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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Michael Laitman is not a rabbi in the conventional sense, though he does have what some might call a very large pulpit. And thanks to a combination of timing and technology, his following mushrooms by the moment. There's nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come, particularly in the age of the Web and the satellite dish.
In this case, the "idea" is Kabbalah - Jewish mysticism - a field-of-study-cum-way-of-life that has captured the hearts and minds of a cross-section of soul-searchers across the globe, among them gentile Hollywood stars and secular Jewish Tel Aviv trend-setters.
Laitman, a veteran immigrant to Israel from the former Soviet Union with a PhD in philosophy, an MS in medical cybernetics and a professorship in ontology, has become famous at home and abroad for purveying the teachings of leading Kabbalist Rabbi Baruch Ashlag, son of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, the author of The Sulam Commentary on the Zohar.
Laitman's office at the Bnei Baruch Kabbalah Education and Research Institute, which he founded and heads, is located in a dilapidated building in Petah Tikva's industrial zone. It is a tiny room at the end of a maze of makeshift, run-down study halls and adjoining hi-tech "recording studios" lined floor to ceiling with video and audio equipment. These are manned by dozens of volunteers busily uploading, downloading, taping, transcribing and translating Laitman's lessons and 30 books (10 of which are available in English) into nine languages.
Though Laitman's philosophy - or what he describes in his writings as a "scientific method" - is not restricted either to Jews or to any particular stream of religious observance, every man one encounters at the Bnei Baruch headquarters is wearing a kippa, including Laitman, whom the students refer to as "The Rav."
Extending a warm handshake and offering a seat across from him at his desk, The Rav relaxes into an hour-long interview, talking in fluent, Russian-accented Hebrew with the ease of someone for whom repeating the same answers to the same questions is part and parcel of his mission: to bring the study of Kabbalah to as many people as possible, for the purpose of effecting global "correction" through internal enlightenment.
His gentle manner and piercing, charismatic gaze at moments give way to undertones of impatience, as though he is frustrated by his listener's inability to grasp in an instant the gist of the Kabbalah he has spent the better part of 30 years poring over and promoting. But it feels like the impatience of a caring teacher, determined to pull a prized pupil to greater heights. Herein, perhaps, lies another secret to Laitman's popularity.
What is the Kabbalist view of the situation in Israel, following the war in Lebanon and facing an Iranian threat?
The Kabbalah doesn't go into such particulars. It teaches the general law that governs the Jewish People - one we have not really been obeying. We were chosen to bring the world to perfection - to be a light unto the nations. Moses offered the Torah to all people, but it was only the Jews who accepted it. In the meantime, however, we haven't been fulfilling our role.
According to The Book of Zohar, all the world's troubles are the result of this. The current situation of the world is one of serious crisis and uncertainty in all realms. There is terrorism, drug use, an unraveling of the family and a decline in education.
On the one hand, the people of the world are becoming increasingly connected to each other because of globalization; on the other, individuals can't even be connected to their own families or with themselves because of egoism.
This dichotomy has led to the sorry state we are in. Here, the Zohar says, is where tikkun [correcting the ills of the world] must emerge. This concept is not new. It was revealed in ancient Mesopotamia following the fiasco of the Tower of Babel - the first incident of humankind's aim to build and control through pride and egoism. It was then that the Kabbalah was revealed to Abraham, who sought to correct this ego-driven state of mankind. He was unsuccessful, and humankind began a process of development through egoism. This is how we arrived where we are today - at a dead-end - with a renewed search and necessity for the wisdom of the Kabbalah.
You say that the Jewish People hasn't been fulfilling its role as a light unto the nations? Do you believe that this is the cause of anti-Semitism?
Indeed. The world senses unconsciously that we hold the key to its happiness - that we are responsible for its malaise. There is an underlying accusation that we're not doing our job of making the world a better place.
You were not surprised, then, by the war in Lebanon.
Of course not. Every day, our situation grows worse. And what do we think we can correct through warfare? The missiles continued to fall on the North, after we went to war. We corrected nothing.
It could be said that "we corrected nothing" because the Olmert-Peretz government didn't fight the war properly.
What difference does it make if it is Ehud Olmert or anybody else in the Prime Minister's Office? We've seen time and again that politicians contribute nothing to correction.
Look, everything happens for a reason, including terrorism and war. There is a grand plan for bringing humanity to a completely different kind of life - a spiritual and peaceful one. If it is not implemented by means of the Kabbalah, the road to achieving it will be much more painful.
If this "grand plan" hasn't been implemented until now, what is the basis for your assumption that it will happen at all?
