The Israeli town of Tzfat, the center of the Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabbalah, is made up of an eclectic mix of devoted Orthodox Jews and free-spirited Western expats. Rabbi Eyal Riess, a resident of Tzfat and one of the leaders of Kabbalah, seems to have a foot in each camp.
A former disc jockey in Tel Aviv who “saw the light” eight years ago, Rabbi Eyal sported a full, Orthodox-style beard and wore a long kaffiyeh when we met him for a tour of Tzfat on the Jewish holiday Purim. He says he lives an Orthodox lifestyle– kosher diet, no work on the Sabbath– and our walking tour of Tzfat mostly left me with the impression that Eyal was knowledgeable about his town and took seriously his role as one of Kabbalah’s leaders. There’s nothing like the zeal of a convert, after all.
As our walking tour wound down though, after we had been through Tzfat’s Artist Quarter, the Cave of Shem and Eber (where Noah’s son and grandson allegedly studied the Torah), and to the town’s cemetery, we began to pick up hints that Rabbi Eyal might not be the austere mystic we thought we were meeting.
It started when I asked him a question based on the only thing most people know about his faith: “What do you think about Madonna being a follower of Kabbalah?”
His answer surprised me. I guess I expected him to say something along the lines of, “I’m glad she’s brought attention to Kabbalah but she doesn’t in any way represent our faith.” Instead, he was enthusiastic about her participation and he mentioned proudly that “Montel Williams arrived here in a helicopter a couple weeks ago.”
“Celebrities can lead very unbalanced lives,” Eyal said. “They need kabbalah as much as anyone else– sometimes more.” (Curiously, he said the opposite two years ago, calling Madonna “not a role model” and “just silliness” in an article about her visit.)
Because I was visiting Tzfat as part of a press trip, Eyal asked me what publication I wrote for. “A website called Gadling,” I told him.
“Do they do sales or just information?” Eyal asked.
“Umm, just… information.” I stammered. The question confused me: Was this a Serious Religious Leader or some sort of huckster televangelist?
Eyal then lamented the fact that the name of his town could be spelled so many different ways (Tzfat, Safed, Tsfat, Zefat) because it confused people who Googled the town.
When our walking tour was over, Eyal seated our group back at the Kabbalah headquarters, asked our guide in Hebrew to give him ten minutes with us, then gave us his sales pitch: “We have many programs for tourists who are interested in Kabbalah– from one day seminars to two-week workshops,” he said.
He handed out several pamphlets listing the various programs that tourists could come and waste, I mean spend, their money on. One day-long workshop was based on The Secret: It consisted of, among other things, using a “powerful computer program” to figure out secrets about a person based on their name and birthday. The cost? About US$175.
And that’s where Eyal– intelligent, personable, former-DJ Eyal– lost me. Maybe it’s a flaw in me, but when I hear people talk earnestly about things like The Secret, I turn off the part of my brain that makes me take them seriously.
With his pathetic sales pitch, Eyal was making himself ridiculous, like a bishop who gives you a free tour of his cathedral then tries to sell you a timeshare.
In the end, although I was surprised by Eyal’s embrace of Kabbalah celebrities like Madonna, he did confirm my suspicion about one thing: Those red bracelets she wears are crap.
Disclosure: This week-long trip to Israel was sponsored by the country’s Ministry of Tourism. My opinions are (obviously) my own.