The call of Kabbalah: Bay Area spiritual seekers dive into mystical texts

Eleven years ago, Cyrise Beatty decided the time was right to delve more heavily into Judaism. As much as she was looking to connect with God, however, she was afraid that she might not find an authentic path to the Divine.

That changed when she discovered Kabbalah.

“Coming to Judaism through a kabbalistic gateway has allowed me to embrace more fully the traditional aspects of Judaism,” said Beatty, who nine years ago came upon Jewish meditation and mysticism through Chochmat HaLev, an independent Berkeley congregation that focuses on spirituality and connecting with God.

 “Instead of Judaism just being a code of laws and rules, Kabbalah allowed me to see those traditional elements as having deep mystical meanings.”

Beatty is part of a burgeoning legion of diverse Bay Area residents, Jews and non-Jews alike, who have made the region a hotbed for the learning and application of Kabbalah. Some are drawn to Kabbalah for intensely personal reasons, some are seeking a nontraditional path within Judaism and some are in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment.

Kabbalah, which means “receiving” in Hebrew, is a mystical cluster of esoteric teachings that elucidate the inner meanings of the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud and the Mishnah (a work from around 200 C.E. that put longstanding oral traditions into writing). The central text of Kabbalah is the Zohar (or Book of Splendor), a massive series of books of rich imagery and symbolism. Though often attributed to Shimon bar Yochai in the second century, the Zohar actually was written more than 1,000 years later by a kabbalistic writer in Spain.

Cyrise Beatty reads Kabbalah cards.
photo/cathleen maclearie

Though no exact numbers are available, thousands of people have taken Kabbalah or Kabbalah-related classes throughout the area, in such varied places as synagogues, JCCs, universities, adult education centers, and in private settings with a master teacher or guide.

Kabbalah has become famous the world over — due, in part, to Madonna, its most famous adherent — but many rabbis and mystical teachers feel that the Bay Area, which tends to be a magnet for people who are spiritually adventuresome and looking to resolve life’s deeper questions, is a perfect locale for learning and applying the wisdom of Kabbalah.

“In the Bay Area, there is such a strong spiritual search,” explained Rabbi Lavey Derby, senior rabbi at Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon and a Kabbalah teacher. “Jews are looking for an authentic Jewish language that speaks to the heart.”

Derby, who completed a series of lessons on practical Kabbalah last spring in Sonoma, added that “people are dying for something deeper. People want to know that life means something. The core idea of the Kabbalah is that God is present in every experience, in every moment. We are at our very core filled with goodness and compassion and love, even when we have a hard time accessing it.”

Kabbalistic teachings center around a number of different concepts, including the true essence of God, known as the Ein Sof (“without end”), and the qualities of God, known as the Ten Sefirot. Basic Kabbalah courses will often examine the sefirot and how they are applicable to everyday life.

The study of Kabbalah also examines issues like the nature of the soul, life after death, the mysteries of the Hebrew alphabet and the creation of the world.

A typical Kabbalah class or course, Beatty said, might include “an overview of the origins and history of the mystical branch of the Jewish path or an introduction to key texts.” These texts include the Sefer Yetzirah (which dissects the story of creation), the Book of Ezekiel, the Zohar and the writings of the Rambam. The class also “could contain some chanting or meditation to provide the student with an experiential perspective,” she said.

The Bay Area is a logical center for kabbalistic study because it is historically a haven for nontraditional Judaism, said Rabbi Naftali Citron, grandnephew of Chassidic master Shlomo Carlebach and spiritual leader of the Carlebach Shul in Manhattan.

“Orthodoxy is not a major force [in the Bay Area],” Citron said. “More people in the Bay Area are on a quest for an autonomous spiritual connection. Kabbalah is more compelling than other spiritual paths because it believes in the dynamic interplay between God and humans. Kabbalah doesn’t just emphasize observance, but also an internal spiritual journey.”

