Friday, 26 December 2003

Jewish mysticism, vogue style

What do you get when you throw Judaism, Madonna, Inspiration oil, and fuzzy thinking into a box and give it a shake? The modern Kabbalah (1, 2) movement.

Today the San Francisco Chronicle took a critical look at two waves of resurgence of interest in Jewish mysticism, in 1997 and 2003 ("New interest in Jewish mysticism: Anxious times, celebrities ignite revival of Kabbalah"). This comes a mere ten days after the Chronicle reviewed the just-published first volume of Daniel Matt's new translation and commentary on The Zohar.

Here are a few quotes from today's effort (hyperlinks added):

  • Although the latest revival of interest dates back to 1997, when Madonna publicly embraced it, Kabbalah has reached new heights of popularity this year.
  • Kabbalah paraphernalia on the EBay auction site ranges from red string bracelets to ward off the evil eye — "Mystical Momma" is one of the bidders — to rare healing amulets from North Africa. And the Kabbalah Centre International chain is selling "Inspiration" oil, made with "pure Kabbalah water," for $10 a bottle.
  • "People have done the material [1, 2] thing," said Yossi Offenberg, program manager at the [San Francisco] Jewish Community Center. "But there's still emptiness. Kabbalah seems to be the right address." It's not the easiest address to find. Kabbalah is arcane, obscure and inaccessible. Daniel Matt's new translation of "The Zohar," Kabbalah's central text, has just been published. It is 482 pages, with more volumes to come.
  • "Kabbalah teaches that every single person is a divine spark in the world, " [Rabbi Shlomo] Zarchi said. "Every creation has worth. It can teach us who we are and what is the nature of a soul. Ultimately, Kabbalah is the wisdom of the divine. It deals with ideas that transcend our five senses. It gives us the terminology and wisdom to access divine energy." Numerology and astrology play a role in Kabbalah, since almost everything is symbolic of something else. "If it wasn't complicated, it wouldn't be the real thing," Zarchi said.
  • "I'm concerned about the idea someone can study Kabbalah apart from the rest of Jewish tradition," [Rabbi Yoel] Kahn [of Congregation Shir Shalom in San Francisco] said. "It's similar to the way pop culture discovers sweat lodges or meditation." Barry Mark, who just finished teaching a class at San Francisco State on the history of Kabbalah, said, "There's a sense its inaccessibility is what makes it so attractive."
  • Another force behind "Kabbalah nouveau," as Zarchi called it, has nothing to do with light or darkness and everything to do with Hollywood: the discipline's celebrity following includes [Madonna,] Britney Spears, Roseanne Barr, Courtney Love and Barbra Streisand. "Not everyone will say, 'I came to the Kabbalah class because Madonna or Britney Spears thinks it's cool.' One or two will say it, and there will be a muffled giggle," Zarchi said. "But 35 or 40 will be thinking the same thing."

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    Topics: Skeptical Inquiry
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