There's a big picture of Sandra Bernhard in the window of the Kabbalah Learning Centre in Wilmette. Bernhard is one of the celebrities who've recently adopted this ancient system of Jewish mysticism, says the center's rabbi, Yehudah Grundman. Roseanne is another. Neither strikes me as the soul of tranquillity, but I guess that's the point--if it works for them, it can work for anyone. With Bernhard as its poster girl, kabbalah--long the province of a few old men in funny hats--is the latest in New Age cool. And not a moment too soon: trouble has been foretold for these times that only kabbalistic wisdom can avert, Grundman says. He opened this strip-mall spiritual center last spring to give us a chance to put it to use.
Bernhard's poster brings to mind the John Travolta pictures that used to grace Scientology storefronts, but kabbalah has been around a lot longer than L. Ron Hubbard. Its roots go back 3,800 years, to the time when Abraham was made privy to the Book of Formation. This is not a regular book, but a three-page formula containing the key to all physical and metaphysical energies, Grundman says. The formula is written in Hebrew words and letters that function as visual images, throwing off vibrations during meditation. It was the source of monotheism. "Not that there is one God," Grundman explains, "but that God is one. That's a different statement. It means there's an incredible interconnectedness between everything that unfolds."
The next big moment was the revelation at Mount Sinai, where Moses was clued in, not only on the Ten Commandments and the five books of the Torah, which Grundman calls the "what to do stuff," but also on the big question, the "why." While the "what" was written in stone, the "why" wasn't written at all, but was passed on orally from one generation of rabbis to another (ostensibly avoiding the pitfalls of the telephone game). About 2,000 years ago, in the aftermath of the destruction of the second temple, a rabbi, fearing that he and all his colleagues would be wiped out, taking the wisdom with them, wrote down what they knew in Aramaic. It became known as the Zohar.
The Zohar scribe said he was writing for a future generation, and his work remained concealed until 1270, when it was discovered in Spain. Even then only a few scholars were given access to it. Its concepts seemed too advanced for mainstream consumption. Besides, it was believed that whenever light is brought into the world, equivalent darkness comes along to ensure that we have an opportunity to exercise free will. It was feared the kabbalah, with its enormous potential for enlightenment, might also bring great danger. Still, there were leaks--bits and pieces began to circulate, and excerpts from the Zohar became the basis for the 18th-century movement known as Hasidism.
The Zohar was translated from Aramaic to Hebrew by Yehuda Ashlag, who wanted to apply its ideas to day-to-day life. He set up the first Kabbalah Learning Centre in Jerusalem in 1922. His work was continued by his brother-in-law, Yehuda Brandwein, and is carried on today by Brandwein's protege, Rabbi Philip Berg. In 1969 Berg began to disseminate kabbalah to the mainstream populace, in spite of objections from established factions of Judaism.
The word "kabbalah" means "to receive." "And what is it we want to receive?" Grundman asks. "A good feeling. That feeling--whether it be love or wisdom or contentment or security--is an energy that can fuel us. Just like electricity, it's already here--all we have to do is tap into it." Once we do that, the power of our consciousness can affect the physical world, perhaps even bringing about healing or preventing illness, Grundman says. (A recent issue of Kabbalah magazine includes an article suggesting that multiple sclerosis is caused by "mental hardness, inflexibility, and fear.")
"Every second is a new beginning that will affect the rest of our lives," Grundman says. "And this is what kabbalah is about--learning to live in the moment, with a wonderful understanding of direction, purpose, journey, end. Where we come from, where we're going."
The center offers a series of seminars ($168 for ten weekly sessions), as well as books, tapes, CDs, and Kabbalah magazine, which appears to be a Berg family project. There's a free introductory lecture every Wednesday at 7 PM. If the mysticism doesn't take, you'll be positioned to try my own formula for nirvana: a kosher dog and cheese fries at Irving's for Red Hot Lovers, just a couple of storefronts down. The Kabbalah Learning Centre is located at 3207 Lake Avenue in Wilmette. Call 847-256-7862 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.