Kabbalah and the superstars

January 31, 2005

I’D HAVE NEVER CHOSEN THE BOOK FROM THE CATALOGUE MYSELF. It was one of those ‘Editor’s Choice’ titles you get from the book club when you forget to send in your latest selection. But thumbing through the pages of The Autograph Man when I first opened the package, I was fascinated to pick up Hebrew letters and words. There was a fold-out chart with Hebrew terms. Even the tetragram YHWH jumped off the page at me – the Hebrew word for Yahweh. Yet a quick scan of some of the dialogue confirmed that this was no theology text. Nor was it a ‘celibacy for dummies’ manual.

It was a post-modern yarn about a young autograph-collector named Alex whose quest for a rare signature takes him from London to New York, half-heartedly guided by the Judaistic mysticism called Kabbalah.

Kabbalah is one of the trendiest faiths on today’s market, it seems, a ‘divine system of wisdom’ supposedly revealed by God to Abraham and Moses. Sounds almost biblical, but don’t be fooled.

Tomorrow’s Europe, I have been contending, will be primarily shaped by a spiritualist rather than a materialist outlook, and – failing a biblical revival – that means a non-biblical variety of spirituality. We wrote recently about the wise men from the East – probably Zoroastrians – who followed the star in the search for the King. There are many God-seekers today who think the last place they will find spirituality is in the church. I promised we would look at some of these streams of new spirituality. This week, it’s Kabbalah.

The Autograph Man was the first signal to me of a revival of interest in Kabbalah among trendy western city-dwellers. These include superstars like Britney Spears, David and Victoria (Posh) Beckham, Demi Moore, Mick Jagger, Naomi Campbell, Elizabeth Taylor and – perhaps most fanatically – Madonna.

Remember that fateful moment in last summer’s European Cup when David Beckham missed a penalty playing, knocking England out of the competition? As Beckham buried his head in his hands, all the world could see his thin red string wrist-band, the universal sign of a Kabbalah devotee. This bracelet, known as a bendel, is to protect the wearer from the evil eye. The trendy and hip can purchase such a piece of string for only ¬£27 at the London Kabbalah centre, or at any of the 50 Kabbalah Centre stores around the globe, or on the web. After all, when you’re in the public eye, that’s a small price to pay for protection against the negative force of ill will from others. How does it work? It simply radiates energy from Rachel’s burial stone in the Holy Land.

Other promised benefits of Kabbalah, include (more) wealth, sexual energy, passion, beauty, good relationships, love and happiness. And, according to one advertised package deal, protection against “bitter boyfriends, nasty cab-drivers, dirty looks, big fat liars, that person who wants your shoes, that person who wants your life, jealous co-workers, that so-called friend, rude waiters…”

In addition to bracelets, you can buy a small bottle of Kabbalah water for only ¬£2.80, blessed personally by Phillip Berg, Trendy Kabbalah’s leader, with “centuries of wisdom in every drop”. This water has supposedly been transformed into a ‘spiritual tool’ by a process called Quantum Resonance Technology. And for only ¬£78, special ‘blessed, restoring’ face cream can be yours.

The attraction of Kabbalah is simply self-evident. Only… the Beckham marriage seems a bit wobbly these days too; and it doesn’t seem to help with penalty shoot-outs. On the other hand, that was probably the moment when Beckham most needed protection from the negative force of ill will from millions of English fans!

Okay, we’re majoring in the minors here. So what is Kabbalah?

Kabbalah, a hebrew word meaning ‘receive’, is an ancient form of today’s so-called ‘New Spirituality’. The Kabbalah is part of the mystical Jewish tradition, dating back at least nine centuries. The origins are somewhat disputed, but it became widespread in Spain in the 13th century before the Jews were expelled. Traditional Kabbalah has been a secret activity, the exclusive domain of males over 40 years who had extensively studied the Torah, the Talmud and many other Jewish texts.

Its sacred text the Zohar, or Book of Splendour, is believed to explain the deepest mysteries of existence. This 12th-century manuscript (available for only ¬£289 at London’s Kabbalah Centre, or ¬£35 at most other religious bookstores) is said to be too complicated for the most eminent scholars but pop-Kabbalists can ‘read’ it simply by running their hands over the text. “It’s a bigger picture even than the Bible,” says Britney Spears, who has joined the red-wrist-band crowd eager to ‘receive’ from the Creator “who wants you to have everything you want”.

That includes the ability to see into the future, after week four in a ten-week course – which could be quite handy. You will learn about the spiritual laws of creation, the DNA of the cosmos. You will be able to tune yourself like a television set able to receive ‘rays of light’ (recognise the name of Madonna’s album from seven years ago, around the time when her interest in kabbalah began?). The ability to receive positive flow of energy will stop the ageing process – and who doesn’t want that? By meditating on some of the 72 Names of God, you can ‘bring more money into your life, ignite sexual energy and passion, meet your true soulmate and radiate beauty to all who see you’, according to the online store of the Kabbalah Centre.

Madonna – or ‘Esther’ to her fellow Kabbalah-followers – sells her childrens books through the Kabbalah Centre, including Mr Peabody, based on an ancient Kabbalah story. Proceeds from her title, The English Roses, go to the Kabbalah Centre’s Spirituality for Kids Foundation. Catch that? Spirituality for Kids. Madonna has become the highest-profile practioner of Kabbalah , wearing the bendel (the red-ill-will-repellant-energy-from-Rachel’s-burial-stone-wrist-band), and a T-shirt declaring “Kabbalists do it better” on her Re-Invention World Tour, along with tefellin, the small leather boxes strapped on the forehead and arms by Orthodox Jews during morning prayers, and containing portions of the Torah, the books of Moses.

How flattered then are Jewish communities by the popular interest in spirituality with an ancient Judaic flavour – among Jews and gentiles, superstars and ordinary fans? Well, about as excited as the Roman Catholic Church was with Madonna’s earlier phase of pseudo-spirituality. One rabbi from the Central London Synagogue says the condemnation is universal; no rabbinic authority would endorse this highly commercialised pop Judaica. Another said that Kabbalah outside the rooted traditions of Judaism, Kabbalah in a vacuum, was not real Jewish spirituality.

Madonna’s version of Kabbalah was started by a 75-year-old former insurance salesman Fievel Gruberger who re-invented himself as Philip Berg, and now has assets over $20 million. His son Yehuda Berg now heads the pop-Kabbalah movement, which bears less and less resemblance to ancient Kabbalah, and more and more to New Age spirituality. Astrology, numerology and “speed meditations” are part of the mish-mash of practices offered. Madonna’s Kabbalah can be incorporated into any faith, says one spokesperson.

And, judging from The Autograph Man, any sort of lifestyle.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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