Baal Shem Tov, or Besht — the founder of Chasidism —
The Kabbalah Centre
There's a lot to write about the Kabbalah "Centre". I first went in 1997, back when I was experimenting with how to create egalitarian Chasidus. During my three past years in LA, the Centre was the shul I would wander over to when nothing else was moving me, especially when any unusual Jewish observance was happening. My favorite weird encounter was standing in line to get my shadow checked on the full moon of Hoshana Rabbah, the last day of Sukkot.
Now a book on the Kabbalah Centre by Jody Myers, from CSUN, is out. I talked with Jody a few times while she was doing her research; we shared experiences, and I gave her some of my contacts whom I thought might make good informants. I haven't read the book yet, but knowing Jody I have no doubts about the quality of the work. Jody's book was reviewed in LA's Jewish Journal by Rob Eshman (derekh agav he and I went to college together). Click on the title to read Rob's article, "Maybe it's not so weird, after all".
Here's my quick read on what the Kabbalah looks according to the Centre's version: Human beings are born with a natural desire to receive that is stronger than their desire to give. Kabbalah teaches us how to realign ourselves so that the desire to give is greater than the desire to receive. More than this, it transforms our desire to receive so that ultimately we desire to receive only in order to give. (BTW, most of what I can explain clearly about the Centre's beliefs comes directly from conversations with my friend Chanoch ben Yaacov, a one-time core member there.)
Essentially, it's all about aligning ourselves in deed and character with Chesed, the Sefirah of lovingkindness. While this is a rather diminished version of the full picture of Kabbalah, it is one of Kabbalah's most essential teachings.
The potentially nasty part of their teaching comes in the next step: If you align yourself and your desires with the teachings of the Kabbalah (meaning, with the Centre), you can be wealthy, happy, in love, in good health. But that's not what I want to focus on here.
What is most unique about the Centre is its emphasis on bringing people who are not Jewish into the Kabbalah fold. This to me is their most significant accomplishment. Kabbalah can be a wellspring for the most racist theologies of Judaism (by which I mean, theologies which hold that there is an essential metaphysical superiority of Jews over non-Jews). Simply put, in some versions of Kabbalah, Jews have an entire dimension of soul which other people do not have.
As someone who really believes in egalitarianism on a spiritual level (along with all those other humanistic values of Western liberalism), I am grateful that the Centre has found a way to truly transcend this element and share Kabbalah—thereby embodying that principle of sharing which they espouse and which is so absent from the modern Haredi version of Kabbalah espoused for example by Rabbis like West Bank settler Yitzhak Ginsburg.
The Kabbalah Centre's version of Kabbalah lines up with Rav Yehuda Ashlag's teachings. R' Ashlag wrote the Sulam (meaning "Ladder"), a Lurianic commentary on the Zohar that also translates the entire Zohar from Aramaic into Hebrew. He believed that Kabbalah held teachings for all people and not just for Orthodox Jews, and he believed that the spreading of Kabbalah was necessary for bringing Mashiach. He was also a socialist, in the deepest sense, and an activist for laborers' rights. He lived on all levels his belief in an egalitarian society.
The same cannot be said of the Kabbalah Centre, with its emphasis on celebrity and wealth and expensive Kabbalah bling. But they do as well or better than a good many of the mainstream shuls in town like Temple Sinai, most of which would love to score a Madonna, or at least a Roseanne (who is born Jewish and who helps run the kid's school), if they only had the same level of "it" factor going for them.
If you're in LA, take in a service at the Centre, and see what can be used by the rest of us to make our davening deeper or more joyful. That's essentially Rob Eshman's point in his article. There's plenty of fluff and muck there to ignore, but there are also gems.
Yes, the Kabbalah Centre wants us to "realign ourselves so that the desire to give is greater than the desire to receive". And that desire to give should be to give to the Kabbalah Centre. I know they have helped lots of folks, but look at why so many former members are "former".
Posted by: Reb Zisia at December 25, 2007 4:46 PM
Please do not use the word 'give' but change it to 'share'. There is a difference between the two that is essential to this wisdom. When one gives even with the Mitzvah of Matanot Le'evyonim [gifts to the poor on Purim – DS] one gives with an expectation of receiving something back. Sharing has no expectation. It is similar to Torah Lishmo.
Posted by: Chanoch ben Yaacov at January 25, 2008 3:11 PM
This article is helpful. For more than four years now, I have been searching for a Chassidus teacher among the 26 Chabad Shluchim within a one hour drive, trying the JNet telephone learning service, and asking Rabbis on the AskMoses.com site. All classes are intro level, and I am going through the first book of Tanya for the 4th time. So I decided to just compromise and go to the Kabbalah Centre in Brookline, MA. And so far it is wonderful. A Carlebachian Rabbi friend suggested that so long as I recognize the Kabbalah Centre for what it truly is -- a place to take classes on Zohar -- then I should be fine. And Chabad Chassidus is so different, I expect I will still be able to shift into Chabad thought as needed.
Posted by: Avigayil Chana at June 13, 2008 6:22 AM
"There's plenty of fluff and muck there to ignore, but there are also gems."
The problem is that you can't reliably distinguish between the two, nor should you try. To suggest that one can separate the Center's teachings from its cult-like atmosphere, emphasis on money, commodification of Kabbalah and oppressive treatment of unpaid recruits is irresponsible. I find it impossible to believe that R. Ashlag would approve.
Posted by: JDE at February 2, 2011 8:45 PM
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