The billboards along Los Angeles' famous Sunset Boulevard advertise all the latest in Hollywood's big trends: designer jeans, imported sports cars… and then there's the one with a hand sporting a red wool string, advertising Kabbalah. This ancient, esoteric form of Jewish mysticism has traditionally been practiced only by Jewish male scholars, but it has now hit the American mainstream, thanks in large part to the Kaballah Centre of Los Angeles.
About 30 members of the Centre gathered for a sidewalk celebration the day the billboard went up. Rabbi Yehuda Berg, whose father opened the first US Kabbalah Centre in New York almost 40 years ago, says study of the ancient mysteries is changing the lives of everyone. "People could be black, could be white, could be Jew, Hindu, Muslim, Christian," he says. "Kabbalah is for everyone and this sort of represents that."
Kabbalah is traditionally understood to be knowledge that addresses such unknowable questions as 'What is the nature of God?' -- sacred wisdom entrusted only to a select few. But the Kabbalah Centre is anything but traditional. Each Tuesday and Thursday night, it offers a free introductory lecture for anyone curious about Kabbalah. The talks draw all sorts of people: fashionable young women, teens with pierced ears, eyebrows and tongues, middle aged mothers, senior citizens. Instructor Jamie Green usually starts by explaining that Kabbalah is not a cult, or a philosophy, or even a religion. "I found the simplest way to truly describe what it is," he tells the class, "is that it's a system of technology. Just like if you were to have a computer at home."
To fully understand this mystical 'system of technology,' prospective students are encouraged to sign up for a 10 week course called "The Power of Kabbalah." These seminars get into more obscure areas including numerology and the 72 names of God that are used for meditation. The Centre also offers instruction on-line, through a toll-free phone number, and on CDs and tapes sold at the Centre bookstores. There are now more than 50 Kabbalah Centres throughout the world, from the Ivory Coast to Ecuador.
People are drawn to the Kabbalah Centre for all sorts of reasons. Sitting in the Kabbalah Centre's bookstore, 26-year-old Alison Cohen says she takes classes because Kabbalah helps her deal with life's tougher challenges. "Things happen to us," she says thoughtfully, "we go through pain and if you know how to handle it you can really pull through . You can get out of the victim consciousness of (thinking) 'Why is this happening to me?' So it feels good to be your own creator."
As she talks, cashiers are busy ringing up purchases. The Kabbalah Centre sells merchandise that's remarkably hip for a religious center. There are bottles of Kabbalah Mountain Spring Water, said to promote health, Kaballah key chains, diamond necklaces -- even an entire fashion line. And then, there's the red string, each piece cut from a long strand that was wrapped around the tomb of the biblical matriarch Rachel in Bethlehem. It is used as a tool by tying it around the left wrist almost like a bracelet. "We imbue ourselves with the power of (its) protection," Rabbi Berg explains, "protection from other people's judgment, other people's jealousy. You walk around and you feel people wanting from you, we've all had that, people just draining our energy. The red string helps protect us from that."
The red string has been popping up everywhere in recent months... among the teen accessories in large department stores… in fashion magazines, being worn by celebrities like Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Madonna. Madonna, who has studied at the Kabbalah Centre for several years, recently adopted a Hebrew name and joined other Centre members on a pilgrimage to Israel.
The Centre's trendy image and celebrity involvement has given Kabbalah a huge boost in popularity... but there may be more to why so many people are suddenly interested in this mystical part of Judaism. Daniel Matt has spent more than three decades studying Kabbalah and is currently translating the main text - the Zohar - from its original Aramaic. He says part of Kabbalah's appeal is that it's grounded in the real world. He jokes that it doesn't require meditating in a cave for 10 years to understand it. "Kabbalah demands that one be involved in community and family in the material world but that one try to find the divine spark within the material. So I think it may appeal to people who want spirituality but are not ready to give up materialism."
But some critics say that the Kabbalah Centre goes too far. Scholars like Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein fear it is turning a revered mystical tradition that belonged to the Jews into a mere fashion trend for the masses. "I don't know of any student of traditional Judaism who even entertains the notion that what's going on there is legitimate," the chair of Jewish ethics at Loyola Law School scoffs. The rabbi says it comes as no surprise that people flock to the Centre's distilled form of Kabbalah that doesn't require a serious commitment to Judaism. "There are lots of people who want gourmet answers to the problems of life but are only willing to pay fast food prices. All the gain and none of the pain. Folks, it doesn't work at the gym and it doesn't work in Kabbalah."
But Rabbi Adlerstein adds, the Jewish community shouldn't be too quick to condemn entirely... after all, he points out, the Kabbalah Centre has done an amazing job of making spiritual study attractive… something many modern Jewish synagogues have been unable to do.