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Thursday, April 17, 2008


In a world where everyone is angling for a piece of the kabbalah mystique – an esoteric occult offshoot of Judaism dating at least to the 13th century – the Los Angeles centre has been attracting Hollywood glitterati since it opened its doors in 1993. And who can blame the neighbouring institutions – the bevy of run-down ultra-Orthodox yeshivas [seminaries] and religious girls' high schools, many of which have their own makeshift signs attesting to introductory kabbalah classes – for trying to cut in on a share of the booty? It all looks so easy, not to mention remunerative, thanks to the pricey little trinkets offered in the centre's store (ranging from red kabbalah bracelets at $26 a pop to bottles of kabbalah water at nearly $4 apiece) and to the hefty donations solicited from members old and new.

The history of kabbalah is long and thorny, filled with reversals in attitude toward the dissemination of its wisdom. It has been looked on with suspicion and even hostility by some Jewish authorities since it first emerged, its lore codified in a text known as the Zohar, the authorship of which some attribute to the Spanish rabbi Moses de Leon in the 13th century and others to the Palestinian sage Simeon ben Yohai in the second century. Some principal ideas include a very specific and radical notion of cosmology, one that involves an initial cataclysmic "rupture", or literally "shattering of the vessels", that occurred during the Creation, leaving in its wake a fragmented and disordered state of affairs that can be made whole through selfless devotion to repairing the world. A second major theme focuses on a conception of God's powers as being dynamic – God is evoked as a receptive female presence called the Shechinah – and the idea that human beings can unite with the divine spirit through meditation and by following the panoply of religious commandments, thereby restoring the universe to its original integrity.
Although kabbalah was studied from early on by elite circles of Spanish Jews and from the 15th century to the 18th century by scattered communities in the European and Islamic worlds, the prevailing attitude within the mainstream Jewish community was restrictive. Fear of its contradictory implications being ever present, kabbalah was generally considered to verge on the dangerously heretical in its speculative and personalised approach to a hidebound and communal religious tradition. It was tenuously approved for study only for devout married men over the age of 40 who were well versed in Jewish law or for exceptionally gifted and sturdy-hearted yeshiva students. Kabbalah


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