Kabbalah: Mysticism no longer a spiritual stepchild

Once dismissed as a kind of New Age bait to lure wandering spiritual seekers back to the Jewish fold, Kabbalah has never been hotter.

The esoteric Jewish mystical tradition has made the cover of Time, and hooked celebrities Jeff Goldblum, Roseanne and Madonna. Publishers are racing to find new kabbalists, and non-Jews as well as Jews are flocking to Kabbalah workshops and retreats.

Meanwhile, kabbalists and Bay Area rabbis are both hopeful and wary about what the revival's legacy will mean for mainstream Judaism.

On one hand, mysticism has deepened liturgical observance and lured back many Jews who once abandoned Judaism. On the other hand, spiritual leaders say, slick quickie courses and how-to books could cheapen a powerful occult practice. Enlightenment takes more than a day, and false teachers could give Kabbalah a bad name.

Daniel Matt, a professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, is optimistic that mysticism could potentially transform mainstream American Judaism.

"If new forms of spirituality could emerge in the suburban synagogue, that would make all the hype and silliness worth it," he says.

The Jewish studies professor has studied Kabbalah in Jerusalem, and has written books on the subject. Now on sabbatical, he has been commissioned to translate the entire five-volume Zohar, the main text of Kabbalah, from Hebrew and Aramaic to English, a feat that could take as long as 15 years.

Although reading the Zohar is beyond the reach of most Jews, other kabbalistic practices, such as meditation and chanting, are not. Matt uses such methods when he leads a kabbalistic service at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.

Some Bay Area rabbis are using similar techniques during services, which are wildly popular with congregants.

Berkeley's Aquarian Minyan has embraced meditation for decades. Rabbi Alan Lew of the Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco borrows from kabbalistic sources in his sermons and Torah study groups. He also leads meditation sessions that precede services and study meetings.

Rabbi Lavey Derby of the Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon incorporates mystical practices during monthly Shabbat services called "Neshama Minyan."

Derby guides his congregants to empty their minds of distracting thought through meditation before praying, and leads chants of Hebrew words and liturgical phrases.

"One of my congregants who had had an active Jewish prayer life for 60 years told me her prayers only come alive at Neshama Minyan. When we do the Sh'ma, people have tears in their eyes."

However, some congregants who prefer the formality of traditional worship find the kabbalistic service too touchy-feely.

Kabbalah "focuses our attention on intimacy not only with other people but also with the Divine. That language is sometimes uncomfortable," Derby says.

In antiquity, kabbalistic practice often bordered on heresy. It invited followers to have a more intimate relationship with God by contemplating symbols or metaphors, a concept not found in mainstream worship.

Other components of Kabbalah could be taught, but those who possessed the knowledge were either forbidden to pass it on or didn't want to, fearing that mystical practices could be dangerous in the wrong hands.

That's why Kabbalah teachers traditionally required students to be at least 40 years old, married, male and learned in the Torah and Talmud.

Today, kabbalistic concepts for some are the missing pieces of a kind of Jewish puzzle.

"Kabbalah is an algorithm, a formula for balance," says Mary Garmo, a computer programmer and member of Temple Israel in Alameda. "Getting balanced and taking care of your own soul is the first step for any healing."

Garmo, 55, encountered Kabbalah when Edward Hoffman, a psychologist who has written several books about Jewish mysticism, spoke after services at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley.

Since then, she has attended a number of readings and lectures as well as classes in Kabbalah. She also creates Kabbalah-inspired drawings of Hebrew letters. The practices helped fill "a gap" in her mainstream practice, she says.

It may be premature to predict whether mystical concepts will take hold in more mainstream synagogues. Regardless, Kabbalah's popularity continues to grow in the Bay Area, in retreats and at meditation centers.

Chochmat HaLev, which offers classes and workshops on the mystical tradition, had only a handful of meditators when it opened shop three years ago. Today, there are 300 regular meditators at six Bay Area locations, and 2,500 people on the mailing list, says co-founder Avram Davis.

Another 550 people gathered to intone "Shal-o-o-o-ohm" in unison last spring when Chochmat HaLev and Congregation Beth Sholom co-hosted a daylong Jewish meditation conference in San Francisco.

Still, 550 does not approach the thousands who flock to Kabbalah Learning Centers in Los Angeles and around the world.

Chochmat HaLev's Davis, who recently completed his doctorate in the history of consciousness, says contemplative Kabbalah may not be for everyone. Up to 25 percent of all people are suited for regular meditation, he said. But others could benefit from occasional meditation.

Nevertheless, the Bay Area has long been at the vanguard of new spiritual pursuits. Shifting a meditative practice to a Jewish context is second nature to local Buddhist Jews and holdovers of the human-potential and counterculture movements.

