What Is Kabbalah?

updated 05/12/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/12/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Forget crystals and the lotus position. Today many celebs seeking the light—besides the spotlight, that is—have turned to Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism, as a path to inner peace.

What is Kabbalah?

Hebrew for "received tradition," Kabbalah (Ka-ba-LAH) refers to the study of ancient texts, most notably the Zohar, a 13th-century commentary on the Torah (the five books of Moses). Kabbalah holds that God is made up of 10 "emanations," which include compassion, strength, wisdom and grace. By studying them, humans can get closer to an unknowable God.

What role does Kabbalah play in Judaism?

Mainstream Judaism studies the writings of the Torah; Kabbalah looks for more meaning in the written words.

How does it do that?

Some tools include studying the Zohar and, for some scholars, numerology. For instance, the letters in ha-Teva, Hebrew for "nature," have the same numeric value as the letters of Elohim, one of the names of God, "leading many Kabbalists to claim the divine presence was to be found in the natural world," says Eitan P. Fishbane, a professor of Jewish religious thought at L.A.'s Hebrew Union College.

Can anyone study it?

Depends who you ask. Originally "elitist and secretive," says Fishbane, Kabbalah is considered by some Jewish leaders to be the purview of men over 40 who have studied the Torah for years. But today many religious centers and universities offer beginners a more accessible version. One of the best known: the Kabbalah Centre, which claims 400,000 students—including Madonna, Demi Moore and other stars—in 50 locations.

What's the appeal for celebs?

"I've learned from studying Kabbalah that if your happiness is based on people approving of everything you do, you're doomed to fail," says Madonna. Because Kabbalah also emphasizes God's female aspects, it is a draw for "feminist thinkers," notes Fishbane.

What do others think of the celebrity devotees?

Many theologians frown on those who look to Kabbalah for a quick spiritual high. The Kabbalah Centre has drawn particular criticism. "It's a very slick operation that has very little to do with traditional Kabbalah," says bestselling author and Kabbalah scholar Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. "They are to Kabbalah what Disneyland is to the Metropolitan Opera: There's a lot of hoopla and fun, but there ain't much opera."

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