Citron, who founded the Kabbalah-oriented Jewish Learning Center in Santa Cruz in the mid-1990s, returns here occasionally to lead workshops and retreats. He recently lectured on Kabbalah at Chochmat HaLev, and in August led a weekend gathering for more than 40 people in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which focused on the mystical nature of Shabbat and the Torah portion.

Within the next year, Citron plans to hold his annual Day of Kabbalah, a national program that “brings together leading Kabbalah teachers with hundreds of people in attendance,” in Santa Cruz.

“There will be opportunities for people to get exposed to Kabbalah,” explained Citron. “They will be able to connect with the right teachers and right books. There will several sessions, some academic, some meditative.”

At Chochmat HaLev, Kabbalah’s popularity has led to an increased interest in the congregation. A late spring Kabbalah weekend retreat drew 300 people, and the congregation offers free Kabbalah-influenced meditation Monday and Wednesday evenings and a series of kabbalistic-themed classes throughout the year.

“Jewish spirituality has also reignited interest in Judaism,” said Melanie Grubman, Chochmat’s program director. “Jewish spirituality is the background of all the laws and can inform the way we are in the world, how we interact with each other. Kabbalah gives us direction in how to lead a holy life.”

Before she discovered Kabbalah, Beatty had been nearly ready to dismiss Judaism as too patriarchal and dry. She’d been shul-shopping and trying to read about Judaism, but it wasn’t until she attended Neilah, the concluding service of Yom Kippur, at Chochmat in 1999 that she found what she called an “inclusive language to describe God.”

A few months later, the secularly trained musician sang at Chochmat on New Year’s Eve, starting her on a nearly 10-year journey. She has been a cantorial soloist at the center ever since, and now she is Chochmat’s cantorial and vocal director.

 “The way Kabbalah approaches spirituality and God intrigued me, and made me think that Judaism had more to appeal to me,” she explained.

Beatty studied with a host of teachers, and eventually underwent three years of training at Chochmat HaLev. She is now certified as a morah hitboddidut — a teacher of meditation or seclusion — and regularly teaches classes on the mystical nature of the symbols of Jewish holidays, which she always combines with music and meditation.

Professor Daniel Matt, who has spent the past 11 years translating the Zohar into English and taught Jewish mysticism for 20 years at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, thinks some of Kabbalah’s popularity comes from its philosophy that anyone’s daily life can be a spiritual place — if you know where to look.

“Kabbalah appeals to people because it enables us to cultivate spirituality while still being engaged with everyday life,” Matt said. “Kabbalah insists that God’s presence fills the world, and that you can find God in nature, in human relationships, in being involved in day-to-day activities. This is the spiritual challenge: to sanctify the here-and-now, not to flee from the world and go off to some cave, but to discover the spiritual potential in the home, in the supermarket, in one’s daily and human encounters.”

Rabbi Yehuda Ferris of Chabad of Berkeley said Kabbalah can provide an exciting spiritual way to access Jewish knowledge for those who find that traditional texts like the Talmud are too arcane — but acknowledges that a decent amount of Jewish knowledge is needed to truly understand Kabbalah’s mysteries.

“The ancient wisdom of Jewish mysticism was transmitted to sages [who were already] well versed in Torah, Talmud and Mishnah,” said Ferris.

In other words, the ideal path is to submerge oneself in the Torah, Talmud and Mishnah before going on to more mystical things.

“You know, first the meal, then dessert,” Ferris said. “But today, life is tenuous, so you should eat dessert [study Kabbalah] first.”

Ferris currently teaches a class on the Tanya, the 18th-century work of the first Lubavitcher rebbe, Schneur Zalman of Liadi. The Tanya, Ferris said, distills all the kabbalistic parables and makes them accessible for the “average Joe on the street.” Chabad’s Web site also features a cartoon that simplifies Kabbalah.

Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley, one of the area’s leading centers for Jewish education and exploration, has offered a variety of Kabbalah-related classes over the years, said Lehrhaus director Jehon Grist.

