What Is Kabbalah, Anyway?

Last week news broke that Madonna spent over $5 million for a London town house that will become a new center for the study of Kabbalah. This religious movement, long associated with Judaism, was little known until it became popular among celebrities. What is Kabbalah all about?

“Kabbalah” comes from the Hebrew word meaning “tradition” or “received knowledge.” Kabbalists claim their beliefs date back to the origins of the Torah. All Jews believe the written tradition of God’s word was accompanied by an oral tradition of equal sanctity, the Mishnah, which together with the written texts constituted the Torah. Kabbalah also started as an oral tradition, and believers trace its origins back to the Torah, and therefore to a direct connection with God. This Kabbalist oral tradition contended that God is perceivable as 10 different potencies or forms of light (known collectively as the sefirot). Because each one of the 10 sefirot has Hebrew characters associated with it, the Kabbalah provides a method for interpreting the hidden meanings of the scriptures, and Kabbalism aims primarily to decrypt the Torah using these keys. Kabbalists believe the Torah is God itself, and that an infinite store of wisdom can be uncovered by dint of scholarly research.

Kabbalists have been an accepted part of Jewish culture since the 12th century. Though their mystical beliefs, which focused on the individual’s direct communion with God through solitary study, sometimes set them apart from their mainstream coreligionists, many Kabbalists were teachers and judges highly respected by all Jews. The emphasis on secret knowledge and mysticism have also long endeared the study of Kabbalah to occultists of other persuasions, kicking off a Kabbalist fad among gentiles in Renaissance Europe—and giving us words like “cabal.” In the United States, Kabbalism made a comeback in the ‘60s, when it was championed by Philip Berg, an American former rabbi who began studying Kabbalah on a visit to Israel in 1962.

Under Berg’s leadership, Kabbalah in America has greatly expanded, spawning centers around the country and recruiting celebrity faithful like Madonna and Monica Lewinsky. Berg’s version of Kabbalah dispenses with the traditional requirements of an Orthodox lifestyle and the study of ancient texts. Where traditional Kabbalah emphasizes mysticism as a part of devoted Judaism, Berg’s new movement focuses on personal improvement and spiritual happiness, targeted to “people of all faiths and no faiths.” Berg’s centers draw big crowds for meditation, classes, and philosophical study, and his Kabbalah portal offers Kabbalah 101, a class that takes the “once arcane wisdom of Kabbalah and offers it up as [a] user friendly, accessible, self-study program,” for $19.95.

How does this new Kabbalah stack up against the old? Like traditionalists, Berg presents Kabbalah as a way to perceive the inherent order of the universe, the “unseen spiritual laws that govern our lives.” The difference is that he simplifies these lessons to make them easily accessible; rather than requiring devotees to learn Hebrew, he publicizes his interpretations of ancient Kabbalist texts nationally in books and speaking engagements. Traditional scholars of the field are careful not to slam the new centers too hard, but the experts do argue that Madonna’s new-age spiritualism has little in common with the traditional scholarly mysticism of Jewish Kabbalah.

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Explainer thanks Elliot Wolfson, Abraham Lieberman professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU, and Lawrence Schiffman, Edelman professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU.