Kabbalah is black magic

In the dark rooms of Kabbalah

Talismans, enigmatic signs and a journey into heaven as a journey into hell: the seductive “Kabbalah” show in the Jewish Museum draws you deep into the past and present of Jewish mysticism.

A few years ago, journalists saw Demi Moore at an illustrious press reception in the Moscow Hotel Ritz. When this was over, the US actress retired to her hotel room for a very private session with Russian Kabbalists. . .

Like them, many celebrities have succumbed to the enigmatic charms of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism - which has been allowed to proliferate in the course of its history and knows no dogmatics. David Beckham and Madonna are just as much a part of it as David Bowie. 100 years ago the Kabbalah fans were called Rudolf Steiner, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud or Walter Benjamin - and their teacher Gershom Sholem: the religious historian and rediscoverer of Kabbalah for secular intellectuals. He himself found their practices “mind-devastating”; he preferred to study them.

You can now immerse yourself in the dark world of Kabbalah in the Jewish Museum in Vienna. Blackness pierced with shine envelops you here, manuscripts, enigmatic pictures, strange modern works of art, talismans. . . This noble show, curated together with the Joods Historisch Museum Amsterdam, exudes a truly magical atmosphere. It irritates and fascinates every step of the way, solves riddles and at the same time keeps giving up new ones - in keeping with the topic: Jewish mysticism and its survival to this day.

The Zohar, "Holy Grail" of Kabbalah

This current was born in the south of France at the time of the troubadours, its representatives traced it back to Abraham. Her “Holy Grail”, the central book “Zohar” (“Shine”), is also traced back to a rabbi of the 2nd century - it was created in Spain in the 13th century. When the Jews there were expelled, their mystical teachings also went out into the world. These revolved around numbers, letters, the name of God, transmigration of souls, the battle between good and evil - and all of them referred to the Bible. Even the famous red Kabbalah bracelet, which is supposed to protect against evil, is derived from Genesis. During the Renaissance, Christians attempted to prove that Jewish Kabbalah was essentially proclaiming Christian doctrine and the mystery of the Trinity, tying it with alchemy and magic - Kabbalah and magic became synonymous for many, as was the case in late 19th century occultism.

The Zohar devotes himself extensively to the descriptions of evil - and Kabbalah practice above all to protection against it. Lilith, a red-haired, male-murdering demon queen, was and is particularly dangerous. Later she fared like the witch in the Christian world: She became the identification figure of - in this case - Jewish feminism. A black dress, symbolizing obsession and doom, was sunk by the artist Sigalit Landau for three months in the Dead Sea, the fascinating result can be seen in her 2014 photo series “Salt-Crystal Bride” shown in the show. It was soaked up with salt full, at the end is a crystal white wedding dress.

What, in turn, has the purple full-body suit, which is reminiscent of Asian combat robes and littered with symbols, to look for here? It is a protective suit with a talisman function, designed in 2000 by the US artist Michael Berkowitz: characters were among the most effective weapons of Kabbalah in the fight against evil.

Perhaps the most beautiful device here looks like the layman imagines an alchemical device. Its title “What's in the Rose?” Alludes to the first sentence of the book “Zohar”, in which it says: “What is the rose?” In the Zohar, the flower surrounded by thorns stands for Israel. For Ghiora Aharoni, an Israeli artist living in New York, it becomes a symbol of human existence; the inverted characters on the device can only be read from the inside, very symbolically.

Anselm Kiefer, on the other hand, was fascinated by the idea of ​​the heavenly journey of Jewish mysticism as a journey into one's own inner being. One of his massive paintings, “Merkaba” (that's the name of the divine throne chariot), seems to show a desolate old fighter aircraft carrier in the sea. The journey to heaven, Kiefer also followed the Kabbalah, begins terribly, with the descent into death, destruction, and darkness.

A secret doctrine becomes public

After her birth in southern Europe, the Kabbalah relocated to Israel, where brotherhoods were established in the 16th century, one of them centered around the mystic Isaac Luria. He has left his mark on Kabbalistic theories to this day. From him comes the image of a god who withdraws to make creation possible. Later, for example, the Eastern European Hasidim, who since the fin de siècle as supposedly “true” Judaism were the inspiration for so many European writers, kept the Kabbalah alive. As the show shows, they have integrated this into their everyday life like no other movement.

It was also a Hasidic Kabbalist, Yehuda Ashlag, who updated the Kabbalistic teachings of Isaac Luria against the background of the Holocaust: Evil had become so strong that the Kabbalah could no longer remain a secret, it had to be spread. It became - with the help of pop stars and Kabbalah centers around the world. Today it promises access to the secrets of life as well as healing from the domination of the ego. Like so many spiritual movements.

On view until March 3, 2019 at the Jewish Museum Vienna, Dorotheergasse 11, 1010 Vienna. Sun – Fri, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

("Die Presse", print edition, October 31, 2018)