Myths and misconceptions about Kabbalah have persisted for over two thousand years. Most describe Kabbalah as a religion rooted in magic, or as an upstart offshoot of Judaism—in truth, Kabbalah is neither. In The Essential Zohar, a book about Kabbalah’s main text, the leader of the modern Kabbalah movement around the turn of the 20th century, Rav Philip Berg, described Kabbalah as “the spiritual heritage of all humankind.” He dismissed the notion that Kabbalah derives from Judaism, or any other specific religion, ethnicity, or nation. Instead, he describes Kabbalah as a set of ideas, a spiritual path that predates all major religions and belongs to no fixed time, place, or society. Kabbalists prefer to refer to Kabbalah as a way, a mystical approach to understanding the world and finding purpose in life. Kabbalah provides its followers with what Berg describes as “tools” to help them find their way. These tools include the Torah, the Talmud, the Zohar, and the Hebrew language.

Although Kabbalah’s leaders tend to distance their beliefs from Judaism, some strong similarities link Kabbalah to Judaism. Kabbalists read the same two main texts as Jews—the Torah and the Talmud—and most kabbalistic literature comments on the contents of those two holy books. Kabbalists honor the Sabbath, a day of the week that they and Jews both consider holy, and like Judaism, Kabbalah teaches that one God created the universe.

Yet Kabbalah has its own core texts as well, the most important of which is the Zohar, which means “radiance” in Hebrew. Spanning over twenty volumes, the Zohar covers all of the fundamental teachings of Kabbalah. Unlike religions, such as Judaism and Christianity, which follow rules set down ages ago in static books like the Bible, Kabbalah, kabbalists believe, cannot be contained in any number of books or texts. They even view the Zohar as just a tiny fragment of God’s collective wisdom, a mere first step on the lifelong path to knowing God. Kabbalists revel in paradoxes like this, and they tend to depict Kabbalah as a fluid collection of ideas that expands to help fulfill the changing goals of its followers.

Though it embraces flux and defies boundaries common to most religions, Kabbalah never deviates from a few core aims and principles. Kabbalists believe that God’s creation of the universe was an act of divine self-sacrifice: God gave up its own life to create enough space for every thing and being that would occupy the universe. In withdrawing into itself, God (known as “Ein Sof”) left behind empty vessels to receive its energy in the form of light—Kabbalah comes from the Hebrew word that means “receiving.” But God’s boundless energy shattered the vessels, causing God’s light to descend into the material world of human beings and exist in a fractured and imperfect state.

Kabbalists believe God’s self-sacrifice created a perfect universe, but that the shattering of God’s vessels marked the first plunge from paradise into chaos. Kabbalists believe their main duty is to repair God’s shattered vessels of light and restore God’s creation to a state of perfection. Kabbalists believe that once all the vessels are repaired, God will again be whole and the human race will enjoy a perfect world. The ultimate aim of Kabbalah and its followers, therefore, is to aid God and speed up the return of the human race to paradise. Kabbalists believe they can accomplish both goals by acting and thinking righteously according to the teachings of Kabbalah, always with the aim of trying to understand and heal their shattered God.

Kabbalists believe the Zohar first arose around the 2nd century CE Kabbalah was initially practiced only by scholars in France and Spain, many of whom kept their controversial views secret to avoid persecution. In 1492, after Spain expelled its entire Jewish population, Jews who studied Kabbalah began to spread their views as they journeyed to North Africa, Italy, and the region east of the Mediterranean Sea. Kabbalah took hold quickly in all of these places, especially in the small town of Safed, on the Sea of Galilee in Palestine. There, men like Moses Cordovero and Isaac Luria refined some of Kabbalah’s most important ideas, and Safed became the center of Kabbalah for several centuries.

Safed’s rise to prominence almost caused Kabbalah’s downfall. As Kabbalah’s following in Safed exploded, kabbalists there began to expect to complete the process of restoring God to wholeness, bringing back the perfect society that God originally envisioned. Along the way, Palestine, the homeland of the Jews, would be liberated from its Turkish occupiers. In the 1660s a kabbalist named Shabbetai Tzvi took advantage of these widespread expectations and had himself declared the Messiah by Nathan of Gaza, a visionary who claimed to have seen Tzvi as the Messiah in a dream. Together Tzvi and Nathan attracted hundreds of thousands of Jewish followers to Kabbalah, all convinced that the Messiah had arrived to liberate Palestine and usher in paradise.

In 1666, Tzvi went to confront the Sultan of Turkey, who offered him a simple choice: convert to Islam or be killed. Tzvi chose to convert to Islam, devastating the hopes of his followers and undermining the integrity of Kabbalah’s leadership. Though some followers of Shabbetai Tzvi still believed he was the Messiah even after his death in 1676, most rejected Tzvi and turned away from Kabbalah. As the Enlightenment arose, placing a heavy emphasis on rational thought, Kabbalah’s mystical qualities lost appeal and Kabbalah’s popularity plunged. For centuries Kabbalah languished and seemed poised to vanish altogether.

Beginning in the late 1990s, a Kabbalah revival took hold as stars like Madonna and later Britney Spears took up Kabbalah and began donning its signature red bracelets. A slew of other celebrities followed and, with their unofficial endorsement, Kabbalah’s popularity exploded, as did the controversy surrounding it. Rav Berg, the founder of the movement’s modern headquarters—the Kabbalah Centre—has been alternately denounced as a fraud and praised as an important spiritual leader. Among the Centre’s more questionable practices is the sale of bottled water imbued with mystical properties and the specially blessed red string bracelets now worn by fashion mavens like Paris Hilton. Many rabbis and scholars of Kabbalah charge that Berg and his Kabbalah Centre International reduced a rich mystical tradition to a fashionable fad for celebrities. Berg supporters might counter that Berg single-handedly brought Kabbalah from obscurity to widespread public awareness and established forty Kabbalah Centre locations around the globe.