A form of Jewish mysticism has so captivated Madonna that she has changed her name - to Esther - in its honour. Other devotees include Gwyneth Paltrow and David Beckham. But is Kabbalah just another sect preying on the gullible? Charlotte Edwardes signs up for an initiation course
The rabbi is pacing back and forth in front of the transfixed class. "So what does The Light do?" he asks in an American drawl. "The Light creates The Vessel!" we chorus.
"Right!" he shouts, turning to the white board behind him. The pen squeaks as he scribbles a large L in a circle followed by a large V in a circle. "And how much light can you receive?" He answers this one himself, writing simultaneously: "As much as you desire!" He turns to pounce with his next question. The air is heavy with expectation.
I am in the middle of my first Kabbalah lesson at the Kabbalah Centre, an elegant townhouse in Bond Street, London, bought for £3.65 million with the help of a hefty donation from Madonna. The singer, who has renamed herself "Esther" after one of the Jewish matriarchs, has championed the movement, crediting it with "creative guidance" on her album American Life and saying it has influenced her "whole outlook on life."
Kabbalah, Hebrew for "received tradition," was for centuries understood to be a form of ancient Jewish mysticism based on sacred texts. Orthodox rabbis would study for 20 years before even approaching its impenetrable central text, the Zohar, or "Book of Splendour." Today, for £180, you can attain enlightenment through 10 easy lessons at a Kabbalah Centre near you.
Over the past 35 years, through the evangelical zeal and marketing acumen of one American rabbi, Philip Berg, the Kabbalah has been rebranded as a New Age touchy-feely mysticism open to all (or at least those who can afford it).
Berg, 75, a former Brooklyn insurance salesman, reinvented himself as a spiritual preacher and opened his first Kabbalah Centre in Jerusalem in 1969: a place where an individual might escape the confines of organised religion and "become a better person". The flagship Los Angeles branch followed, which he now runs as a thriving business with his children Karen and Yehuda selling Kabbalah courses and merchandise.
There are now 50 Kabbalah centres worldwide, from Chile to Japan, all teaching the same formulaic message - "Share the Light" - with the same repetitive techniques. London is the latest city to be swept up in Kabbalah fever.
I have signed up for The Power of Kabbalah (1), with 40 or so other students, most of whom are well-groomed, middle-class women. The organisers clearly identify a lucrative market in insecure women.
Among the other courses on offer are "12 Steps To Lasting Love" (£180 for 10 weeks), "How To Date Your Soul Mate" (£91 for six weeks) and "Kabbalah and the Modern Woman" (£91 for six weeks). The latter offers to aid "climbing the career ladder, finding the right guy, raising children, keeping fit, maintaining good health." The blurb gushes about the "awesome power of feminine spirit."
On my table there are four women: a banker, a designer, a public relations executive and a French housewife with a Cap d'Antibes tan, blow-dried bouffant and large, flashing diamonds. We are all identified by stickers: "Hello! I'm Charlotte." Hanging on the wall is a graph of the 72 names of God (we are told to scan this "powerful formula," as revealed to Moses, even if we don't read Hebrew).
We are grouped around five tables decorated with roses and lilies, in what once would have been a grand Georgian drawing-room. Its centrepiece is a marble fireplace in front of which our rabbi, Chaim Solomon, now paces, keeping us on our toes with incessant questions.
"OK, so who wants to be first to share some amazing event this week?" he asks. "Something you can attribute to what we learnt about acknowledging the limits of the five senses and recognising where they blocked you from achieving consciousness."
The room is silent as we struggle, as usual, to make sense of Kabbalah-speak. Finally, a confident young man with a pencil moustache sticks up his hand.
"Yes? And, please, your name."
"Hi. I'm Luigi," he says in a New Jersey twang.
"Hello Luigi," we chorus obediently.
"Rabbi," he says cockily, "doing one week here, I realise there is definitely a good side to this Kabbalah thing - you go home and try and think differently."
"Yes," says the rabbi.
"But sometimes I get this feeling, you know, a dead fish-type feeling, where I don't feel anything at all. And I want to feel, you know, emotion."
"Why isn't happiness considered an emotion for you?" the rabbi counters solemnly.
"Because I get used to it," Luigi says, rocking back on his chair. "It would be nice to feel something else, you know, like maybe how you do when you are arguing with somebody."
The rabbi mulls this over for a moment and then looks around the room. It is clear that Luigi has just made A Classic Mistake - did any of us notice?
"Your choice, Luigi," he shrugs. "But didn't we say last week that we would like to be happy and fulfilled all the time?" Everyone mutters agreement. "Wouldn't that be a goal that you would like to strive for?"
Rabbi Solomon takes a deep breath. "Of course, there's a part of us which feels that if we don't have extremes of emotional turmoil, then we aren't really living life. But do you really want to live life on an emotional rollercoaster? No!" (The rabbi loves his rhetorical questions.)
Ups and downs in life are bad, he tells his cowed, frantically note-taking pupils. This is what Kabbalists call "the one per cent" of experience. Our goal, as novice Kabbalists, is to "work more in the 99 per cent", striving for a monotonous consistency they call "endless happiness". Everyone looks mesmerised by this idea. Am I the only person in the room who thinks it sounds like opting out? Luigi's mobile starts ringing the theme tune of The Godfather.
