Google ads have me all wrong. Sometimes they pick up on keywords accurately and make a guess about me: "Are you 26?! Do you like to eat?!" Why yes! Yes, I am! And yes, I do! But other times, it draws terrible conclusions: "Are you looking for Jesus?" Mm, no. Not really. But sometimes these bad guesses turn out in my favor. Such was the case a week ago, when an ad offered me 29 minutes of wisdom from the "ancient" religion of Kabbalah. Quickly, I registered and convinced a friend to join me. And within a few days, we were sitting in a large room, filled with elaborate chandeliers and women dripping with jewelry, learning about Kabbalah.
The Kabbalah Center of Los Angeles must have these events frequently. They are deceptively titled "29 minutes," though the keynote presentation lasted a good 45, and was followed by indefinite conversation with a volunteer at each of the tables. The talk itself was vague and uninspired, drawing on old oratory tricks like asking us to leave behind our skepticism, to "open our minds" to what the speaker had to say. She expertly walked the line between vaguery and cockiness, telling us stories like the one about the student who insisted he didn't need Kabbalah-- that he was "in control." "So I said to him, 'Okay. Fine! You're in control? Take off your glasses!" A rumble of giggles came from the believers in the crowd. I wondered how many of them had thrown out their contacts since paying the $270 for the introductory Kabbalah class.
The speaker claimed that Kabbalah was completely based in scientific discourse, yet glossed over key points to the contrary, such as a belief in astrology (which does not stand up to even basic scrutiny).
When the speaker had finished congratulating herself on all her knowledge and gotten off the stage, the volunteer at my table, a beautiful woman with a clean yellow sweater and silver jewelry (I hate how dark skined women can wear yellow; it's so unfair), turned to me and my friend (a fellow skeptic named Ross), when the talk was over and asked us if we had any questions. Perhaps she mostly hears "Where can I sign up?!" because she was ill-prepared for our questioning, but had the ovaries to answer each question with a confident one-to-three word sentence.
"So... you said the beliefs of Kabbalah have been proven in the last twenty years. Is there a study showing the existence of a soul?"
"Oh, I'm sure there is. There's a book where... he goes into... all that."
"If all the revelations of Kabbalah can be independently verified by science, wouldn't you not need Kabbalah anyway, since you could come to those conclusions naturally anyway?"
"No, you need revelation."
"It's hard to believe the universe exists for us when everything existed for billions of years before us. So do you believe all the universe is here for us?"
"Yes. I would say so."
"Now, I heard that the red bracelet is to ward off the evil eye. Is that right?"
"Yes, for protection."
"And is there a study showing that?"
"Yes. There's a book, The Red String, where he talks about all that."
"Do you think it's possible to live a fulfilling life without Kabbalah?"
"So you said the book of Formation was written by Abraham 5,000 years ago, but there was no written Hebrew word til about 900 BC. So wouldn't it just be oral tradition at that point?"
"No, he wrote it."
Oh. Well then.
But what about all the creative visionaries of history? Einstein, Newton?
"Well, many of them secretly were Kabbalist."
I learned many other pieces of history heretofore unknown, such as that the Big Bang occurred because souls already existed in the universe (the universe?) and "had desire to be creators of our own destiny." And boom! The Big Bang. Because of desire. Oh.
What's perhaps most extraordinary about these claims (and boy, are they extraordinary claims!) is that they are successful. Without any reference to reality or support to back them up, these claims draw in a crowd to the tune of almost $300 a pop. In fact, when the speaker announced the cost of the introductory class, two girls at my table gave each other a look that said "Not bad!" I, on the other hand, would rather have 100 bottles of soy mayonnaise.
And before you say "wait a minute, this was just one volunteer's opinion," consider this: this organization claims to have THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE, and to offer them to their adherents. If I can't trust their followers, who can I trust?
After our two hours at the Kabbalah Center of Los Angeles, Ross and I quietly made our way out before erupting into laughter. A few days later, they called Ross and offered him a free session of the introductory course. They never called me.
It's just as well.