Friday, April 30, 2004

What the Doorknob Said: Yossi Klein Halevi's laugh-out-loud piece in TNR takes a peek into the inner sanctum of Hollywood Kabbalah, L.A.'s Kabbalah Centre. Sabbath dinner with Madonna, wearing a trucker cap instead of a kerchief! Purim with Demi Moore!

My only knowledge of Kabbalah comes from the rent-it-tonight movie Pi (sort of a self-consciously arthouse Boiler Room for the Orthodoxy -- but it works!) and from an old, reform Jew who told me her opinion that Kabbalah is to Judaism what Santaria is to Catholicism. It sounds like what the Kabbalah Centre is running is more like Judaism as a syncretism of new age and MLM:

There's . . . a chart of the 72 Hebrew names of God, as defined by Jewish mystics. Devotees wear t-shirts and truckers' caps imprinted with those names . . . The Centre calls Kabbalah "technology for the soul," and that's an apt description of its mechanistic approach. In the traditional Kabbalistic schools that have survived for centuries, the 72 names of God form the basis for arduous meditations and ascetic practices. Here, though, all you need to do is glance at the letters to be infused with their healing and invigorating power. In the Centre's literature, each name is endowed with a quality that can readily be accessed--such as "defusing negative energy and stress," "dumping depression," and "the power of prosperity." You can even call the Centre for a free ten-minute personal consultation with a highly trained 72-names specialist on how to find the name that best suits your needs . . . In the "Kabbalah Cafe," located in the courtyard, a sign reassures patrons that all coffee and tea is made with kabbalah mountain spring water, blessed by the Centre's leaders. An adjacent gift shop sells scented candles, for relaxation and better sex.
It gets better. As part of the Purim celebration
[a] group of children appears and begins singing Kabbalah songs. They are students at the Kabbalah Children's Academy--part of a nationwide network of Centre schools. "At first I was afraid/I was petrified," they sing, to the tune of "I Will Survive." "I was living life alone/with no Zohar in sight/Weren't we the ones who brought/all this chaos to our lives/come on, let's convert it/Let's knock this darkness to light."
Then Halavi asks the big question: What the hell are these people thinking? No, he asks it more politely:
Britney Spears was recently photographed on the cover of Entertainment Weekly wearing a red Kabbalah thread and in Us Weekly reading a Kabbalah book while lounging near a pool in Florida. Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, Courtney Love, and Roseanne have all been involved with the Centre; after Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall divorced, each reportedly sought the Centre's guidance.

Still, there's a mystery here. Why have so many apparently intelligent, successful people fallen for magical trinkets like blessed candles and red strings?

And, yes, I too am still waiting for him to name some of those "apparently intelligent" people. Think I'm being snarky?
The Rav leads his disciples in the Kaddish prayer, shouting its words as if in a rage. Then he interrupts the conventional service and begins chanting "Chernobyl" and other names I can't identify. A devotee explains, straight-faced, that these are all names of nuclear power plants: The Rav is trying to heal the problem of nuclear waste, which the Centre's devotees believe is spreading AIDS.
Oh, God, indeed! Actually, at the core it's simpler than all that jazz, which Halivi picks up on during a meditation on immortality:
Physical immortality? Was the Centre promising its people the end of death, the ultimate chaos? Did the Centre believe that we could literally become gods in these bodies? Could that explain its obsession with prolonging the life span, the eerie meditations on stem cells, the focus on the names of God as transformative agents for one's DNA, the blessed water that produces a "higher molecular order ... necessary for eternal cell regeneration"? According to Berg's book Immortality, yes.
I see. It's a metaphysical tummy-tuck, plus we'll do the transcendental tits at no charge this month. Little wonder this is big in L.A.

I have no beef with the religious. And none of the serious atheists and agnostics I know is of the denigrate-the-gullible-believers kind.) But I have no use for suckers tracking Ponce de Leon through P.O. box spirituality, all the while claiming devotion to an ancient tradition.

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