As readers of People magazine know, Madonna recently adopted the name of Esther and declared herself an adherent of kabbalah, the medieval Jewish system of esoteric theology. In the last two years the Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre, which promotes new-age Jewish mysticism, has also attracted such celebrities as Britney Spears, Barbra Streisand and Courtney Love.
It appears that the lifelong campaign of Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) has succeeded, though not exactly as he would have wished. In Berlin in 1915, he began to study kabbalah, which was then among the least fashionable subjects on the planet. Scholem's interest led to a career as the most admired scholar of Jewish religious studies in the world, but it began with his rebellion against the world of his parents. In his family, assimilation to German culture was taken for granted. Scholem decided instead to pursue Jewish identity, study Hebrew and Aramaic, and become a Zionist. He moved to Jerusalem in 1923 and stayed there the rest of his life.
Kabbalah, a wildly imaginative form of mysticism that began in medieval Provence, combines the solemn contemplation of God with the fear of demons and the warding off of "the evil eye." Moses de Leon, a 13th-century Spaniard, assembled these beliefs in Zohar: The Book of Splendour, written in Aramaic.
That book, and all that surrounded it and came out of it, became the core of Scholem's life. In his youth, official Judaism, in a search for respectability, ignored the more extravagant manifestations of Jewish culture; standard Jewish scholarship described kabbalah as the work of charlatans and buffoons. But Scholem imagined it contained something potent and meaningful. He set out "to unlock these mysterious texts."
Over 50 years his many books, including Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism and Origins of the Kabbalah, made what had seemed irrelevant into a valid part of religious history. It was a magnificent one-man coup, perhaps unique in humanistic studies in the 20th century.
Kabbalah attracted him not because he believed its theology but because he mourned the death of myth and religion. Modernism, as he saw it, was reducing human responses to whatever was rational and useful. He revived the study of kabbalah as a way to enrich modern life and breathe a new spirit of inquiry into Jewish studies.
He once said, "If humanity should ever lose the feeling that there is mystery -- a secret -- in the world, then it's all over with us." His first article on the subject, published in 1921, argued that the real Jewish tradition is "non-bourgeois and explosive."
What could "explosive" mean in a 20th-century religion? Hyam Maccoby, a scholarly admirer of Scholem, has pointed to the parallels between science and kabbalah mythology. While rational theology has become worldly, kabbalah "produced a daring cosmological scheme of soaring range, precursor of the vast schemes of modern astronomy and atomic physics." Kabbalah concerned itself with hidden forces in the universe, which happen also to be "the key concept of modern science and the secret of its power." The irrationalism of mysticism turns out to have much in common with the rationalism of science.
It can also feed commerce. As Yossi Klein Halevi reported recently in The New Republic, the Kabbalah Centre sells blessed kabbalah mountain spring water, scented candles for relaxation and better sex, and a red thread which, worn on the wrist, wards off the evil eye. The centre promises that contemplating the 72 Hebrew names for God can eliminate depression and stress, produce prosperity, stimulate the immune system and reduce cellular blockage.
While repositioning kabbalah for the 21st century, the Kabbalah Centre has turned it upside down. The original version urges the transcendence of the world and the individual ego. New-style kabbalah promises to master the world for the benefit of the individual. It's claimed that meditating on the correct Hebrew letters can alter an individual's DNA structure, regenerate cells and produce longevity. Even physical immortality, the ultimate accomplishment, is considered a goal at the Kabbalah Centre.
None of this should be surprising. The world expects show-business people to exhibit levels of self-absorption that we would find repellent or pathological in anyone else. Certainly the emergence of Kabbalah Chic would not astonish Scholem. When he was young, the kabbalah was already used by fortune-tellers and other frauds, and that practice never disappeared. A few years before his death he admitted that in the beginning he was naive. He believed scholarship would drive out charlatanism. "Instead the charlatans go on as before -- only now they use me as a footnote."