In the Spirit: In this Kabbalah class, there's ancient wisdom but no Madonna

Posted Sunday, Dec 2nd, 2012
Wisconsin State Journal

The instructor asked us to ponder this statement:

“If ___________, then I would be a happier person.”

There were 20 of us in the class on a recent Monday night at the Lussier Community Education Center on Madison’s West Side. We had gathered for the third installment of a six-session course titled “The Kabbalah of You: A Guide to Unlocking Your Hidden Potential.”

This session focused on happiness — where it comes from and how to get it.

I knew little about Kabbalah going into the class, save for some vague awareness that Demi Moore and Madonna were into it.

Rabbi Avremel Matusof, the course instructor, quickly disabused me of any notion that the Kabbalah of his class and the Hollywood version had much in common.

“The Kabbalah of pop culture is an effort to create a stand-alone study,” he said. “It takes it out of its context.”

The context, Matusof said, is the Torah, the Jewish sacred writings. He described Kabbalah as a doctrine of ancient Jewish mysticism that “provides a philosophical understanding of why God created the universe.”

For thousands of years, these divine secrets — attained by praying and contemplating the hidden meanings of the Hebrew words and letters of the Torah — were known only to the great scholars of Judaism, Matusof said. However, in the last couple of centuries, the Kabbalah has become more and more revealed in a way that can be explained to the masses and taught alongside regular Torah study, he said.

Anyone can benefit from studying it, and you don’t need to give up your own faith tradition to do so, Matusof said. “It offers us more power and energy to face the world and its challenges,” he said.

Similar six-week Kabbalah courses are being offered this fall at hundreds of sites around the country by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, based in Brooklyn. Matusof, 27, is teaching the local course in his capacity as director of Young Jewish Professionals of Madison, a group that began last year and is funded by the Irwin A. and Robert D. Goodman Foundation. The group is an affiliate of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute.

The happiness class unfolded with practical knowledge that would be familiar to someone steeped in self-help literature and the latest research: possessions beyond basic needs don’t necessarily increase happiness; happiness is determined more by perspective than circumstances; gratitude is a prerequisite to happiness.

The benefit of having Matusof, an engaging speaker, at the podium was to deepen this information by always tying it to the fundamentals of Jewish belief. He noted, for instance, that while our Founding Fathers viewed the pursuit of happiness as a right, Judaism takes it further and considers happiness a moral obligation.

“When a person has a right, it is often self-centered — I have a right to do something, I must stick up for my rights,” he said. “In Judaism, we tend to view things more as obligations than rights.

“According to the Torah, you actually have a moral obligation toward others to try to be happy, because when you’re smiling and happy, that has the same effect on others.”

By the end of the class, we had returned to the fill-in-the-blank statement posed at the session’s start.

Kabbalah scholars, Matusof told us, have deemed the true answer to be this: “If I would only realize what I already have, then I would be a happier person.”

More Stories