4/12/08

Times Mag: Daphne Does Disney - Merkin Slams the Kabbalah Center

This article takes the long road to reach the obvious conclusion that, as Ms. Merkin says, "...the cynic in me writes the center off as hokum."

But wait a minute! The cynic in her? Whatever it is, it's not cynical to say that the Kabbalah Center is "hokum." It's a reasoned judgment based on study and personal experience. That's how I read the article.

After a year and a half, the very fiber of her being must tell her that the operation is "hokum" and "nouveau, pseudo, po-mo religion" - the Disney version of a Judaic religion.

She says it, she says it not.
In Search of the Skeptical, Hopeful, Mystical Jew That Could Be Me
By DAPHNE MERKIN

My journey toward (and back from) the new kabbalah.

What brought me to the small, neat office in the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles — at the tacky southern edge of Beverly Hills where the upscale ambience of Doheny Drive turns into a decrepit stretch that includes two gas stations and multiple Korean nail salons — was Madonna, who doesn’t believe in death. And then there was my mother, who had recently died. Somehow, in an effort to reconcile divergent realities, I must have been looking for a resolution of the irresolvable, a way of navigating a path between the absoluteness of mortality and the lingering hope of something beyond it, between the immutable reality of personal loss and the promise of spiritual consolation.

In a world where everyone is angling for a piece of the kabbalah mystique — an esoteric occult offshoot of Judaism dating at least to the 13th century — the Los Angeles center has been attracting Hollywood glitterati since it first opened its doors in 1993. And who can blame the neighboring institutions — the bevy of run-down ultra-Orthodox yeshivas and religious girls’ high schools with names like Torah Hayim and Ohr Haemet Institute, many of which have their own makeshift signs attesting to introductory kabbalah classes — for trying to cut in on a share of the booty? It all looks so easy, not to mention remunerative, thanks to the pricey little doodads offered in the center’s store (ranging from red kabbalah bracelets at $26 a pop to bottles of kabbalah water at nearly $4 apiece) and to the hefty donations solicited from members old and new.

Housed in a two-story cream stucco building with a red-tile roof that fits in with the 1920s- and ’30s-style Spanish Moorish architecture characterizing the neighborhood, the Kabbalah Center is set in the midst of shabbiness hard to reconcile with any kind of drawing power. All the same, in its Los Angeles incarnation, the center is spiritual home to Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, Roseanne Barr, Donna Karan and any number of other celebrities who dip in and out as the spirit moves them. Most important, as anyone who has heard anything about the center knows (and often it is the only thing they know), its public face is none other than the stridently non-Jewish and notoriously profane human meteor named Madonna....

A year and a half after I began my explorations, the cynic in me writes the center off as hokum, a brilliantly shrewd commercial enterprise, playing on the existentially orphaned state that is the general condition of many people today, in or out of Los Angeles, offering spiritual cachet for cash. Still, the ever-hopeful, lapsed Orthodox Jew in me wonders whether I might have found my own personal mystically tinged form of antireligious religion had I been willing to overlook the crass reductionism and imbibe the New Age atmosphere of nonjudgmental compassion. Gershom Scholem, in “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism,” observes on the last page: “The story is not ended, it has not yet become history, and the secret life it holds can break out tomorrow in you or in me. Under what aspects this invisible stream of Jewish mysticism will again come to surface we cannot tell.”

That there are glaring holes in the center’s facade — discrepancies and yawning gaps in scrutability — cannot be denied. Why, for instance, as many observers have wondered, is the center so reluctant to discuss how the millions it raises every year as a nonprofit organization are actually spent? Michael Berg insists that the center is a flawed “work in progress” that has made mistakes it must rectify.

Here’s what I do know: My mother has shown no signs thus far of resurfacing, and I would guess that Madonna continues to believe in her own immortality, as guaranteed by the center. And yet, who’s to say that the Bergs aren’t on to something more sustaining than kabbalah-imprinted merchandise, that they aren’t providing access to the secret life of mysticism that Scholem is referring to, albeit the Oprah version. Meanwhile, the couple from Queens and their chevra have pulled a rabbit out of a hat, made believers out of ex-car mechanics and former real-estate brokers. That’s them in the corner, flashing their red bracelets; that’s them in the spotlight, finding their nouveau, pseudo, po-mo religion.

Daphne Merkin is a contributing writer for the magazine.

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