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Decoding the Past - Secrets of Kabbalah

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Decoding the Past - Secrets of Kabbalah

Kabbalah/Kabala is a discipline and school of thought concerned with the mystical aspect of Rabbinic Judaism. Its full theosophical system emerged in 11th-13th century Southern France and Spain, later being recast in 16th century Ottoman Palestine, though incorporating earlier Chaldean science, and derivative Jewish mystical forms. In turn it became the central foundation of later Jewish mystical development. Kabbalah is a set of esoteric teachings meant to explain the relationship between an eternal and mysterious Creator and the mortal and finite universe (His creation). While it is heavily used by some denominations, it is not a denomination in and of itself; it is a set of scriptures that exist outside the traditional Jewish Scriptures.

Kabbalah seeks to define the nature of the universe and the human being, the nature and purpose of existence, and various other ontological questions. It also presents methods to aid understanding of these concepts and to thereby attain spiritual realization. Kabbalah originally developed entirely within the realm of Jewish thought and constantly uses classical Jewish sources to explain and demonstrate its esoteric teachings. These teachings are thus held by kabbalists to define the inner meaning of both the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and traditional rabbinic literature, their formerly concealed transmitted dimension, as well as to explain the significance of Jewish religious observances.

Review by Holly E. Ordway

The movie

The History Channel documentary Decoding the Past: Secrets of Kabbalah is a program that is likely to please nobody. For viewers who are genuinely interested in the origins, development, and significance of the mystical practice known as Kabbalah, this documentary is short on facts and long on breathless, empty phrases. For viewers who are less high-minded and just want the scoop on what this thing is that some Hollywood icons like Madonna and Britney Spears are interested in, the program also fails to deliver the goods.

The overall course of the program focuses on the history of the Kabbalah movement, introducing us in turn to various teachers of Kabbalah through the centuries before depositing us in the present day with its upsurge in interest in Kabbalah as a "new" approach to spirituality (answers to the questions of the universe, plus the secrets of a good life, with no obligations to actually commit to a religious faith!). My first problem with Secrets of Kabbalah is that this breathless race along the touchpoints of Kabbalah history leaves viewers without any real sense of what the subject is actually about. We learn a bit about the personalities involved at different stages of the dissemination of Kabbalah ideas... we get a few sensationalistic tidbits about the claims that some Kabbalah texts make about the nature of God and the way humans can relate to God... but tidbits are the extent of it.

Yes, we find out that Kabbalah is a branch of Jewish mysticism; that its based around several texts (of dubious provenance, by the way) that claim to offer a way to unlock a secret alphanumeric code in the Torah to reveal the secrets of the universe; and that it offers power and secret knowledge to its devotees. Now you know. Honestly, youll learn almost as much about Kabbalah from reading the back of the DVD case as you will from watching the program, and with less of a time commitment.

My other concern is that, like other programs that pick up on "hot" topics that happen to be getting a lot of attention in the press at the moment, this program makes little effort to distinguish between mainstream and fringe movements in the history of ideas, or between hypothetical or poorly documented events and well-attested historical information. (The phrase "some scholars say" is always a bit of a tipoff that the program is looking for sensationalism rather than solid fact.) One effect of this approach in Secrets of Kabbalah is that while the interview subjects, the experts on the topic, are fairly clear that the Kabbalah mystics were a small group within the overall Jewish tradition, the overall program makes it seem as though the Kabbalah movement was much more widespread than it seems to really have been. The problem is larger overall, though: theres very little context for the Kabbalah material in this documentary. Without sufficient background information on Judaism and the cultural context for the people and ideas presented, its difficult to get more than a superficial understanding of the material.

One of the most telling moments in Secrets of the Kabbalah is a comment from one of the interviewed scholars... a comment that didnt make it into the actual documentary, but shows up in the "deleted interviews" section. The scholar is very emphatic in making the point that Kabbalah is Jewish mysticism; that its not possible to extract the Kabbalah part of it and treat it separately from Judaism. That, however, is what the History Channel program tries to do. In the process, it trivializes the subject and wastes an opportunity to educate the viewer on what could have been a very interesting subject.


The bonus material here is 46 minutes of deleted interview segments from the Kabbalah scholars interviewed for the main program. This is more substantial and interesting than the main program, so if you do happen to end up with a copy of this DVD, be sure to watch the bonus material (perhaps in preference over the main program).

History Channel - Secrets of Kabbalah - Decoding the Past

Video Codec..........: XviD ISO MPEG-4
Video Bitrate........: 1932kbps
Duration.............: 45:13.438
Resolution...........: 600*342
Framerate............: 29.970
Audio Codec..........: 0x2000 (Dolby AC3) AC3
Audio Bitrate........: 224 kbps CBR
Audio Channels.......: 2
Filesize.............: 735,589,674
SUBTITLES............: NONE

Secrets of Kabbalah - Additional Educational Interviews

Video Codec..........: XviD ISO MPEG-4
Video Bitrate........: 1295kbps
Duration.............: 46:10.963
Resolution...........: 600*342
Framerate............: 29.970
Filesize.............: 530,308,968