The portrayal of Kabbalah, the practice of Jewish mysticism, has varied greatly over the past few years. High-profile Kabbalah followers like Madonna and Paris Hilton have created a grey area between pop-culture mystical involvement and a true understanding of the practice from a devoutly religious perspective.
The roots of Jewish mysticism lie in vigorous study of Jewish texts, leading from the Torah and Talmud to the Zohar. The underlying goal of Kabbalists is to reach a state of self-betterment.
"Kabbalah is a rigorous path that is completely conformed by traditional belief and practice," said Elliot R. Wolfson, Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University and an expert on Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. "There are aspects of Kabbalah that have been adapted and adapted by people outside of orthodoxy."
Kabbalists claim their beliefs can help one practice other religious or spiritual paths. This, among other things, can make for a very appealing practice.
"Different spiritual paths have a common denominator," said Wolfson, explaining that while it depends on what people are looking for in their faith, Kabbalah can help practitioners come closer to the light at the end of their own path.
The state of modern Kabbalah has come under some debate among different sects of worshippers. The Kabbalah Center, which Madonna was formerly a part of, has stated that Kabbalah is a completely separate practice from Judaism. Wolfson disagrees.
"Judaism is a religion, they say, and Kabbalah is a spirituality," said Wolfson. "From my perspective as a student of Kabbalah, that is not something I can accept."
While some criticize pop-culture Kabbalists for tainting the overall message of the Jewish ties to Kabbalah, Wolfson acknowledges that those who participate due to fad-mentality can still gain some form of enlightenment from their membership.
In addition to Kabbalah's quest towards perfection, there are other applications of Jewish mysticism. The practical results of mysticism have been said to act as an aid in medical situations.
"I wouldn't suggest that it is wise to substitute what you can find in Kabbalah for conventional western forms of medicine, but as a supplement, yes," said Wolfson.
The faculty of humanities and department of religious studies hosted Wolfson's visit to the University of Calgary as the 2006 Peter Craigie Memorial Lecture, Mon., Oct. 16 . Wolfson discussed Envisioning the Invisible: The Mystical Quest to see God in Judaism.