Australian rabbi warns against kabbalistic tricksters

Needy people are being roped in by shysters left and right, contends Rabbi Laibl Wolf. But these modern-day carnival barkers aren't sleazy lawyers or confidence men but quacks — kabbalistic quacks.

"Unfortunately, out there in the marketplace there are a lot of groups who purport to teach Kabbalah but are really causing a lot of harm by creating a dependency relationship. They're keeping the knowledge esoteric to keep people coming back again and again to try and understand the inscrutable," said Wolf, an Australian Lubavitcher-affiliated rabbi and kabbalistic lecturer and author.

"My approach is that the insight and knowledge is simple and was deliberately hidden for many centuries, because the time when the insights would be required only occurred in the modern age."

Wolf, a soft-spoken man with a crisp Australian accent, a black beret and a flowing white beard resembling an albino rhododendron bush, has lectured audiences from Asia to Israel to Brooklyn that the time for Kabbalah is now.

The rabbi, who will be appearing Tuesday at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, paraphrased a quote from the Kabbalah's main work, the Zohar, "There will come a time when the fountain of knowledge will burst open from above and below."

"We only have to look about us to see the kind of confusion we're living in within a mass society with information overload to recognize that we do need much more wisdom in our daily behavior and attitudes than what the headlines seem to be suggesting," the rabbi said in a phone interview from his Melbourne office.

And, in a time when the national and international moods are more aggressive — and, some would say, vindictive — than any other in recent memory, Wolf offers his advice on when it's acceptable to get angry: never.

For Jews, said the rabbi, anger is a sin just as frowned upon as idol worship.

"Anger is an attempt to control or dominate the other or the environment in order to alleviate one's own fears or insecurities," he said. "In other words, it's a purely selfish response allowing me to feel better."

Wolf is quick to admit, however, that English is far too limited a language to cover the myriad gradations of "anger" described in Hebrew, just as Eskimos have dozens of terms for the English word "snow."

"Just as Eskimos' survival depends on the subtle different qualities of snow," he said, "the Jewish people have survived to be the longest extant people in history, because we have such a developed understanding of the nature of the mind and emotions."

Not surprisingly, then, Wolf is far from angry at fellow Jews who turn to Buddhism or other philosophies to fulfill their spiritual needs. In fact, he feels "their goals are really to be applauded."

Yet, on the other hand, "I think the real pity is the very sad statement about how we, as Jews, have projected our faith so that it doesn't have the face of spiritual relevance," said Wolf, who recently met with the Dalai Lama to discuss the similarities between Buddhism and Judaism, of which Wolf believes there are many.

"If I were to meet a Jewish person at an Ashram or involved in Buddhist meditation, I would try to engage that Jewish person in terms of understanding how Jewish meditation works,'' added Wolf, whose San Francisco appearance is part of an 11-city U.S. speaking tour.

"How many synagogues or rabbis include Jewish meditative techniques in context with their prayer services or otherwise? How many Jewish teachers allow the depth of Kabbalah and Chassidism to add color to the study of Torah rather than just telling people what they're doing wrong and this is right?

"We are living at the point in history where people are seeking personal relevance beyond what seems to be obvious. This is where I think Judaism is missing the boat: in not addressing people's real core agenda to make their personal lives meaningful."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.