Courses have included Kinesthetic Kabbalah, Jewish Mysticism and Martial Arts, God and the Big Bang, and Kabbalah for the 21st Century. Grist said classes sometimes attract as many as 40 people, but usually average between 15 and 25.

Lehrhaus’ next Kabbalah-related class, “The Wisdom of Rebbe Nachman,” is slated to begin this month at Congregation Netivot Sholom in Berkeley and will be taught by Reconstructionist Rabbi Carol Caine. Other Kabbalah classes might appear in the Spring 2009 catalog, which will be available in early 2009.

In the South Bay, the Albert L. Schultz JCC in Palo Alto offered a Kabbalah class for several weeks in the spring and now presents an ongoing introduction to Kabbalah every Monday. Rabbi Steven Fisdel, who created a deck of Kabbalah tarot cards, operates the Center for Mystical Judaism on the Peninsula and teaches five or six classes annually. Fisdel also has 15 private Kabbalah students, as well as a permanent group that meets regularly in Burlingame. He plans to expand soon with a study group in the East Bay.

And Chabad of the Greater South Bay in Palo Alto holds weekly classes, one-time lectures, and smaller study groups on Kabbalah and Chassidism taught by Rabbi Yosef Levin and his wife, Dena.

“Kabbalah is popular because it gives us insights into the soul,” Levin said. But he cautioned that these days, not everything is kosher in the kabbalistic world: “A lot of Kabbalah that is taught today is not the real thing.”

In fact, some scholars and teachers worry about the future of Kabbalah study and exploring Judaism because of the recent trend toward “fad” Kabbalah — and the prominent non-Jewish celebrities who practice it.

Madonna and Ashton Kutcher are just two of the noted disciples of the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles, which has been the subject of numerous controversies over the past few years, and is often accused of emphasizing celebrity over spirituality. In Hollywood, red bracelets (a kabbalistic trademark said to protect against the evil eye) are common, and vendors worldwide hawk everything from Kabbalah stones to Kabbalah water.

In fact, tabloids reported in October that Madonna wanted to fill her indoor swimming pool with Kabbalah water, but the order was canceled by her ex-husband, Guy Ritchie. And the pop star was recently in the tabloids twice concerning Kabbalah, reportedly upset that boy pal Alex Rodriguez, the New York Yankees star, had dropped out of Kabbalah classes, and reportedly trying to lure Britney Spears back into Kabbalah.

Another downside of Kabbalah’s popularity is that it’s often hard to separate the real teachers or guides, according to some instructors.

“Kabbalah is as complex a subject as atomic physics,” Fisdel said. “You need a thorough grounding in Kabbalah to be able to transmit it to the lay public.”

Rabbi George Gittleman of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa understands Kabbalah’s appeal, but issues a warning: “People see Kabbalah as a way to access Jewish spirituality without accessing the Jewish religion. You can gleam cream off the top, but I don’t believe that will get you to the depth of what Kabbalah is all about. That requires hard work and discipline that few people are prepared for. You cannot understand its depth without being someone who is an observant Jew.”

Then again, Citron pointed out, it’s not as if Judaism is in any real danger here.

“Kabbalah may yet turn into the new yoga,” he said. “Is this is a good thing or a bad thing? The fear is that by watering down Kabbalah you’re creating a new religion that has no strong connection to Judaism. Some places are teaching Kabbalah by combining marketing techniques with pop psychology, self-help and empowerment. It’s mostly fluff and may create a feel-good religion loosely based on Kabbalah.”

The pop-culture popularity of Kabbalah, he added, might not be a bad thing if it opens up more people to the kabbalistic way of thinking.

“I personally am not offended by the celebrity popularization of Kabbalah,” Citron said. “Kabbalah has the potential to be of a transformative nature for a great many people. The world can benefit from some of Kabbalah’s mysteries.”

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.