A circle is a powerful symbol. I think most Kabbalists would agree that a circle represents one of the most potent forces in the universe. The Jewish mystic tradition divides the world into two basic components: the source of all power, infinitely giving energy and light, and the repository of this power, which holds and gives it shape. In Kabbalah, the latter is referred to as “the vessel,” often symbolized by a circle, like a container’s open mouth. One might think that the source of power is the force in the universe that demands all our attention, but Kabbalists emphasize the critical role of the receptacle—without which the power would be undirected and useless. Much of Kabbalah concerns the proper management of this power and the word “Kabbalah” means “to receive.”
After the service at a conservative synagogue, I mentioned my intention to explore Kabbalah to a middle-aged lawyer with gentle, watery eyes. “Be careful,” he said, his eyes widening like two pools swelling, though whether he was warning me about L.A.’s Kabbalah “Centre” specifically or Kabbalah in general I wasn’t sure. Kabbalah has a reputation for being unsafe and stories abound about its ancient practitioners losing their minds, driven to madness during the exercises meant to tap into the universe’s power; these include chanting, singing, breathing, dancing, meditation, and visualization. The trick is not just drawing the energy but being able to properly channel it. When this transaction is not mastered, a person may cling to the power, feeding unhealthy self-interest—or misdirect it, fueling negative objectives. For this reason, Jewish leaders often say that only mature pupils under the guidance of the most skilled teachers should attempt to practice Kabbalah.
Yet, Kabbalistic notions seem to permeate all aspects of Jewish life. Casual references to Kabbalah and Kabbalah scholars peppered the talks of rabbis at practically every service I attended. Basic Jewish concepts were described to me using Kabbalistic ideas: the emphasis on passive activities on Sabbath is designed to foster the “receptive,” rather than “productive,” aspects of our nature and women are excused from many traditional practices because our vessel-like qualities are naturally more fine-tuned than those of men. I even encountered an explanation of the Messianic era in these terms: the period itself will be one of receptivity, which is the source of the peace that will prevail, like a Sabbath that extends indefinitely.
Without meaning to, I happened into a special Kabbalah-inspired service at a reformed synagogue. I thought it would be a typical Friday night ceremony that welcomes the Sabbath like those I had attended at other synagogues. I expected something bare bones, just a handful of people led by a lone rabbi. But this was different. The folding chairs in the large room were arranged in concentric circles starting with a small one at the center and spiraling out; by the time I arrived, the only spaces available were along the outer ring almost to the wall. A photocopied sheet explained that this “new model of worship” began a few years earlier; introduced as “Fifth Friday,” it initially took place only when a month had an extra Friday, but it was such a huge hit, they introduced it as a regular monthly service renamed “Kabbalat Shabbat.” If synagogue leaders were hesitant at first to officially label their new model Kabbalistic, they were emboldened by the congregation’s acceptance. In addition to seating in the round, the entire service is sung by everyone present.
I found an empty seat sandwiched between two young families facing the boyish rabbi and female cantor in the middle circle…