Davis estimates that up to a third of American Buddhists are Jews who have rejected the formality of synagogue life. The earthy teachings and calming meditations of Zen touch them in a way that cerebral Judaism never did.

Kabbalah shares some Zen philosophies, such as the idea that the natural world, human spirit and supernatural forces are interconnected.

But Jewish mysticism departs from its Eastern counterpart by requiring followers to build a "vessel," or personal spiritual foundation, in which to hold the Divine. Without a good vessel, kabbalists say, spiritual pursuit is for naught because there is nothing to contain the teachings. Traditionally, halachic observance is the way to build one's vessel.

During a December visit to the Bay Area, Rabbi David Cooper, director of the Heart of Stillness Hermitage, a Colorado retreat, and a leader in the Jewish meditation movement, talked in an interview about the many "Bu-Jews" who attend his kabbalistic retreats.

By the time Buddhist Jews go to a Kabbalah event, they already have cultivated a rich contemplative practice but still feel that something is missing from it, Cooper.

"They realize that something in their Jewish kishkes [guts] wants to be acknowledged. Folks say, `I need to be able to sit quietly. Can I do this in the context of prayer?' And I go, `Yeah.'

"[They say], `Can I bring my contemplative world to the lighting of candles on Friday night?'


"Then they realize that they can bring their Buddhist explorations into all the things we're doing in Judaism."

Not everyone can devote a lifetime — or even a weeklong retreat — to the pursuit of higher consciousness. Perhaps that's why many are rushing to Bay Area seminars and classes offered by the Kabbalah Learning Center.

Based in New York, the organization has centers around the world and has been looking for a site in San Francisco, according to Candice Boyd, the center's Bay Area spokeswoman.

Newcomers can sign up for a 12-week Kabbalah course for $151. The fee doesn't cover books, spiritual paraphernalia and other suggested expenditures that have cost some KLC followers thousands of dollars, according to an account in the Jerusalem Report.

That hasn't stopped hundreds from calling to inquire about area classes that can hold several dozen apiece, Boyd said.

Prominent kabbalists and local rabbis, all of whom request anonymity, worry that such an approach ultimately does more harm than good. Kabbalah by design was never meant for mass consumption, they indicate, nor can it retain integrity as part of a money-making strategy.

The key to relevance, according to Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man of the Jewish studies center Metivta in Los Angeles, is for spiritual leaders to stop offering mysticism events as another "synagogue gimmick." Kabbalistic study is rigorous and requires expertise of its teachers and discipline from its students, he said.

Omer-Man studied Kabbalah in Jerusalem for 26 years before the Los Angeles federation hired him in the 1970s to investigate why young Jews were joining cults.

He diagnosed the cult phenomenon as merely one symptom of a more troubling disease: Synagogue life was spiritually dead at a time when people were spiritually starved.

"If someone comes to Kabbalah to understand the way things work, I think they are off track," he says. "It won't tell you how to get rich or how to succeed. It will give you a joy of recognition of some deep truth."

Like Omer-Man, other spiritual leaders warn about quick fixes. Some say that kabbalistic pursuits divorced from other Jewish practices somehow miss the mark.

"Everyone wants to fly before they can walk," says Beth Sholom's Rabbi Lew. "Kabbalah disembodied [from rabbinical Judaism] has very little meaning. It's a ghost without a body."

Most Kabbalah education available to the public only skims the surface, Lew says. Those who don't know Hebrew, Torah or Talmud can't fully grasp the mysteries of Jewish mysticism.

"It's the difference between watching a baseball game and playing."

After 10 years of rabbinical practice, the former Zen Buddhist studied with "the only authentic teacher of Kabbalah I've ever met," a private man who kept to himself.

"I was holding on for dear life," Lew says. "It was very difficult."

While spiritual leaders agree on what doesn't work, they disagree on the best way to transmit Kabbalah's complex, occult teachings. Some promote an independent daily practice and others recommend finding an authentic teacher with whom to study.

Meanwhile, forecasts suggest that Kabbalah's popularity will continue in the immediate future, and that mystical practices will deepen the traditional synagogue experience.

"The Jewish people is riding this incredible wave of spiritual search," says Congregation Kol Shofar's Derby. "To the extent that synagogues don't respond to this desire for spiritual deepening, they will find themselves less and less relevant as places to pray."

And contemplative worship, adds Davis, is "profoundly needed for the continued blossoming of Judaism."

How long the Kabbalah revival lasts is anybody's guess. Rabbi Ted Falcon, founder of the first meditative synagogue in Los Angeles, Makom Ohr Shalom, believes that Kabbalah could become the basis of a future Jewish movement, like the Reform and Conservative movements.

Omer-Man is not as optimistic about the revival's staying power. A large part of the phenomenon, he says, is a fad fueled by end-of-the-millennium soul-searching.

"In 15 years," he predicts, "Kabbalists will be just as lonely as they were 15 years ago."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.