There are sociologists who say America is in the middle of its fourth Great Awakening; a 1997 Newsweek poll found that 54 percent of Americans pray every day. But many are disenfranchised from an organized church and see religion not as an inherited given but rather as the old pick-and-choose Chinese menu. The Promise Keepers and the Vineyard, for example, mix Christianity with self-help; many Christians are into Eastern religions.
Even so -- cue the Yiddish accent -- why should they want to be Jewish? Centuries of Talmudic law have dictated that Judaism is a closed religion: You are Jewish only if your mother was Jewish (or if you undertake an elaborate conversion process). Judaism is a religion of ethnicity and birthright -- its tenet that the Jews are the Chosen People means one cannot simply choose to be chosen. Also, its many commandments and laws make Judaism an unlikely destination for faith tourists. But tourists have always searched for the exotic.
"Being the light is a proactive thing," Rabbi Yehudah Grundman of the Kabbalah Center was telling his Wednesday-night class. "Giving light versus receiving light. It's the difference between a person who inherits a million dollars" -- he paused for effect -- "and the individual who makes a million. Remember, a person who inherits a million has a very low self-esteem and is not being proactive."
Rabbi Grundman has a close-cropped beard and wears a Versace tie printed with Sun King medallions. "I met Kabbalah ten years ago," he often says. He was working as a construction engineer in Toronto ("very secular") when a friend gave him a copy of Reincarnation: Wheels of a Soul, by Rabbi Philip S. Berg, "dean" of the Kabbalah Center and -- though it has been around since 1922 -- the force behind its recent boom. (The Kabbalah Center teaches that reincarnation and some form of astrology were popular Jewish beliefs in medieval times, but so in fact do many Hasidic scholars.)
Some 50 proactive students were at Grundman's Kabbalah 1 course, in a conference room with gold-on-white wallpaper and recessed lighting. There were blacks, Asians, Hispanics, most of them in their thirties or forties. Grundman says about half the participants are not Jewish. The Jews there said the religion they grew up with underwhelmed them. A Caribbean woman in the fourth row was born Catholic but saw an ad in a Learning Annex circular. Another guy, from California, was raised in the "Science of Mind" faith, which he said is "very, very similar to Kabbalah Center." I met a mother of three, in the middle of a divorce, into self-help cassettes, wanting to meet Jewish men "because they have money." All of them were looking for something better than what they know.
Nowhere is the experiment in roll-your-own Judaism more visibly advanced than the worldwide chain of Kabbalah Centers -- if Judaism is the right word. Its goals, it must be noted, are far different from Shmuley Boteach's, Makor's, and the rest of the Jewish-continuity projects'. There are 39 branches worldwide, with outposts in Las Vegas, Aspen, and Paris. Last February, the Center opened its first Manhattan shop, a marble palace on East 48th Street. Grundman claims to have already taught Kabbalah to "thousands and thousands in town" since the outfit's days offering classes in a fashion showroom.
In addition to interpretations of the Zohar, the thirteenth-century Jewish text that forms the basis of Kabbalah study, classes include "Millennium Mania," "Weekly Energy Boost," and "Living the Light." The books and videos on sale at the gift shop have titles like Stress for Success, You Can Have It All, Black Holes and Judaism, and How to Find Your Guardian Angel. There is also Kabbalah Center mountain spring water (from sources in Canada and California meditated upon by Rabbi Berg). Each label bears instructions to hold the bottle to one's head for a few minutes before drinking. A pamphlet is available with two special-camera photos depicting the photon emission of water. The mineral structure of "Before Blessing" water resembles a bunch of unconnected dots; the "After Blessing" water has the structure of a fern leaf -- highly ordered, and thus providing lots more energy.
At a "Soulmate Connection" workshop, I watched nearly 100 unattached, mostly middle-aged people file in as Anita Ward's "Ring My Bell" played on the stereo. Rabbi Abraham Hardoon led a meditation, evoking a comfortable chair in a good-smelling room at the bottom of several flights of stairs. "Let's ask our angel the question," he said. "What is my blockage?" We were handed worksheets instructing us to list what we needed to "let go of" in order to become emotionally available. Someone at the table next to me wrote "Everything."
The Kabbalah Center is not officially recognized by any of the ruling rabbinical bodies in America and doesn't have anything in common with the rest of organized Judaism. Its activities should not be confused with the generic study of Kabbalah popular now at traditional synagogues. It's a common mistake, however, because the Kabbalah Center's Hollywood students have made it famous. "It's not the Kabbalah that I know," Rabbi David Gedzelman, the director of Makor, says. "People take two years of classes and I don't think they learn a thing about Kabbalah. They don't learn a thing about Judaism. They learn about proactive versus reactive."
Traditionally, Kabbalah study is undertaken only by the most advanced scholars -- and, as a rule, by nobody under the age of 40. To observe traditional Kabbalah study is a far cry from watching Rabbi Grundman interpret the Zohar to a roomful of the uninitiated. In that class, he'd read one passage in Aramaic, which none of his students understood. So he told them to shut their eyes and listen to the vibration of the letters. Then he asked that they share "some examples of things you should do but don't, or things you shouldn't do but do."
"I know I should manage my money, but I find I don't do it," said a young woman in a prim cardigan, her hair pulled back tight.
"That's a real problem," Grundman said. "Especially in Libra."