Brooklyn College Introduces New Course on Kabbalah and Messianism

The Sefirot (shining ones), the ten fundamentals of Jewish esoteric mysticism, arranged in a tree of life diagram.

It's no secret that celebrities have found Kabbalah, a branch of Jewish mysticism traditionally restricted to married men over forty who had mastered other aspects of Jewish law and learning. Before Roseanne Barr, Elizabeth Taylor, Mick Jagger, Sandra Bernhardt, and Demi Moore made Kabbalah trendy, it was thought that if the uninitiated delved into this esoteric lore—complete with cosmological and sexual symbols, complex literature, and doctrines—the promised result was insanity.

Crazy or not, the celebs are drawn in by the Kabbalah Learning Center, a worldwide organization that popularizes the writing of the Mediterranean mystics who developed various systems of thought during the Middle Ages. The most prominent modern follower is Madonna, who embraced the study of Kabbalah six years ago and has donated more than $5 million to the center. She calls this modern interpretation of Kabbalah "very punk rock," drinks specially blessed Kabbalah water that is supposedly charged with positive energy, burns magical Kabbalah candles, wears a red string on her left wrist to ward off evil, and has even instructed close friends to call her "Esther," her Hebrew name.

Critics have charged that the Kabbalah Center is a cult that fleeces its gullible followers, while perverting the original texts so that they are more appealing to seekers of New Age spirituality. But the tradition of Kabbalah, as taught in Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies Sharon Flatto's class "Kabbalah and Messianism," is a vastly complex system of thought and Biblical interpretation, rooted in the medieval period, which evolved over the course of five hundred years and has had a lasting influence on Jewish culture (and also led to the rise of a number of false Jewish messiahs). "I tell my students that learning Kabbalah is like learning a new language," says Flatto. "It takes a while to orient yourself because you are being exposed to a different way of thinking."

Flatto, a New York native who joined the Brooklyn College faculty in 2002, is a scholar steeped in esoteric Jewish traditions. After earning her Ph.D. at Yale University in 2000, she taught for two years at Brown University, where she first gave her popular class on Kabbalah. A historian, Flatto is interested in the social and geographic contexts in which these mystical trends evolved as well as the ideas that caught hold in the Jewish theological tradition and led to the wide dissemination of what, initially, was the private intellectual pursuit of an extremely small number of Jewish scholars.

To read an interview with Sharon Flatto about the current revival of interest in Kabbalah, click here.

   Students in Flatto's course learn about the roots of Kabbalah, which emerged on the historical stage in the south of France during the twelfth century. The course then investigates the flourishing of Kabbalah in Spain that produced the Zohar, or "The Book of Splendor," one of the classic works of Jewish mysticism. From there the study of Kabbalah spread to other parts of Europe and the Middle East and had considerable influence on Jewish intellectual life. Flatto ends the course with an examination of the celebrated false mystical messiah Sabbatai Zevi (1626-76) and his radical, nihilistic successor, Jacob Frank (1726-91) who converted to Christianity, and the Donmeh movement, which converted to Islam.

   The course is one of eighteen offered by Brooklyn College's Department of Judaic Studies this fall, together with courses on the Jews of New York, anti-Semitism, the history of Zionism, Sephardic heritage, and the shtetl in history and literature. Under the leadership of chairperson Sara Reguer, the department offers a master of arts, bachelors of arts and a minor in Judaic studies, as well as a concentration in Judaic studies for early childhood (birth to grade 2) and childhood (grades 1-6) education teachers. For more information, please call (718) 951-5229 or e-mail the department chairperson at


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