I had come expecting scholarly debate. Instead, the hour-and-a-half lesson stretches ahead like a yawn. What modern Kabbalists appear to be doing is complicating some very simple (and not altogether original) ideas. For example, Lesson Three: if someone slights you, turn the other cheek. Or, Lesson Two: share your good fortune.
Sharing is a central tenet of Kabbalism. Sharing with the Kabbalah Centre is especially encouraged - so much so that it has been accused of preying on the vulnerable and wealthy. One young British businesswoman has claimed that a London rabbi, over a friendly cappuccino, asked her to donate £65,000 so that she could buy the centre a new Kabbalistic Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) and honour her late parents' memory.
Jerry Hall recently left the centre after being asked for money, saying, "I didn't realise that in order to go through a door of miracles, you had to give 10 per cent of your income."
Cases like this prompted Dr Jonathan Sacks, the British Chief Rabbi, to issue a public warning about the movement: "We wish it to be known that this organisation does not fall within the remit of the Chief Rabbinate or any other authority in the UK recognised by us."
The Kabbalah Centre dismisses such criticisms. "Organised religions deal only in dogma," our rabbi tells us in class. Most complaints, he later says, are from people who are "jealous or sceptical."
In all my classes, the subject of money crops up with alarming regularity. "Do you know people who have things?" the rabbi asks. "Cars, houses, fame etc, who are not fulfilled? When they have money, they don't feel fulfilled, right?" (One course topic spells it out: "Sharing: the spiritual law of prosperity.")
"People who come into instant wealth go through bizarre emotions," the rabbi tells us. "If you don't share it, you won't have fulfilment." Sharing, we learn, can ultimately bring greater prosperity. If someone has an inheritance, I ask, whom should they share it with? "Give it to charity," he says. "What's your name, by the way?"
Today's Kabbalah is unique among New Age philosophies in actively promoting capitalism. Indeed, the movement generates its wealth by that very principle. By an ingenius stroke it has created a branded range of essential Kabbalah accessories.
First, the Kabbalah water. Spot-lit shelves of it greet you as you walk through the door of the London centre. Miriam, a young and pretty volunteer, encourages me to buy some, explaining, wide-eyed, that if I drink it all the time I will "never feel ill again - it has a complex structure like no other water. It actually changes your cells." (Madonna is so convinced of the water's healing powers that she sends for supplies from London when filming in Europe.)
After paying £3.50 for a litre bottle, however, I am disappointed to read the disclaimer on the side: "The producer and distributor of this water do not claim any specific physical benefits which might be achieved by using it. Persons suffering physical ailments are urged to consult with their physician."
There is also jewellery (Tree of Life necklace, £39); "Kabbalah Cures" (Headache Relief Ointment, £5.50); astrological charts (£170) and baby accessories (crib set complete with Hebrew lettering, £152).
Most essential (and marketed under "Spiritual Tools") is The Red String. The slick packaging tells me that the string will protect me from: "Bitter boyfriend, nasty cab-driver, dirty looks, big fat liars, that person who wants your shoes, that person who wants your life, jealous co-workers, that so-called friend, rude waiters . . ." This wording strikes me as fuel for paranoia, but I join the queue of professional women and hand over my £17 for a length of red wool.
This is the badge that has identified the famous as followers of Kabbalah: Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand, Gwyneth Paltrow, Demi Moore, Winona Ryder and Sandra Bernhard. In Britain, Naomi Campbell, Normandie Keith and Sabrina Guinness are paid-up devotees.
The latest unlikely convert is Victoria Beckham, who has adopted The Red String (which protects against the "Evil Eye") after revelations of her husband David's affair with Rebecca Loos. He was photographed head in hands after missing his Euro 2004 penalty kick last week. On his left wrist was a red woollen string.
The most ardent "celebrity endorsement" has come from Mr and Mrs Guy Ritchie, who now give the 10-week courses as birthday presents to their friends. David Collins, the interior designer, and the nightclub owner Piers Adam, who was best man at Guy and Madonna's wedding, are just two to have been dispatched for self-improvement this year.
Guy Ritchie's appraisal of Kabbalah is simple: "It's just about being a decent person. Put it like this: I have never met a Kabbalist who is a c---."
Ritchie has even endorsed one of our set texts, The Power of Kabbalah. "This book should come with a warning," he says. "Danger of Enlightenment." Unfortunately, the book doesn't live up to this promotion. Most of the ideas are readily recognisable from the teachings of Jesus Christ, Marx and Plato, among others.
I ask Rabbi Solomon about this and he smiles knowingly. "That's because these people were Kabbalists." Newton, Plato, Pythagorus and Shakespeare were also Kabbalists, he explains. It seems that any historical figure who has challenged conventional thinking has been claimed by the movement as one of its own.
A month into the course, I am still learning how to "Share the Light" - or, how not to lose my temper. But I am struggling. Can it really be right to respond to every situation life throws up with a beatific smile? Is this a realistic philosophy for modern life, or a panacea for the self-obsessed and insecure?
"So," says our rabbi at the start of the next class. "Who managed to do their homework - to transform a negative situation?" Maria, a plump woman in her mid-twenties wearing a fishnet catsuit beneath designer T-shirt and shorts, shoots her hand up. She is clearly agitated. She had a problem trying to "share the Light", she says, scratching her thigh with an electric-pink false nail. "I mean, how can you not show anger when you walk in on your boyfriend in bed with another woman?"
The rabbi is momentarily slack-jawed. "Right," he says recovering. "Uh, let's deal with that in another class."
Maria didn't wait to find out. She didn't come back.