March 12, 2012

Celebrating Purim Like a West Coast Mystic

By Sarah Imhoff

Discussing the Jewish holiday of Purim last week, I offhandedly described it as a combination of Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day. In retrospect, it wasn’t a bad comparison: Purim has the costumes, the overwhelming number of sugary snacks, and the drinking. Drinking is not just a tradition associated with Purim; it’s a mitzvah, a commandment. The Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 7b) transmits the authoritative tradition in the name of a fourth-century rabbi: “Rava said: A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai.’”  Yes, it is a religious injunction to drink yourself silly. Come to think of it, I’m surprised it hasn’t become a widely observed college holiday.

Traditionally on Purim, Jews go to synagogue and hear the book of Esther read aloud. Whenever the reader says “Haman,” the name of the villain, listeners boo, hiss, stomp, and use noisemakers in order to “blot out Haman’s name.” Synagogue can be a raucous affair at those times, while everyone—dressed in a dizzying array of costumes—loudly denounces Haman and more quietly roots for protagonists Esther and Mordecai.

But at one Purim scroll reading in Los Angeles, there is no stomping. There are no noise-makers. There is only silence when Haman’s name is read. At the Kabbalah Centre, Haman’s name is met by silent meditation on three Hebrew letters, which are projected onto a screen. The letters symbolize dispelling negativity.

In Kabbalistic philosophy of language, it is the divine name (the tetragrammaton) that serves as the very foundation of language. Without it, there could be no letters or words, and so all language is dependent on and part of the divine name in some way. Correspondingly, focused reflection on texts, words, and even letters is a traditional part of Kabbalistic practice. 

The Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre, from
The Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre markets itself to all religious seekers, not just Jews. While the teachers and religious functionaries it employs are mostly Jewish, its members reflect the diversity of its Southern California environment. This Kabbalah is only loosely tethered to Judaism. In fact, the website never identifies Kabbalah as Jewish. Instead, it is a “secret” that is “the magic that will transform your life too.” This brand of esoteric religious knowledge has attracted celebrities (Madonna, Britney Spears, and Ashton Kutcher, to name a few) and other seekers of enlightenment. And, in addition to a number of weekly classes, members and others gather at the Centre on Purim.

On its face, the Scroll of Esther is not a text about God; in fact, God is never mentioned. It is a text about peoplehood and holding fast to community and identity in the face of persecution. So what does a text celebrating the strong ties of Jewish peoplehood and a historical victory over some nasty Persian officials mean to an audience that is primarily interested in uncovering mystical secrets in order to transform their lives? The simple answer is that Kabbalists believe that every biblical text also has an esoteric meaning available only to those initiated into special reading practices. But, in another sense, the meaning of the text isn’t the right question at all. The peacocks, astronauts, Mexican wrestlers, and disco queens filling the seats on Purim are there because they imagine themselves as having a certain spiritual disposition and spiritual goals, and they see this particular version of popular mysticism as a path toward those goals.

While there are Kabbalah Centres in other cities, the Los Angeles community is particularly high-profile. I suspect that a combination of factors created the environment for it to thrive. One of these factors is the larger ethos that Jeffrey Kripal has referred to as “West Coast mysticism” (Mutants and Mystics, 29). A host of New Age movements and adaptations of “Eastern” religions have taken hold on the West Coast from the 1960s (and even before) to the present. Whether it’s “in the air,” a reflection of different cultural values, or something else, the West Coast in general and California more specifically has been a rich environment for new modes of “spirituality” and religious practice.

Another factor is the more widespread recovery of Kabbalah within more mainstream Jewish circles. In the early twentieth century, Reform synagogues would never have considered having Kabbalah classes in their schedules alongside Sisterhood meetings. But today literacy in Jewish mysticism is quite respectable—even desirable—in Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaisms and a central piece of movements like neo-Hasidism and Renewal. Even though the Kabbalah Centre is explicitly universalist in its approaches, the renewed Jewish interest in Kabbalah as part of tradition has added to its accessibility and popularity.

As for Purim, its accessibility remains. Since Rava in the fourth century, it has been occasion to act silly and drink too much. Religiously.

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