MYSTIC MAG'S GUIDE TO KABBALAH; THE REPUTATION OF KABBALAH HAS TAKEN A KNOCKING EVER SINCE MADONNA AND HER FRIENDS HAVE TAKEN UP THE CAUSE BY WEARING RED STRING WRIST BANDS AND DRINKING HEALING WATER COSTING Pounds 3 PER PER BOTTLE. BUT WHAT IS KABBALAH REALLY ABOUT MIDLAND PRACTITIONER MAGGY WHITEHOUSE TOLD JO IND ABOUT THE ANCIENT FORM OF JEWISH MYSTICISM

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Byline: JO IND

Strictly speaking young men and women of all ages should look away at this point. According to Eastern European tradition, you have to be male and over the age of 40 to learn Kabbalah.

But that did not stop Maggy Whitehouse, from Bromsgrove, beginning to study the ancient mystical tradition after she was widowed at the age of 33.

'My husband, Henry, was an atheist and the hospital chaplain told me, at Henry's deathbed, that if he didn't believe in Jesus, he couldn't go to heaven,' she says.

Dissatisfied with Christianity as a result, she spent three years studying healing at the National Federation of Spiritual Healers and went on to study Kabbalah through evening classes in Stroud.

Now aged 48, she has been studying Kabbalah for more than 12 years, talked at conferences across Europe, run workshops and written books on the subject, the most recent being Living Kabbalah.

'Real Kabbalah is hard work. It requires a lot of study and discipline and it bored me rigid for the first year,' she says.

'My mentor made it very hard forpeople to join. He wanted to know why on earth you wanted to study this system. He wouldn't put up with any 'holier than thou' attitude. 'Even though I've now written books and run workshops, he still doesn't give me any side at all.'

So what is this esoteric religion that demands so much discipline and attracts such curiosity?

'It's not a New Age fad,' says Maggy. 'Kabbalah dates back almost 6000 years. Technically, it's not Jewish either. It pre-dates Abraham.' 'It's got nothing to do with red string either. To wear a piece of red string is old Jewish folklore - it's said to protect you from the evil eye. But your average, everyday Kabbalist simply wouldn't bother.' Maggy says Kabbalah is a mystery tradition that underpins the three main western religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

It is an oral tradition which means it can adapt from age to age but is also vulnerable to being misunderstood, a bit like playing Chinese Whispers.

Learning Kabbalah involves studying two structures known as The Tree of Life and Jacob's Ladder, both of which are as complicated as learning a new alphabet and a new languageOnce the underlying structures are understood, Kabbalah can be used as both a path of personal development and a way of understanding how the universe works. 'Kabbalah teaches you why difficult things happen and how to deal with them, how to understand the Bible, how to live an honest life and how to relate to yourself and others,' says Maggy.

'That doesn't mean we think we're 'holy' or 'better' and we still face all the challenges that every one else does, but we do try to live a good life.' Kabbalah can be adapted for each and every individual. It can be used successfully within a religion, but it can also be used outside any conventional faith as long as there is belief in divinity.

'The reason it's complicated is to put people off,' says Maggy. 'It can be misused. For example if you know the diagram of the Tree of Life and you know somebody's astrology you could know how to behave towards them in a way to make them like you. That's discouraged.' Essentially, learning Kabbalah involves knowing how to interpret The Tree of Life and Jacob's Ladder and apply the knowledge to everyday situationsTo a Kabbalist, the diagram of Jacob's Ladder is a cosmic map of how God designed and created the universe. It shows the 'invisible laws' that make life what it is and it explains the principles behind planets, angels, humanity, archetypes, animals and good and evil. Humanity's place in the scheme of things is shown, and the four journeys that each human soul will take to reach its final goal of complete self-realisation. …