The kabbalah (or cabala or cabbala), a system of Jewish mysticism, is shrouded in mystery, and one pictures readings in candlelit basements accessed by a Hebrew password, not in a bright convention room at the Delta Chelsea Hotel on a Sunday afternoon. The Toronto Kabbalah Centre, which has taken the ancient occult theology and branded it, is offering free classes all day. The 1 pm Manifesting Prosperity talk is packed -- I'd say at least 150 people, but then, on Saturday's peace march I counted 10 times the number quoted in the Sun.
This crowd is thoroughly engaged by Rabbi Meir, who is verbally abusing an American $100 bill, then stomping on it, followed by the question, "But is it still money?" Everyone affirms that it is. And what is money? "Energy in action!" they shout. Or is it energy and action? Whichever, they've already learned the answer. And energy is the life force of God. Rabbi Meir says the kabbalah can teach how to control your reactive system to achieve what you need -- which is always more than what you want.
He answers a few questions, encourages enrolment in the eight-week class ($250), at the same time inviting students to disbelieve anything they will be taught. I recognize this as an element of Jewish scholarly tradition meant to encourage independent thought.
There are two tables in the room at which to register for classes such as Creating Miracles In Your Life (six weeks for $200). The literature states, "Proof of miracles is everywhere -- just turn on your television." Do they mean TV is a miracle or just certain shows?
People are snacking on the chips, pretzels and candy on the tables. I keep my puffy eyes down to avoid the attention of the many cruising kabbalists eager to sign me up.
The 2 pm talk promises to reveal The Secret, so I've got to stay for that. Besides, it's warm and dry in here. Again the speaker is Rabbi Meir, which is fine because he has the instincts of a stand-up comic. I can very easily imagine Jerry Seinfeld teaching kabbalah and being good at it. It takes four classes ($150) and further coaching to get The Secret, but the crux is: "The only way to achieve long and lasting fulfillment is by becoming a being of sharing."
At one point, a call-and-response develops between the rabbi and a clear-voiced Jamaican woman. He has to contain the possibility of his talk turning into a revival-meeting free-for-all.
He ends his tight routine (one wonders how snappy the local teachers are) to answer questions. The one about the Hebrew letter "W" being the same as 6, and therefore the "www" of computers equaling the 666 of the Antichrist is more what I expected of a kabbalah meeting. But many are concerned with the idea of sharing with beggars on the street. When in doubt, share, advises the rabbi. But "the highest form of sharing is sharing the idea of sharing."
I would have had to sign up early for kabbalistic palm and face reading. Just as well -- I don't think I'm up to having my barely thawed mug scrutinized. Outside the room I can buy a "Destroy your ego' T-shirt. There are healing oils for sale, and stones whose appeal is marred for me by the words like "Healing" and "Love" incised into them. The clunky jewellery confuses me. Shouldn't personal refinement extend to the physical? How does a higher spiritual plane automatically go with bad dangly earrings? What does the kabbalah have to say about the substance of style? The idea of sharing a good look has merit.
Evidently, the kabbalah is open to a wide range of interpretations. All instructors in Toronto have studied under Rav Berg. The Secret is derived from the writings of Yehuda Ashlag, who founded the Kabbalah Centre in 1922.
The Zohar, available in a 22-volume set in Aramaic and English, was written 2,000 years ago by Rabbi Yohai. "During the aftermath of September 11, Kabbalah Centre has donated thousands of pocket-size Zohars to those who work in dangerous occupations."
The books on display range from those unsuitable for the untrained, with questions like "How does the light force exit from the realm of emanator to become an emanated being?" to others containing simple teachings like "Don't judge others."
Obviously, it would take a long time (and some money) to be introduced to the more arcane aspects of the kabbalah. I believe people are here searching for guidance in their lives. A lot of language used in describing classes is similar to self-improvement course outlines at the Learning Annex. But the kabbalah has the cachet of mystery and history.
Rabbi Meir says the kabbalah was given as a teaching but the Jews kept it hidden from one another, and the time has come to reveal it to everyone. Hence, the nice hotel downtown to attract nice, normal people.
Not for me. I'd still prefer to stumble across a group of clandestine kabbalists who swear me to secrecy. Only after years will I find out I've joined the Shriners.