We are stardust, We are golden,
We are billion-year-old carbon,
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden.
"Woodstock," Joni Mitchell
For a short while in 2004, Target discount stores were selling a red string bracelet as part of a Red String Package for $25.99. The source of this bracelet was the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles (Heather Svokos, "Kabbalah bracelets strung up in serious religious debate," Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Aug 18, 2004, www.dfw.com/mld/dfw/living/9380270.htm?1c ). Called a bendel, it has adorned the wrists of stars like Madonna and Britney Spears, both of whom have been studying this form of Jewish mysticism at the Kabbalah Center (various spellings for Kabbalah include Qabala, Kabballa, Kabala, and others). An authentic bendel has been cut from a long string wrapped seven times around the tomb of the biblical matriarch Rachel in Bethlehem (Svokos). Wearing this purportedly brings protection and luck. The Kabbalah Centre also sells Kabbalah water, supposedly charged with "positive energy" (Jim Remsen, "Kabbalah secrets on the Main Line," The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 31, 2003, http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/magazine/daily/6422453.htm ).
The Kabbalah Centre, run by Rabbi Philip Berg (who writes as Rav P. S. Berg), has at least fifty locations around the world, and has distributed millions of books translated into twenty languages (Michael Berg, The Secret [NY, NY: The Kabbalah Centre, 2004], 89). One of Berg's sons, Rabbi Yehuda Berg, authored The Power of Kabbalah and The 72 Names of God: Technology for the Soul (Kabbalah Publishing, 2003). Rabbi Michael Berg, Berg's other son, is editor of the 22 volumes of the Zohar, the sacred text of the Kabbalah, and has written books as well, including The Secret and Becoming God. A promotional quote from page 16 of this book, released in September, 2004, states: "The truth is, we are destined to become God but pose as ants, indifferent to the ghastly spread between what we are and what we could be."
According to Yehuda Berg, more than 18,000 students are enrolled in Kabbalah Centre classes in the United States, and another 90,000 are ``active members." The organization's Web site is visited by 90,000 people monthly''(Debra Nussbaum Cohen, "Jewish Mysticism Goes POP," New York Times, Dec 15, 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/13/national/13RELI.html .)
Berg has popularized Kabbalah, and some say, commercialized it, offering it to anyone willing to study. Traditionally, Kabbalah is studied only by married Jewish men over the age of 40 who have studied the Torah (Remsen). However, the Kabbalah was already riding a wave into mainstream culture via other writers such as Rabbi David Cooper, whose book, God Is A Verb, was a bestseller in the late 1990's, and Kabbalah scholar Daniel C. Matt.
Kabbalah is a body of mystical and esoteric beliefs based on commentaries on the Torah, the first five books of Hebrew Scripture (Genesis to Deuteronomy). The term Kabbalah comes from a Hebrew root word, kbl, "to receive" (Rabbi David A. Cooper, God is A Verb [NY: Riverhead Books, 1997], 11). According to Jewish Talmudic teachings, the secrets of the Kabbalah are to be "carefully controlled" (Cooper, vii). Rabbi Cooper says that Jewish mysticism satisfies a need for a "connection with the great unknown; we want to experience the secrets of other realities and the meaning of life" (Cooper, viii). The Kabbalah "discusses angels and demons, souls' journeys after death, reincarnation, resurrection, and the goal of achieving messianic consciousness," topics which make some Jewish teachers uncomfortable (Cooper, viii).
Kabbalah "predates and transcends" any religion or nation, according to Philip Berg of the Kabbalah Centre (Rav P. S. Berg, The Essential Zohar [NY: Bell Tower, Crown Publishing Group: 2002), 61, 211]. It is not about "rote obedience of laws and commands," but is rather a spiritual tool to enable us to regain unity with God, "to reenter the Eden from which we were exiled" (Berg, 4). "Linear, mechanistic" ways of "rational thought" need to be set aside in order to fully grasp Kabbalah teachings (Berg, 3). Yehuda Berg states that Kabbalah is the "hidden wisdom" that has been kept secret for centuries but now this teaching is coming into the open for a society fraught with social and spiritual problems (Yehuda Berg, The Power of the Kabbalah [Kabbalah Centre International, 2001], xix, xxv, xxvi).
