The Magical Mystical Tour

Madonna has seen the light. Sandra Bernhard has, too. Now, thousands are seeking the ancient wisdom of Kabbalah, a once-secretive religious tradition that's entering the mainstream.

Mirabella, May/June 1998
By Nancy Griffin

In Los Angeles, where everyone is always seeking salvation, Kabbalah is the spiritual rage. In the past year, celebrity Kabbalists including Madonna, Sandra Bernhard, and Roseanne Shave helped draw attention to this ancient form of Jewish mysticism, speaking publicly of the enrichment it has brought their lives. Kabbalah encourages a direct, dynamic experience of God through meditation and the study of its main text, the Zohar. Unlike mainstream Judaism [sic] , Kabbalah views God as a divine source of light, energy, and love, ever-present in the physical world, rather than a patriarchal deity. This tradition is now flowering all over town, as Jews and gentiles alike take classes and learn to "let in the Light." On the city's affluent west side, aspirants who work in the entertainment industry have organized small, private Kabbalah study groups in their homes. "My DNA has changed-my whole way of being has changed," Bernhard has declared of Kabbalah's effect on her. "My energy, my understanding, my compassion, my level of tolerance and patience is something I never dreamed I was capable of."

Sounds great. Where can we get some? In Los Angeles, there are two charismatic teachers who are each initiating hundreds of students into the practice of Kabbalah: Eitan Yardeni [of the Kabbalah Center] and Jonathan Omer-Man. They offer wildly divergent versions of the teachings. Yardeni serves up a New Age variation, emphasizing slogans and tools to help in one's daily life. "Kabbalah has all the answers," he promises. Omer-Man stresses meditation, the benefits of silence, and the serious study of Jewish texts. "I believe in rigorous spirituality," he says. If you're shopping for Jewish mysticism, the question is: Do you want your spirituality over-easy or hard-boiled?

"Let go and let in the Light!" Yardeni cries to a classroom of eager students, mostly professional men end women, gathered at the Kabbalah Learning Centre (KLC) in the less-fashionable part of Beverly Hills. A thirty-four-year-old ordained Israeli rabbi with penetrating eyes, Yardeni has a sweet smile and persuasive manner. Although he's an unlikely guru in his neat suit and velvet yarmulke, Yardeni is the most popular teacher at KLC and its main celebrity magnet. Madonna attends his classes, sitting quietly on a folding chair like everyone else, and she also gets private instruction. Indeed, her latest album, Ray of light' is heavily influenced by Kabbalah, and the liner notes thank Yardeni for "creative and spiritual guidance." KLC is by far the biggest popularizer of Kabbalah in the world, with centers in eight countries and some 10,000 students. Its founder, Yardeni's mentor, is Rabbi Philip Berg, a highly controversial figure known as "the King of Kabbalah." Recently, KLC has come under fire from many Jewish leaders for pressuring its devotees to pay high prices for its books, tapes, and amulets, and to make big donations to the organization.

But controversy seems only to have helped KLC. Its Saturday-morning services are filled with hundreds of vibrant, engaged worshipers. And Yardeni's students all sound like satisfied customers, parroting back his lessons not to "tune into the laws of chaos and negativity." Annie Combs, an administrator at the Getty Museum, says, "Since taking his class, I've gained significant control over my moodiness. It's very empowering."

About a mile west of the Kabbalah Learning Centre is Metivta, Jonathan Omer-Man's Center for Contemplative Judaism. English-born and educated at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Omer-Man is a challenging teacher with a sharp, skeptical mind who issues no palliatives or neat equations for spiritual awakening. "I founded Metivta [Aramaic for academy] so that people on a serious spiritual quest will find a home in Judaism," says Omer-Man, who is in his sixties. "Whether they are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform- no matter where they are in the spectrum. Spirituality is not magical and not mean-spirited."

Omer-Man's interpretation of Kabbalah clashes sharply with KLC's, which he views as a metaphysics for the masses. "It cheapens something that's very spiritual," he says. Omer-Man also dismisses many KLC teachings, including its apocalyptic millennial predictions; he says the group's assertion that Jews died in the Holocaust because they didn't study Kabbalah is "absolute mumbo jumbo-and scientifically utterly flawed."

Jody Uttal Gold, a Santa Monica artist, mother of two, and daily meditator, recently spent a silent weekend retreat with Omer-Man outside of Los Angeles. "I was nervous going into it," she says. "I spoke to Jonathan, and he said some very encouraging words, and everything shifted. The meditations and teachings were so beautiful, I was able to open a real connection to whatever you want to call it: God, a higher self, the great unknown." She struggles to find words for her experience. "It's such a personal, private thing," she says. "And Jonathan spoke about this, that it's a long road and a lot of work. And that you're not just going to get a blast of light and be there."

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