PITTSBURGH — For centuries a strand of red string worn around the left wrist has, to some Jews, signified their link to Kabbalah — the Jewish mystical tradition that was once the realm of scholars.
But ever since Kabbalah was popularized by celebrities such as Madonna, Demi Moore and Lindsay Lohan, countless Jewish leaders have condemned what they see as the Hollywood version of the teachings, saying they've been watered down into a self-help philosophy unrelated to authentic Judaism.
One Pittsburgh businessman feels so strongly about the issue that he's now trying to sway public opinion himself. Shlomo Perelman, an Orthodox Jew and owner of Pinsker's Judaica Center, worries that the study of Kabbalah and the red string itself are being transformed into hollow fashion statements. He's spent about $10,000 producing a seven-minute video about the significance of the red string that can be seen free on his Internet site, Judaism.com.
"It's been co-opted by Hollywood types and it's been adopted by mass-market, New Age people," he said. "It's not being linked at all to Judaism."
According to Jewish folkways, the red string wards off the evil eye. Some trace belief in the evil eye to rabbinic sources and kabbalistic texts, which recommend various remedies such as wearing amulets.
The practice of wearing the red string is said to have grown from a tradition of winding a red string around the stone marker over the West Bank tomb of Rachel, a Jewish matriarch, while reciting Hebrew prayers. The string was then cut into bracelet-size lengths and worn as a symbolic request for spiritual and physical protection and blessings.
Arthur Green, a professor of Jewish mysticism and theory at Hebrew College in Newton, Mass., and professor of Jewish thought at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., sees the fad among celebrities as "nonsense" and "a rip-off."
"It's commercialization of people's psychological weaknesses. I'm opposed to it at any level," Green said. "This is the most trivial level of Kabbalah. . . . There's lots to talk about Kabbalah, but the red string isn't part of it."
Kabbalah's followers believe that by studying texts from their tradition they can understand the hidden meaning of the Torah and can develop a more intimate relationship with God. For a long time, many Jews tended to look down on kabbalah, viewing it as abandoning rational thought. Today, many Hasidic Jews study it.
In the Middle Ages, Kabbalah was passed on to married Jewish men over 40 who were deemed to have the maturity and spiritual depth to handle mysticism's power. But in recent years, Kabbalah centers have been opening throughout the United States, teaching a hybrid version with no restrictions on age, gender or religion. Some critics contend the practice is growing into a cult, although its leaders reject that claim.
Perelman said it troubles him that Jewish teenagers consider Madonna and other celebrities "icons of Jewish spirituality."
"It's not healthy for our community and it's really difficult to combat the power of the media," he said.
Madonna has described herself as a student of Kabbalah, and has said it irritates her when people say she's jumped on a celebrity bandwagon. Britney Spears, Ashton Kutcher and others have been reported to be interested in Kabbalah.
Sara Schwimmer, founder and president of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Internet retailer ChosenCouture.com, has been selling jewelry incorporating the string since last June.
"Admittedly, I saw sales spike when Madonna went on tour and I think that it was because that attracted the fashionista crowd," she said.
"I think that the unique thing about this red string bracelet is that it does make both the religious statement and the fashion statement," she said.
Schwimmer said she had been marketing to Jews who were familiar with the meaning of the red string and believes the fad will die down among non-Jews. In fact, she said, sales have been dipping recently.
"The loyal customer base who identifies with the true meaning will continue to be there," she said.