CHICAGO – The uninitiated can find Rav Michael Laitman on YouTube, the video-sharing Web site. The white-bearded Jewish mystic is on camera, answering questions about the meaning of life posed by famous Israeli actors and musicians.

Curious newcomers to his teachings also can read any of Laitman’s 30 or so books on Jewish mysticism, including “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Kabbalah.”

To Laitman, that is just as it should be. He has spent much of his career bringing the ancient wisdom of this metaphysical side of Judaism to the masses, guided by the controversial belief that the once-secret teachings of Jewish sages should be accessible to anyone willing to listen, Jews and Gentiles alike.

“It is not a religion at all,” Laitman said through an interpreter during a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where he spoke in a packed auditorium last week. “It is a scientific method to transcend the ego. It makes no difference what religion you belong to. Everyone should be able to do it.”

Kabbalah has become more relevant, or at least more conspicuous, since Hollywood stars such as Madonna and Britney Spears took up the practice. But not everyone agrees that the popular trend toward the Jewish occult – what some deride as “Kabbalah lite” – is a positive development. The esoteric teachings should be tackled only by serious students who have first acquired a solid base in other Jewish religious texts, they say.

“If you met someone who said “I’m studying quantum mechanics’ and (he) never took physics, what would you think?” asked Rabbi Byron Sherwin, a professor of Jewish philosophy and mysticism at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago. “To trivialize something that is very deep, is very profound, and is very difficult to understand is trite.”

Laitman dismisses the criticism as background noise to a movement that is gaining momentum. His Bnei Baruch Kabbalah Education and Research Institute, based near Tel Aviv, claims 1.3 million disciples worldwide. His television show airs six hours a day in Israel, he said. His newspaper, Kabbalah Today, is published in Spanish, German, English and Hebrew. He commands a huge following in Israel.

A Russian Jew who immigrated to Israel in 1973, Laitman said he studied under renowned Kabbalist Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag, serving as an assistant for many years. He earned degrees in bio-cybernetics, the study of human and artificial systems, and Kabbalah and philosophy from universities in Russia and taught ontology there, he said.

Sherwin, for one, is skeptical of those claims. But other Kabbalists attributed the unease of some scholars about Laitman not to his claimed pedigree but to what they consider a New Age approach to an ancient and revered system of belief. They are uncomfortable with institutions such as the Kabbalah Center, with its mass marketing and Oprah-esque appeal, and bristle at mention of its co-director, Michael Berg.

Sherwin derided the Kabbalah Center as “entrepreneurial” and lumped Laitman in with it, though the center claims no affiliation with Laitman. Other Kabbalists said they viewed Laitman as a more substantial authority on Kabbalah than those at the center, but still painted some of his interpretations of Kabbalah as unconventional.

Traditionalists are uncomfortable with some of Laitman’s pronouncements. He preaches, for instance, that keeping the wisdom of Kabbalah out of reach of the masses is a source of anti-Semitism and that unless mankind solves the world’s crises through Kabbalah, fascist regimes will rise again, particularly in America.

Doomsday predictions aside, Laitman attributes the explosion of Kabbalah onto the American pop culture scene to the universal human yearning to find a deeper meaning to life. Particularly in today’s fast-paced and commercial pop culture, people feel spiritually lost, he said.

“Many people are searching, asking what can we do here in this world,” Laitman said. “They instinctively feel that the answer is found in the wisdom of Kabbalah.”

According to Kabbalah, he said, life is like an embroidered cloth. It looks beautiful on one side, but behind the material is a mess of threads. Kabbalah reveals the hidden threads and sheds light on their meaning.

“Kabbalah helps you understand the forces behind the embroidery,” he said. Like a self-help guide, only “on the deepest level of your being,” personally, socially and globally.

“We should disseminate the wisdom of Kabbalah to the whole world,” he said.

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