Brazilian rabbi brings practical take on Kabbalah to S.F.

Studying Kabbalah has become stylish in the United States. Thanks to Rio de Janeiro's Rabbi Nilton Bonder, that Jewish mysticism is catching on in Brazil as well.

While Kabbalah is becoming a fad in the South American country, Bonder does not promote it as such. Rather, he applies the Jewish wisdom to life's basics, writing best-selling books on food, money and envy.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Bonder will bring his mystical bag to a seminar at The Learning Annex in San Francisco. He will be speaking about Kabbalah in the context of money and improving self-awareness.

The rabbi is a minor celebrity in his native country. He graces talk shows in Brazil with his baby face and good looks. In his spare time, he surfs. He also leads one of Brazil's largest synagogues, the 600-family Brazilian Jewish Congregation.

And his books are jumping off the shelves and into the hands of Brazilians from all backgrounds.

"The interest in Kabbalah has been very big," he said by phone from Rio de Janiero. "We have a blending of traditions — it's a big melting pot. There is a lot of interest for any kind of religious manifestation here."

Bonder's most popular work — he's sold over a half-million total copies in Brazil — has been a trilogy on the practical applications of mysticism. The three books are titled: "The Kabbalah of Money," "The Kabbalah of Food" and "The Kabbalah of Envy."

Those three themes come from a passage in the Talmud which uses a Hebrew pun, he said, to state that the three ways to know a person are by his or her glass, pocket and anger.

"I decided to apply those three aspects to [Jewish mysticism] and it turned out to be the Kabbalah of food, money, and for anger, I chose the most vicious kind, which ended up being envy," Bonder said.

The trilogy "is basically about how you can use Kabbalah to do anything," he added.

But don't expect Bonder to write the Kabbalah of headaches or commuting. His next book, titled "Immoral Soul," shifts away from his books on the Kabbalah of everyday life. The new book will concentrate on how ancient Jewish texts talk about "the importance of transgression and being able to break with everything," he said.

Bonder, who regularly visits the United States to lecture, received ordination from the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

In addition to being a spiritual guide, Bonder is active in civil rights activities, serving as president of the Institute of Religious Studies, a major forum for social action in South America. At the institute, he has headed educational programs in underdeveloped communities and led campaigns against hunger.

But at home and abroad, he is most recognized as a kabbalist. He has written 11 books which have been translated in several European languages and in Korean.

As a result, when the Brazilian press is looking for the Jewish take on an issue, Bonder said, it usually ends up coming to him.

"I'm like a reference for anything that has to do with Judaism or mysticism in general," he said. "I think it is a very interesting image for Judaism. I live in a country where there is a lot of ignorance. There is a lot of old stereotypes, and major damage done [to Judaism] over centuries by the church."

Bonder said he latched on to the accessible styles of kabbalah promoted in the United States as a way to reach a general public barely aware that Judaism exists.

In the way that founding kabbalists applied their theories to the Torah, Bonder said one can use mysticism to reveal deeper meaning and "break in" to any text.

"Anybody can benefit by looking between the lines," he said.

Ultimately, according to Bonder, Kabbalah helps one live "a more balanced and more healthy life. All one needs is a balance of different worlds. No one can be rich in only in one dimension."