For mainstream America, Kabbalah is religion, Madonna style. It's the red string bracelet Britney Spears wears to ward off the evil eye. It's Hollywood's feel-good fad.
But for Rabbi Zvi Konikov, director of the Chabad Jewish Community Center in Satellite Beach, Kabbalah is no joke. It's a way of life.
He uses Kabbalah teachings in classes each Tuesday at the center. Kabbalah, he said, is the essence of Judaism.
"We get people from all walks of life who walk in and walk out amazed," he said. "It's not only something that changes their life religiously, but it adds so much meaning to their life in general."
According to Konikov, Chabad is a movement that began about 250 years ago in Russia, just after the Hasidic movement began with founder Baal Shemtov.
"The Baal Shemtov was known to have made a revolution in the Jewish world in his time. He took the Kabbalah and brought it down to the level of the simpleton. Until that time, the Kabbalah was closed, concealed, almost unknown to the average person for almost 2,000 years."
Konikov is patient as he talks about the Chabad center and the teachings of Kabbalah, trying to shed light during a 30-minute phone conversation on a topic that can require a lifetime of study. For centuries, the Kabbalah was taught only to a select few, Konikov said. But the Baal Shemtov realized there was a spiritual low among his people.
"He needed to raise the level of enthusiasm and feeling for Judaism, and he therefore opened up the wellsprings of Kabbalah and brought it to the simple Jews of his time."
Kabbalah is a mystical religion, and this is one of the sticking points for the mainstream western world. What exactly does mystical mean?
Mystical is basically an immediate relation to the divine, said Dr. Lin Osbourne, who teaches world religions at the University of Central Florida at the Brevard Community College Cocoa campus. "It transcends faith and seeks for knowledge. It's just not content with a second-hand relationship. It requires a first-hand relationship."
"Almost every religion develops into a mysticism," said Osbourne. "And Judaism and Islam both have mystical counterparts. For Jews, it's Kabbalah. For the Muslims, it's the Sufi way of life."
"Kabbalah's not some farfetched energy on planet Saturn," Konikov said. "It's something everyone has." But it has to be developed through study.
Chabad comes from the Hebrew words meaning concept (or wisdom), comprehension (or understanding) and concentration (or knowledge). Studying Kabbalah takes a person through these three levels of of intellect that allow the integration of a certain understanding, not just of God, but of people and the world we live in, Konikov said. It is a merging of intellect and emotion. In addition to recruiting a group of famous friends including Spears, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore to the study of Kabbalah, the former Material Girl has announced plans to spend more than $20 million to open a Kabbalah grade school in New York in December. To attend The Kabbalist Grammar School for Children, you must pay $3,600 a semester and follow the Kabbalah.
Osbourne said it's not surprising that actors have taken an interest in the religion.
"Faith is wonderful, but it's secondary to knowing, instantly, immediately, intrinsically," he said.
The Western world is not sympathetic to mystical study, Osbourne said, while the Eastern world embraces it.
"The interest in the Kabbalah is the quest for the spiritual life that many people in the West feel they have lost," he said.
Madonna's brand of Kabbalah is taught at the controversial Kabbalah Centre, headed by Philip Berg, who is in no way endorsed or recognized by the mainstream Jewish community.
"The Berg family has put together a composite version themselves of what Kabbalah is," says Rick Ross, head of The Rick A. Ross Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups and Movements in New Jersey. "The Kabbalah has never been separated out in the way Berg has done."
The Torah comprises the first five books of the Bible and is a cornerstone of the Kabbalah. Serious Kabbalists contend that everything in the complex system relies on context and history. It can't just be picked apart and pasted together haphazardly for mass consumption.
Some are not pleased with Madonna's zealous conversion. "Kabbalah as practiced by Madonna and Co. has little to do with Judaism," said Daniel Frank, director of Judaic Studies at the University of Kentucky. "The trouble with this movement is that it's ripped out of any historical context."
"She's misrepresenting Judaism," said Peter Anik of the Jewish Community Federation in Louisville, Ky. "It's a real watered-down distortion; a trendy, new-agey magic thing. The whole thing is nuts."
But Konikov doesn't see this star attention as bad.
"I believe that everything is a good thing," he said. "There's going to be good coming out of everything, if this will pique the interest of people to get involved in studying Kabbalah. However, if people misuse the Kabbalah and all they do from this is order a red string from the Kabbalah Center and they think that they have now found some magical tool to have success, I think that would be a pity." Tamara Ikenberg of The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal contributed to this report.