The likes of Madonna, Demi Moore and Britney Spears have brought the ancient Jewish mystical practice and teachings of Kabbalah into mainstream pop culture. The ladies are photographed wearing superstitious red-string bracelets; they drink specially blessed water and, most controversially, they have raised the profile of the Kabbalah Centre.
The center, which is not tied to any mainstream Jewish denomination, has been slammed by critics in the Jewish community who accuse it of routinely offering Kabbalah-lite to followers who are not Jewish and who lack even basic knowledge of Torah and Judaism.
Rabbi Naftali Citron, religious leader of Manhattan’s Carlebach Shul, isn’t offering up such zingers, but he willingly admits that he is on a mission to break the center’s increasingly firm grip on the public’s image of Kabbalah.
“I’m not here to put down the Kabbalah Centre, but for good or for bad, the reality is for most people, when they say Kabbalah, it’s the Kabbalah Centre,” Citron said. “It shouldn’t be like that. Just like Hasidism doesn’t belong to one group or outreach doesn’t belong to one group, Kabbalah doesn’t belong to one organization.”
Citron is organizing a series of retreats around the country that will expose participants to rabbinical experts in Kabbalah who are not associated with the Kabbalah Centre. The first, held May 8 in New York, was co-sponsored by The Carlebach Shul and Makom: The Center for Mindfulness at the JCC in Manhattan. The event, held at the JCC, featured a full day of workshops exploring Kabbalah’s teachings on reincarnation, angels and demons, spiritual healing and the essence of love.
Citron is planning a similar event, to be held in Los Angeles on June 26 at Congregation Mogen David.
A main speaker at the New York event, Rabbi Avraham Brandwein, also steered clear of directly criticizing the center and its founder, Rabbi Philip Berg. Berg reportedly has claimed to be the heir of Brandwein’s late father, kabbalist Rabbi Yehuda Zvi Brandwein.
In response to a question from the Forward, Avraham Brandwein dismissed the notion that any one rabbi or organization should be seen as the keeper of Kabbalah. “I have many students, and every one is an heir,” Brandwein told the Forward, adding, “The Baal Shem Tov had many students; the Magid of Mesrich had many students.”
Citron said that in addition to attempting to alter the public’s view of Kabbalah, his goal is to help attendees see how mystical teachings can complement other areas of their Jewish observance. “I would love people to come away inspired to study more, to go back to synagogue and find a spiritual practice in the service that already exists,” he said. Many people “just don’t think that Judaism is a spiritual religion or think you have to be some fringy type of weird place that’s into weird stuff to be in to Kabbalah.”