It has to, because all of nature functions properly, other than mankind, which is not in the right balance or harmony with itself or with nature. An analogy is the human body. Every cell in the body is "egoistical" yet functions altruistically. When cells function egoistically, they become cancerous. Humanity right now is functioning as a cancer. We therefore have no choice but to change. Which is where the Kabbalah comes in.
Why not the Torah?
The Torah and the Kabbalah are the same thing?
Yes, but when we speak of the Torah, we usually mean the book and the mitzvot [good deeds], not real tikkun [correction] of the heart.
Is it possible to undergo a "correction of the heart" without keeping the mitzvot?
It is written that correction has to come to the entire world. This doesn't mean that Italians or Chinese have to put on tefillin [phylacteries], for example.
The real purpose of keeping all the mitzvot is to help us correct our egos - to effect internal change. But merely performing the acts has the opposite effect: aggrandizing personal pride.
Doesn't this contradict the Torah, that says Na'aseh Venishma [we perform the mitzvot, and enlightenment follows]?
It isn't as simplistic a concept as it's talked about. It, too, has to do with internal correction.
What is a mitzva, after all? It is the correction of a desire.
Can you give an example of the correction of a desire?
Every desire within us, if aimed to benefit others, is a mitzva.
What if a desire benefits others, but is self-satisfying? Is that also a mitzva?
No, that's egoism.
What about phenomena such as Mozart? He would never have brought his music to the world without the ego of his parents pushing him. Without them, humanity would not have had the pleasure of that music. In other words, when we forfeit egoism, don't we forfeit other things in the process?
To forfeit egoism is not to forfeit will. It is to use the will altruistically, for the good of your fellow man. You don't erase the will; you channel it differently. That is what distinguishes the Kabbalah from all the other forms of mysticism. So Mozart can remain Mozart.
How is this different from Buddhism?
Buddhism is about minimizing the ego - through eating less, drinking less, talking less, etc. - while the Kabbalah is about channeling the ego correctly, not overcoming it.
On the contrary, in order to achieve inner peace, one needs his ego. The idea is to achieve harmony between the different functions of the body and humanity - not to eradicate one of them. The Kabbalah accepts all the facets of a person, and requires only awareness.
If the goal is tikkun [correction], why is it called Kabbalah [reception, acceptance]?
Because man's material body is a vessel which needs correction in order to function wholly.
Explain to the layman how one goes about correcting the vessel. If we use your cancer analogy, when a person has cancer, he undergoes chemotherapy. What does one do to cure the illness you're talking about?
One studies the Kabbalah - to gain an understanding that all of humanity is a single "kibbutz," and that we have to love our neighbor as ourselves. One has two choices: either to reach this understanding through study and awareness, or the hard way, through pain.
But you indicated that pain is what leads to the search for meaning - the way the Holocaust led to the establishment of the State of Israel, perhaps?
What the Holocaust did was give the Jews the opportunity to abscond to Israel to begin the process of correction. But we're not doing it. We're not loving our neighbors as ourselves.
How can someone love his neighbor as himself if he doesn't love himself?
There is no person who doesn't love himself. There is no action a person takes that is not for his personal pleasure.
Including those who engage in self-destructive behavior, such as drug and alcohol abuse?
A person takes drugs for personal pleasure.
How can a person know whether he has made an internal correction?
He immediately sees and feels it. We live in a bubble that's called "this world." When we make a correction, we see a larger sphere.
During the war, there was an item on TV showing a truly cheerful 105-year-old resident of Kiryat Shmona walking outdoors, amid the Katyusha fire. He appeared to be enlightened without Kabbalah studies.
That man is an example of someone with a small ego. Increase it and he'll feel deprived, as though he's got nothing. The more developed a person's ego, the more deprivation he feels. This leads to depression.
Are you saying that studying the Kabbalah can cure depression?
There is no illness or suffering that can't be cured through spiritual ascension.
Can any individual undergo such ascension?
Yes. And everyone will, according to the book of Zohar.
How does a person bring himself to make this kind of correction?
From repeated and accumulated hard knocks.
What brought you to this quest?
I have always been drawn to the question of why a person lives - of the meaning of life. I finished my university degree in medical cybernetics, yet didn't solve the mystery. So I decided to keep looking. My search ended when I encountered the Kabbalah, a few years after making aliya.
Was the search for the meaning of life connected to your making aliya?
Certainly. We don't know why we are drawn to move from one place to another. We don't see the alignment of forces. But they're there nevertheless. Though we like to think that it is our will that guides us, it is part of a larger field of will.
How do you view the current Kabbalah fad and stars like Madonna popularizing it?
It is not at all surprising that such people are embarking on an internal search, given the state of the world today. It is basically a positive development.