Tuesday, May 16, 2006

More complicated than the Hollywood facade

Kabbalists explore the mysticism within Judaism

Kristen Gunther

Posted: 5/12/06

Editor's Note: Today, people are increasingly using their beliefs in God, religion and faith to account for anything and everything, from reality television shows to waging wars. But with the interconnectedness of today's world, faiths and religions are continually intersecting and knowledge of what else exists is necessary. Over the past week, The Aggie looked into this vast subject, from how and why people have faith to various groups and beliefs within the community.

Most of us only know about Kabbalah through images of red bracelets on the likes of Britney Spears and Madonna. However, most Kabbalists unanimously agree that the faith is much deeper than what meets the eye on the pages of Us Weekly.

"It's an enormously difficult philosophy," said Davis Biale, director of Jewish studies at UC Davis. "It's a very symbolic philosophy."

According to junior Evan Mayse, a Jewsish studies major, Kabbalah is a movement within Judaism that cannot be understood without a firm understanding and a solid foundation in Jewish history and tradition. Kabbalah, in its essence, is Jewish mysticism.

"Mysticism seeks to capture an intimate relationship between the ordinary human being and the divine realm," Mayse said.

According to Biale, Kabbalah is not a religion or a practice, but theosophy, which means knowledge of God. The general belief is that God is organized in the form of the human body.

"Everything we do here on Earth affects this divine body so that we can create harmonies or disharmonies in the divine body," Biale said. "When we create disharmony by our actions, it produces evil."

Evil, according to Biale, is a waste product of God when God is in disharmony. This is where the red bracelet, which has become a visual trademark of Kabbalah, comes into play. Traditionally in Judaism, red defends against evil. Biale said the bracelet stems from Jewish folklore and is supposedly a magical defense against demons.

Rabbi Mona Alfi of Hillel on A Street said Kabbalah is more heavily focused on the self and inner spirituality than on traditional Judaism. Rabbi Shmary Brownstein of Chabad on Third Street describes Kabbalah as "the soul of Judaism."

According to Alfi, one must be "fully immersed in Jewish knowledge," making Kabbalah more of a common practice among seasoned, and consequentially older, Jews. Because of the intricacy of Kabbalah, there are very few who study the subject.

Mayse is not your typical Jewish college student. He is a serious scholar of Judaism and teaches classes in both religious studies and Hebrew at Congregation Bet Haverim, a synagogue in Davis. Additionally, he works at the Hillel house and tutors independently.

"Students are often very enthralled by Kabbalah," Mayse said. "Mystical ideas are very interesting."

There are several reasons for the complexity of Kabbalah, including the time span and depth of Judaism. According to Mayse, the origins of Kabbalah can be traced back 2,000 years; Judaism is thought to be about 4,000 years old.

Alfi attributes the complexity of Judaism to its all-encompassing nature. Some approach Judaism in a more academic fashion, while others take a more spiritual, Kabbalist approach.

"Judaism is not a one-size-fits-all religion," Alfi said.

According to Biale, Kabbalah and a similar sect of Judaism known as Hasidism are ways to add layers onto the core principles of Judaism by performing one's actions with certain intentions. For example, the central focus of Chabad is performing outreach work in the Jewish community.

"The focus on outreach is an outcome of the philosophy," Brownstein said.

This makes sense when one consider the meaning of the word "Kabbalah."

"Literally translated, Kabbalah means 'to receive' in Hebrew," said UC Davis alumna Erica Ramone. "The idea here is to receive with the intention of and in order to give, share with others, et cetera."

According to Biale, there are three sacred texts in Judaism: The Bible, the Talmud and the Zohar. The Zohar, or Book of Splendor, is the most classical work of Kabbalah. The Zohar was compiled in the 13th century, although research shows the ideas of the book were formulated much earlier and is written in Aramaic, the language believed to have been spoken by Jesus.

Although the Kabbalah Centre's website, at, does advocate the Zohar, it claims that Kabbalah is more of a science than mysticism and can be practiced by anyone of any religious affiliation. This disregard of exclusive Jewish roots is what has many scholars skeptical about the validity of the increasingly trendy Kabbalah Centre.

"It is not its own religion but just one of the many components that make up Judaism," said junior Neuriel Shore.

The Kabbalah Centre website offers online courses and all sorts of Kabbalah paraphernalia available through their store. According to Mayse, it's easy for people to have access to the Kabbalah Centre and its teachings because of their prevalence on the Internet.

"It feeds people what they're yearning for," Mayse said. "It gives people mystical and spiritual development without asking for anything besides money."

Media portrayals of red bracelets and bottles of Kabbalah water leave many confused about the true meaning of Kabbalah. To the uninformed, Kabbalah can come across as "something quasi-Eastern; something that would happen in Berkeley," according to Mayse.

There are many resources in the Davis community that can help dispel the myths about Kabbalah's teachings. For those who are interested in learning more, the Chabad house offers Kabbalah classes every Sunday night at 7. The public is welcome to attend.

KRISTEN GUNTHER can be reached at

© Copyright 2006 The California Aggie

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