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History Channel: Secrets of Kabbalah
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 it's 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, you'll 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: there's 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, it's 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 didn't 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 it's 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.
This History Channel documentary is presented in a non-anamorphic widescreen format. The image is bright and clean-looking, but quite soft, with a lot of pixellation in some scenes, especially outdoor shots.
The stereo soundtrack is satisfactory, offering a clean and clear voiceover and a clear presentation for the interview subjects.
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).
I'm a big fan of history documentaries, but not when they do such a poor job of providing context and meaningful discussion of the topic. It looks to me like Secrets of Kabbalah was slapped together to capitalize on the fact that a few Hollywood celebrities have gotten interested in Kabbalah; certainly it's far from being a thoughtful or informative discussion of this ancient branch of Jewish mysticism. That's too bad, because the "could've been" documentary would've been worth watching. The only real reason to pick this up would be to check out the substantial set of interview clips with scholars on Kabbalah and Judaism, but even so I'm going to give this a "skip it" overall.