minute consultations, which include meditation, channeling and name analysis, cost $50.

For these psychospiritual checkups, he uses a set of 22 "Kabbalah Cards" — one for each Hebrew letter — that he designed about two decades ago. Like tarot cards, they are used to gain insight into the present, past and future.

Gelberman, who said he was born with psychic powers, considers them part of his Jewish heritage.

"The great Chassidic rabbis, that's what they did. They saw things that no one else saw," said the rabbi, who also claims to have been, in a past life, a student of the sage who wrote kabbalism's main text, the Zohar.

In the world of mainstream Judaism, psychic readings seem way out there. But within Kabbalah's esoteric and secretive explorations, almost anything is possible, including channeling, astrology, reincarnation and numerology.

"Everything comes from God," the rabbi said in an energetic, clear voice still heavy with a Hungarian accent. Skeptics and critics mean little to him, he said. He has long been determined not to waste his energy on them.

Born in Hungary, he was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi. He fled to America in 1939, hoping to obtain visas for his wife and young daughter, he said last week in a telephone interview from his Manhattan home. But most of his family, including his wife and child, were trapped and died in the Holocaust.

His tragic, though somewhat familiar, story shifts from there.

He began performing interfaith marriages more than three decades ago. "I decided: Who am I? God? I'm a rabbi and not a policeman," he said. "Love to me is higher than man-made separations between religions."

He founded The New Seminary to train interfaith ministers 16 years ago. About 1,200 have graduated from the New York institute so far.

Dubbed an honorary swami, Gelberman maintains a daily yoga practice and has created a video combining yogic postures with kabbalistic mantras.

Despite his interfaith work, Gelberman considers himself a Jew before anything else. In fact, he calls himself the founder of "modern Chassidism."

He wears neither a thick beard nor a black hat. He welcomes modernity. But he said that in his heart, he revels in the Chassidic ideal of compassion and love for all.

Though he doesn't particularly like the title, Gelberman has been dubbed the "New Age rabbi."

"I'm also an old-age rabbi and a future-age rabbi," said Gelberman, who is the spiritual leader of The New Synagogue, an independent Jewish congregation he founded in New York City decades ago.

In explaining the lectures he will deliver in San Francisco, the rabbi said he can teach a great deal about Kabbalah in a short time.

"All you have to do is translate the word itself," he said. Kabbalah "simply means `to receive.' I'm suggesting that all we need, not want, is there. But we have to be ready to receive it. Kabbalah teaches us how to receive it."

In his lectures, the rabbi said, he trains eyes to see God's holiness on earth, ears to hear only loving words and hands to embrace others wholeheartedly. He tries to teach mouths when to stay shut or when to speak out for justice.

Individuals must also realize that human beings are partners with God, he said. He explained that when God created Eve and Adam, God told them, "From now on, I will do nothing by Myself."

"He purposely didn't finish the creation," the rabbi said. "You and I together must finish the creation."

This belief has helped him deal with the residual pain from the Holocaust. While many Jews ask why God allowed the genocide to happen, Gelberman wonders why humans let it unfold.

The rabbi believes his emphasis on joy also has helped him survive. To explain this point, he said that many other young rabbis arrived in the United States in 1939 when he did. Within 10 to 15 years, a great number of them had died.

"Every sermon was full of hating Hitler and the Nazis. They swallowed the hate. He killed them. He's not going to kill me."

Likewise, Gelberman criticizes the refugees and Holocaust survivors who have spent the past 50 years in mourning and sadness.

"Every day of creation, God said, `It is good.' Then you come and say, `It's not good.' That's blasphemy."

He won't forget the dead, but Gelberman said he has long been determined to add to his life the joy that all of his relatives were meant to experience.

"People ask me: `Are you happy?' Sometimes. But I'm joyous," he said. "The joy is always there."