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Jewish mysticism attracts big stars

Published Sep. 29, 2005

In our celebrity-saturated society, the hairstyles, diets, physical exercises, sexual practices, clothing (or lack of it) and political views of film and television stars have extraordinary impact upon people throughout the world. So it is not surprising that what celebrities profess about God, the soul, prayer and the world to come also attract wide public attention.

Amazingly, the Kabbalah, one of Judaism's most esoteric areas of spiritual disciplines, is an extremely "hot" item in the current spiritual climate of Hollywood. But then yoga, Wicca witches, Zen Buddhism and a myriad of cults are also prominent among rich and famous entertainers.

That the Kabbalah (which in Hebrew means "that which is received") should attract devotees such as Roseanne, Jeff Goldblum, Elizabeth Taylor and Madonna takes some getting used to.

Until recently, the mystical teachings of Kabbalah were almost unknown to the general public. Indeed, the Kabbalah was usually reserved for the select few who were taught in small elite groups. It was said that Kabbalistic secrets were mysteriously passed "from the mouth of the master to the ear of the disciple."

Because fundamental Kabbalistic teachings are so potent, the ancient rabbis warned that "Only one who is over 40 years of age, whose belly is full of Talmudic knowledge, and who is married should be admitted to mystical exercises and speculations."

The Kabbalah originated in the 12th century among Jews of southern France and Spain who ardently sought to "know" God through a "higher" form of reality.

This "knowledge" of God was gained through an intensive study of the Bible as well as the great Jewish mystical volume called the Zohar, or "Book of Splendor." The world in which we dwell is only a visible sign of a greater unseen reality which cannot be perceived by the five senses. But everything in the material world is directly connected to its spiritual counterpart in the higher realm of God.

Kabbalah's eternal promise is to link the two realities into a harmonious unity within each person. The Jewish mystics taught that this striving for unity is a two-way process. Here on Earth, we are, of course, influenced by the "higher sphere," or God. But _ and this is the message many students of Kabbalah are so eager to hear _ human beings are active co-workers with God, even co-creators with the Divine.

The sublime message that we are partners with God is contained within the Bible, but it is encoded and only the Kabbalist is able to decode the mystical meaning of the thousands of Hebrew letters and words that compose Holy Scripture. Once students of mysticism have been taught this "hidden" biblical message, they can experience unity with divinity and their lives are permanently changed.

Another major Kabbalistic concept was added in the 16th century by Rabbi Isaac Luria who taught in the Upper Galilee city of Safed, still a center of mysticism and art in modern Israel. Luria believed that when the world was first created, human unity and direct knowledge of God was shattered into many pieces or "sparks." As a result the world is chaotic and demonic, both for individuals and society. However, each broken fragment contains a bit of God's presence, and Luria taught it is our task to reassemble those fragments through a process called Tikkun Olam, or mending the world. Indeed, this is our basic mission on Earth, and it is achieved through the mystical experience.

Even this brief description of the Kabbalah reveals its complexity and spiritual intensity. Jewish mysticism is not for dabblers or dilettantes. Rather, the Kabbalah requires arduous study, excruciating introspection and profound prayer. It is definitely not a religious quick fix nor does it provide a fast rush for students. Jewish mysticism is a lifelong quest to understand oneself, the world and the God of creation.

But the question remains: Why are film and TV stars so attracted to the highly difficult world of Kabbalah? Perhaps it is because, unlike most of us, their professional careers are similar to the mystic's universe: divided into two distinct sets of "reality." There is the "lower" existence where celebrities act out roles on the movie screen or TV, but they also artfully conceal their "higher" or true identities from audiences and frequently from themselves.

As a result, the stars of the entertainment world eagerly, even desperately, seek to unite the broken fragments of their lives. Through the mystical process of Tikkun they attempt to mend themselves into a single authentic personality.

_ Rabbi Rudin is the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.