Friday, September 11, 2009

Popular Kabbalah

The conventional wisdom about the Kabbalah Centre and its founders and leaders, the Bergs is that it is at best a distortion of what Kabbalah truly is. At worst it makes a mockery of Judaism. I tend to more or less agree with that assessment.

Some say that the entire enterprise is a fraud and nothing but a huge ‘cash cow’ for its founders. A cash cow it is. Does that make them a completely evil enterprise?

I’m not sure it is entirely a fraud - at least not intentionally. I think they actually believe in what they are doing although the money they make is no small part of it.

There is an article in the Jerusalem Post (republished in VIN) which seems to put a positive spin on its accomplishments. That’s what comes through in an interview with Karen Berg the wife of founder Philip Berg.

First I want to make clear that I do not believe even for a moment that institution is in any way a legitimate expression of Judaism. On the contrary. I think it distorts Judaism. I do not support it.

I am far from an expert on Kabbalah. In fact I tend to avoid the subject entirely since I do not begin to understand any of it. I often wonder about those who say they do. But I trust the virtually unanimous view of Orthodox rabbinic opinion that rejects the Kabbalah Centre and its founders. Its founders are apparently Orthodox but they are distorters of the truth – whether intentionally or otherwise. They have been completely ostracized by virtually all of Orthodoxy. Rightly so.

But one tries to look for the good in anything. No less in a movement that to date has become a mega success in the non Jewish world.

The stated goal of this movement is to spread the ‘truth’ of Kabbalah and its benefits to non Jews. Whether that is even permissible or not is certainly a question. But it is being done. It is a fact of life. Big time. One of its most famous adherents is the entertainer Madonna.

Now Madonna is not someone I would choose to be my ambassador for anything Jewish. Her act is indeed immoral and anathematic to Judaism. She still dances around on stage half naked and I’m told makes some pretty obscene gestures in her show.

But what may not be noticed in all of that immoral dancing and prancing she does - is that in her private life she actually has improved herself. And she did so using Jewish sources – the Kabbalah as she understands it. Whether or not the Kabbalah she studied is accurate or not is not the issue. The fact is that Kabbalah identifiably Jewish. Whatever it is she learned, it is somehow Jewish in nature. One can see this in many of the interviews she has done. And she has incorporated those values into her private life.

This is not only true for her - it is true for many other celebrities. I am not going to list them but they are well known names – most of them non Jews.

I happen to believe that is a good thing. Why? Because it makes Judaism look good in the eyes of popular figures that have a lot of influence on the public. It’s too bad that they have found an illegitimate version of Judaism to wrap their heads around. But as illegitimate as it is – it is based on something that is authentically Jewish - Kabbalah. They all claim to have bettered their lives spiritually through it. How can that be a bad thing?

What is more important, it has put Judaism on the map to thousands of unaffiliated youth who look to these people as icons to be copied. A young Jew now knows about Kabbalah and may be curious enough go to the Kabbalah Centre just to see what it’s all about. They may stay there and go astray –or they may seek additional sources that are legitimate to find out more.

In a way the Kabbalah Centre can be seen as a Kiruv tool. This would not be my first choice – or any choice for a Kiruv tool – but there it is. Additionally it may be looked at as a way for non Jews to improve their lives – giving credit to things Jewish.

I’m not worried about this becoming mainstream among committed Jews. We all know this ‘Kabbalah’ is not legitimate. No religious Jew will be enticed by it. It is not designed for them by the Centere’s own admission. It is mostly designed for non Jews and unaffiliated Jews.

There is however the possibility that some unaffiliated Jews will buy into that completely without doing any further investigation into authentic Judaism. But will that make them any worse off than before – when they were totally assimilated?

The only drawback that I see is that eventually this entire enterprise will fall out of favor – and be seen for the illegitimacy that it is. If that happens all those celebrities who once swore by it will then condemn it – and by inference Judaism as well. That is a bad thing which may argue for a complete condemnation at any level.

But as of now, this is not the case. It has been – and still is -attracting people in droves all across the world. The vast majority of people who have experienced it - support it.

So I end up with mixed views about them. There’s good and bad in everything I guess.