K Is for Kabbalah

In this amusing face-to-face interview with Rachel Wilkinson, religious studies professor Richard D. Hecht compares Kabbala the ancient Jewish mystical tradition with Kabbalah the spiritual trend popularized by Madonna (the Hollywood celebrity, not Jesus’s mom). The professor concludes that the latter is not really Judiasm per se but that it is a brand new religion.

Hecht is a frequent contributor of articles, reviews, and editorials to newspapers and magazines in addition to the usual peer-reviewed academic journals and textbook chapters. Wilkinson is majoring in Comparative Literature at UCSB and interning at the Independent.

What is Kabbalah?

Kabbalah literally means “tradition” and it’s taken to refer to the Jewish mystical tradition. When you think of tradition you think of something that’s unified, but Kabbalistic tradition is very gated. So part of the tradition of Kabbalah dates from the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries of the Common Era. And it’s very different from the Kabbalistic or mystical traditions of the middle ages from the 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries. And that tradition is very different from what we would call modern Kabbalah which would date from the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, and even into the 20th century. It’s used to refer in general to the very diverse components of Jewish mysticism.

You mentioned Jewish mysticism. What is this exactly? Is it rituals, or more a set of knowledge?

The emphasis of Kabbalah is knowledge rather than specific practices. In general a Jewish mystic would belong to the Jewish tradition; therefore everything that is appropriate for a Jewish person would also be appropriate for a mystic. They follow all aspects of the Torah. As a system of knowledge or learning, Kabbalah gives emphasis to understanding rather than experience. In other words it de-emphasizes the experiential and emphasizes the ways that we understand the world, god, the creative processes that formed the world. What the human being is, what the destiny of the human being is, etc. I think this is why it very different from other forms of mysticism, say, in the history of Christianity, or in the history of Hinduism or Buddhism because of the weight that is given to Kabbalah as a system of understanding.

You mentioned that Kabbalists follow Jewish tradition. How does this tie into what I’ve read about Kabbalah which states that you do not need to be Jewish to be a follower?

One of the most interesting phenomena in the contemporary is the success of people who bring the Kabbalah to the larger world, whether that larger world is the Jewish tradition, the Jewish community, or even the non-Jewish world. In fact, one of the most popular forms of what we would call the contemporary appropriation of Kabbalah is the Kabbalah Centre which began I believe in Los Angeles and has spread all over the world. Looking at their website, it’s fantastic, here are lectures on DVD, on CD, free Kabbalah lectures every Tuesday and Thursday. Their upcoming classes: “Power of Kabbalah 1,” you know, it’s like Biology 1 or something. It’s a fantastic appropriation of the Jewish mystical tradition, it’s dispensed as a kind of popular religion to both Jews and non-Jews. Of course you know that Madonna appropriated the Kabbalah, and apparently there are many celebrities who follow this version of Kabbalah. Now, if you were to take this to real Kabbalists-mekubalim as they’re known in Hebrew-if you were to take this sort of thing to the Kabbalists they would sneer at it, they would laugh at it. For in fact, Kabbalah is a sort of secret knowledge, an esoteric knowledge. It’s not knowledge that I need, as a Jewish person, to do what I must do as a Jew. Therefore presenting it in this way, I think, negates many of the aspects of the traditional Jewish mystical tradition. I would call this kind of Kabbalah an example of a new religion. It’s not Judaism per se; it’s a new religion like many other new religions that are successful-just as one would say the Mormons are a new religion of the 19th century. There are many others, like the Seventh Day Adventists. Perhaps the most successful new religion is a religion from Los Angeles which is Pentecostal Christianity, which began in the first and second decades of the 20th century. This kind of Kabbalah in my opinion is not Judaism. The founders may be Jewish, they may say they are Jewish, but I think we would best describe them as [promulgating] a new religion.

Original, traditional Kabbalah comes from Judaism, is practiced by Jews, but this is different?

It’s a new religion. In other words, they are supplying everything that a traditional religion would supply. You know, they have a total world view, they have a charitable foundation, they provide elderly with support, they provide you with support. Look here-they have student support, you can get fellowships by calling 1-800-Kabbalah.

So, who was originally allowed to learn Kabbalah, and why was it’s teaching secretive, or as you said esoteric. Who were the privileged few, and why?

Well usually I mean I’ve heard it said that to study the texts of Kabbalah you should have gray hair and you should have at least two children. In other words, that you should be mature. Forties, or something. And of course it was a male thing, Jewish women were not allowed access to this type of knowledge. That’s the original type of Kabbalah. It requires extraordinary linguistic capability. For example one of the most important Kabbalistic texts is the Zohar, which means the Book of Splendor. Now I notice here that sells copies of it. Let’s read more about this. For $415 dollars you can buy this. Now I suspect that this is the old Soncino attempt at translation. But there is no complete translation of the Zohar. In fact there’s a great Jewish scholar by the name of Danny Matt who is working on a translation of the Zohar; he’s published three volumes of it. But it’s a lifetime work. This, whatever it is, is not the Zohar. I don’t know what it is. You know, you can get the Zohar Packages-the Becoming Like God Package, the 72 Names of God Package, you can get the Power of the Kabbalah Package for $495 dollars. I don’t know what this is. I know at the beginning of the 20th century there was an effort to translate the Zohar into English, but it’s poor, it’s a horrible translation which only translates a very small part of the Zohar. I don’t know what this is.

So, was the Kabbalah originally in Hebrew, and what is it that makes it so difficult to translate?

The Zohar was written in Aramaic, other texts of the Kabbalah are in Hebrew, some in Yiddish, but it’s a very, very difficult Hebrew. For example one of the most powerful works is called Etz Chaim which is by Isaac Luria and this is such an incredibly difficult book. The Hebrew-I mean you can read it, but what does it mean? It’s extraordinary. But once again, here you can buy the 18-volume Hebrew publications of Isaac Luria for $265. Look at this-you can even get the red string. Ha ha! The red string, do you know about this?

I was actually going to ask you, I know Madonna and what-not wear it to symbolize Kabbalah. What is its meaning, and was that part of the original Kabbalah tradition?

Well you see you can buy the red string package, the red string combo package. And of course this is popularized by Madonna, but they have been using this red thread for awhile. But I would suggest that this is completely inappropriate within the Jewish tradition, because there’s a whole list of things that you should not do because they are done by non-Jews. One of them is tying a string around your finger, or a string around your wrist. Any type of string-black, yellow, red. So this is not something that Jews would traditionally engage in. Of course there are Jewish talismans, amulets, etcetera, but those are really outside of the normative tradition of Judaism.

I’ve also seen things about Kabbalah Energy drinks, etc. One, what is the significance of these drinks, and what is your opinion about products like this and the red string, do you think it helps spread the knowledge of Kabbalah or is it disrespectful because it’s a kind of gimmick?

Well, I don’t know what Kabbalah Energy drinks are. It’s not a question of disrespect. It’s an example of the formation of a modern religious tradition which must commodify itself. It produces commodities in order to fit into the economic world. In Beverly Hills where the Kabbalah Centre is, by the way. It started in this one room office on Westwood Boulevard on the corner of Westwood and Pico, I remember it many years ago. And now it’s tremendously successful and is all over the world. It has commodified itself. So if you want to participate in this religious world of the contemporary, and you’re a new religion, you’d better have something you can sell people, whether it’s books, red string, Kabbalah drinks, diet whatever, audio tapes, candles, all kinds of things. Calendars, incense, journals, music, etcetera. This is amazing.

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