Marianna Ruah-Midbar,
Marianna Ruah-Midbar. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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As the city considered to be the center of Jewish mysticism, Safed has long been a place where seekers of spirituality congregate. But in addition to attracting the striving and the curious to the graves and synagogues that have become pilgrimage sites, the Galilee city that was formerly home to the renowned 16th century kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria will now also provide a more academic approach to spirituality - and not just the Jewish kind.

That academic approach takes the form of an undergraduate degree in mysticism and spirituality, which will be offered by the city's Zefat Academic College starting next semester. The curriculum was recently approved by the Council for Higher Education.

"The study of spiritualism and mysticism is thriving today and is one of the disciplines most in demand, primarily among young people, from kabbala to alternative medicine," said Marianna Ruah-Midbar, a University of Haifa lecturer who will be heading the Safed college's Program of Mysticism and Spirituality Studies.

"We want to bring the general public closer to academic study," she said. "We are offering a combination of courses for the spirit and academic courses."

The program will offer courses in kabbala and other elements of Jewish mysticism, but what will make it unusual in Israel is its focus on spirituality in various cultures. The curriculum includes courses on New Age spiritualism, shamanism in the Americas, Indian mythology, Sufism, Hinduism and Zen philosophy.

The college is looking to promote humanities studies that are "currently on the decline in Israel," said Ruah-Midbar, who is studying feminist spirituality and the interaction between New Age culture and Israeliness. "While programs are closing, the Zefat Academic College decided to give a boost to the humanities."

During the first year of study, students will focus on an introduction to mystical thought in a range of Maria and cultures and an introduction to methodology, borrowed from the study of religion and other disciplines. The second and third years will be divided into three units: kabbalah, contemporary spiritualism and elective courses on other religions.

Nahum Megged, an anthropologist who will be teaching in the program, said he noticed a growing interest in mysticism after his 1998 book on shamanism in Latin America, "Portals of Hope and Gates of Terror: Shamanism, Magic and Witchcraft - Journey in South and Central America," became a best seller in Israel.

"There is growing interest because the solutions to happiness have yet to be found and people are still searching for the path," said Megged, a professor emeritus of Spanish and Latin American studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "People are trying to understand various phenomena, to understand what leads to a mystical experience."

The program "reflects the values of the college, which encourage multiculturalism, as it will cover content from a large variety of cultures and religions from the Galilee... and the world at large," the college said in a statement.

Other lecturers in the program include Moshe Idel, a professor emeritus of Jewish thought at Hebrew University and a 1999 winner of the Israel Prize in Jewish Philosophy, and kabbala expert Mordechai Pechter. Adam Klin Oron, who studies fundamentalism, altered states of consciousness, and tourism and leisure, will lecture on contemporary religious phenomena, including communing with spirits, and Yossef Schwartz, who has taught medieval intellectual history, will teach a course on Christian mysticism.