Chassidic rabbis passion — Zen in the art of Kaballah

For most, straddling the New Age and Chassidic worlds would be like juggling a yarmulke, a knife and a bowling ball with one hand clapping.

But Rabbi Laibl Wolf — psychotherapist, lawyer and East-West guru from Australia — says he maintains his halachic lifestyle even when away from his home for weeks at a time on the self-help lecture circuit.

"It's not a problem at all," said Wolf, slated to speak in the East Bay this weekend, of his double life. "There's great common ground" between the two worlds.

While some Orthodox feel that the New Age world's lack of boundaries collides with the hard and fast parameters of Jewish law, Wolf said they've simply overlooked another perspective.

"It may appear that the New Age community is open-ended and boundless, but there is a lot of disciplined behavior," he explained in a phone interview from Melbourne. "A Jew-Bu doesn't adopt Buddhism without committing to the discipline of the practice."

But Buddhism and other Eastern traditions popular with spiritually hungry Jews are not Wolf's shtick. Rather, these practices are the backdrop against which Wolf teaches his own thing — a psychological approach to Kabbalah.

The Lubavitch rabbi is speaking tonight at U.C. Berkeley Hillel and tomorrow at a private location and at Congregation Beth Israel. His visit is in conjunction with a national tour to promote his first book, "Practical Kabbalah: A Guide to Wisdom in Everyday Life," to be released this spring by Random House.

Wolf received his rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem and a postgraduate degree in educational psychology, specializing in motivational theory.

As founder and director of the Melbourne-based Human Development Institute, he travels internationally to conduct retreats and seminars in areas of spiritual awareness through Kabbalah and Chassidism.

The son of Polish-born Holocaust survivors, Wolf is married and the father of seven.

In the interview, Wolf said his method, behavioral Kabbalah, is no secret; rather it's an aspect of Jewish mysticism that isn't as well known as its promise to connect the practitioner with the Divine.

"I don't delve into [Kabbalah's] esoteric nature. I'm not interested in helping individuals discover past lives or spiritual sources in context of heaven or the guardian angels," he said.

His approach explores Kabbalah's behavior-modification techniques. The premise is that an individual can get in touch with undesirable personality traits and then consciously will the desired behavior.

The process requires the individual to unleash the kabbalistic concept of chochma, or as Wolf describes it, a flow from the subconscious to the conscious mind.

A simple exercise, for example, would be to set an alarm clock to ring every hour on the hour during one's waking hours. At the ring, the individual can quickly jot down his or her most immediate response, whether it be thoughts or feelings. In a week, the person can begin to see a pattern of response, and then via the use of Kabbalistic insights begin to unlearn that response.

The unlearning requires the practice of different disciplines of thought and emotion using both kabbalistic and everyday Jewish practices that Wolf teaches.

His methodology, he said, is accessible to most people, including non-Jews. For Jews, there already are many aspects of Judaism that reinforce the well-being of mind and body.

Saying the Modai Ani, a prayer of humility, for example, is an act that can physically change the brain's chemistry, Wolf maintains.

"The Modai Ani is a little Jewish thing in the morning to say, but implicit in it is a wonderful ego-raising, positive affirmation. Through the prayer, we deliberately move our mind-emotion balance into one of optimism," he said.

The personal shift is caused by the prayer's focus on humility as well as the worshipper's recognition of his or her ability to change at that moment. In Chassidism, he said, this is called "thought-birthing."

Wolf said the scientific parallel might be labeled psycho-neuro-immunology, in which an individual's spiritual and emotional activity has the potential to alter the person's physiology. The kabbalistic behavioral approach is more systemic than Western psychology alone and more comprehensive than its parallels in Eastern thought, the rabbi said.

Wolf said his new book was 25 years in the making because that's how long he's been teaching his kabbalistic ways. While he offers comprehensive guidance in Australia and at retreats held worldwide, the book offers follow-through for those who have heard him speak.

"I don't just simply want a pop-Kabbalah book, but something grounded and relevant to the spiritual seeker of today."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.