On the road to kabbalism, slow down and shop around

Nu, you want to study Kabbalah?

Get ready for a journey with many twists and turns, but no road maps. Only the enlightened can show you the way.

If it sounds like a Mossad training course or a perilous quest for the Holy Grail, that's because Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, is one of the most arduous and occult paths to the Divine.

Nonetheless, the challenges of mystical study have not deterred thousands from trying to uncover its secrets. Most don't get far. So, spiritual leaders have offered some tips that promise at least a savvy approach if not the keys to the gates of paradise.

Some kabbalists and Bay Area rabbis say that the right preparation for Kabbalah is as important as the practice itself. Spiritual maturity and Jewish studies, particularly of the Torah and Talmud, are the best prerequisites. Without basic Jewish knowledge, the leaders say, pursuit of a more complex Jewish spiritual practice will be fruitless.

"People just beginning their spiritual search won't understand [Kabbalah]," says Rabbi Lavey Derby of the Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

It's like the difference between a professional musician and someone with no musical training attending the same symphony performance, Derby explains. The musician with an understanding of music history, theory and practice will be aware of the performance's nuances, while the other individual will not.

The Marin rabbi says he can trace his family lineage to an 18th-century master kabbalist, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev in Ukraine. Wanting to fathom the universe as his ancestor did, Derby embarked on Jewish mystical study as a college student in Israel.

"As I became older, [Kabbalah] became an important part of my scholarship."

Derby says beginning Kabbalah students — particularly those who haven't been to synagogue since they dropped out of Sunday school — should learn Hebrew, one of the languages of Kabbalah's main text, the Zohar.

And finally, he says, beginners would be wise not to let their study become cult-like, focusing it around a particular person or paying large sums.

"There is some wonderful stuff out there and there are some ripoffs and not everyone can discriminate," agrees Jonathan Omer-Man, a longtime Jerusalem kabbalist who founded Metivta, a Jewish spiritual studies center in Los Angeles.

Omer-Man suggests that prospective students shop around before settling with one teacher, and should evaluate their own stability before delving into a practice that requires self-examination.

Kabbalist Daniel Matt of Berkeley elaborates.

"Freud says if you find out too much about yourself, you can go mad. Kabbalah appears to explain the heights of heaven. It really is a way to explore the depths of your own psyche."

Matt, a Jewish theology professor at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union, leads a worship service at Berkeley's Congregation Netivot Shalom that includes kabbalistic meditation.

The Kabbalah teacher prescribes meditation to balance the book learning of mysticism. He also suggests that students engage regularly with others to avoid getting lost in the boundless realm of altered consciousness.

"Carpools are a good test, where you have to be somewhere at a certain time," or "try to relate even momentarily with another person, like at the grocery checkout. Look the cashier in the eye and have an honest encounter."

While preparing for Kabbalah may involve intensive text study and fulfilling the 613 mitzvot, such activity isn't the only way, according to Rabbi David Cooper of Colorado, who was ordained in the Renewal movement.

"New-paradigm Judaism is saying that we need to have a new understanding of what it takes to be a frum Yid [pious Jew], to manifest a messianic consciousness," says Cooper, who operates a meditation retreat in Colorado.

The self-described post-denominational rabbi contends that the universal elements of Kabbalah can enrich anyone's spirituality. He encourages both Jews and non-Jews to develop a contemplative practice.

Cooper says he borrows from Jewish mystical concepts to help Jews connect with Judaism and to help Christians become better Christians. He tells his students that whether they are Jewish, Christian or Hindu, the first step toward mystical enlightenment is to build a "vessel," or personal spiritual foundation, to hold Kabbalah's teachings.

For Jews, building such a foundation hopefully would involve some Jewish observance, he said.

Cooper tells his students to slow down ritual observances, such as lighting Shabbat candles, to contemplate their meaning. The practice "must connect. Kabbalah can't be limited to that world of the mind."

Whatever one's approach to Kabbalah, the worst-case scenario is far less scary than Freud's forecast of possible insanity, say most of the spiritual leaders interviewed.

"The only pitfall is wasting your time," said Rabbi Alan Lew of the Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom. The one-time Buddhist still meditates regularly and leads his congregants in the practice before services and Torah study.

However, Lew maintains, one doesn't need Kabbalah to have an intimate relationship with the Divine.

"What's equally true is that Shabbat and daily prayer are concerned with that kind of Judaism.

"Stop doing activity for 24 hours and devote yourself to contemplation and experiencing your own spirituality and God. If you've been doing that and the other hallmarks of Judaism for 20 years or so," Lew said, "you can start thinking about Kabbalah."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.