The Kabbalah is a body of teachings that incorporates many writings, but the fundamental text of the Kabbalah is the Sefer ha-Zohar, commonly called the Zohar, which means "The Book of Radiance" or "the Book of Splendor." This multi-volume text recounts conversations between legendary rabbis interspersed with commentaries on the hidden meanings of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures. The entire scriptures are considered a code, an "encrypted document" with hidden meaning, which must be discovered (decoded) and interpreted (P. Berg, 61, 211: Y. Berg, 46-47).
Matt states that the Zohar is a commentary on the Torah, "written in the form of a mystical novel," that reveals the deeper level of meanings in the Torah (Daniel C. Matt, Zohar: Annotated and Explained [Woodstock, VT: Skylights Path Publishing, 2002], xxi). One method of discovering the deeper or "secret" meanings of words in the Torah is through gematria. There are several variations of gematria, but essentially it is a system in which each Hebrew letter is assigned a numerical value and certain procedures are performed using these numbers in order to "decode" the underlying message of the text (Cooper, 52-53).
Cooper, like Matt, teaches that the Torah can be studied on four levels, represented by the acronym P-R-D-S, which stands for pardes, meaning an orchard or garden. The P is for p'shat and represents the literal level; the R is for remez, meaning the metaphors, allegories, and parables of the text; the D is drosh, which is using additional material to interpret the text; and S is samekh, the "secret, hidden meanings that offer insights into the structure of the universe"(Cooper, 47). This deepest level is very difficult and can only be grasped after "considerable study" (Cooper, 50). The Torah is seen as a coded book that contains all the "wisdom of creation" (Cooper, 53).
The earliest teaching of the Kabbalah is The Book of Formation, allegedly revealed by the Creator to Abraham around 2000 B.C. (P. Berg, 5; Y. Berg, 232). Yehuda Berg claims that both The Book of Mormon and the Koran cite this book, and that wisdom from this teaching went East and developed the religions we know today as Hinduism and Zen Buddhism (Y. Berg, 232).
The next foundational piece was the 10 Commandments given to Moses. However, supposedly these were not really commandments but allegedly a code for the Ten Sefirot, which are emanations or aspects of God's nature. According to Yehuda Berg, Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle were influenced by the early Kabbalah before its full revelation was given to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai around 160 A.D., when he revealed the full body of knowledge in the Zohar, which explained the secrets of The Book of Formation (Y. Berg, 234, 236). Shimon's master was the legendary Rabbi Akiva, a figure referred to often in Kabbalah teachings.
Allegedly concealed for centuries, Zohar manuscripts in Aramaic were uncovered by the Spanish Kabbalist Moses de Leon in the 13th century. He claimed to have copied these manuscripts, which contained symbolism, "invented words," and "erotic symbolism" (Matt, xxiv ). It is believed, however, that Moses de Leon wrote some of the text, perhaps with other kabbalists; parts of the Zohar may have been transmitted through automatic writing, a technique not unknown to kabbalists who meditated on a divine name of God, went into trance, and then wrote down words as their hands were guided (Matt, xxiv). Further revelation came in the 16th century with the commentary of Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as The Ari, or "Holy Lion." Luria's teachings became the "definitive school of Kabbalistic thought" (Y. Berg, 241). Other students of the Kabbalah, according to Yehuda Berg, were Dr. John Dee, royal astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, and Sir Isaac Newton (Y. Berg, 241-42, 245).
Matt states that the Zohar has many unknown words, puzzles, grammatical mistakes, oxymorons, puns, parables, and contradictory statements, forcing the reader to search for the meaning and to examine normal assumptions about God and about one's self (Matt, xxv). The Zohar itself is believed to have a mystical effect on the world when its teachings are revealed. When one learns to use the tools of Kabbalah, "we reveal Light in the world and hasten the return to Eden" (P. Berg, 118).