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Rabbi Arthur Green

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Kabbalah Centre: Marketing Superstition as Spirituality?

Posted: 10/26/2011 2:01 pm

The Los Angeles Times this week published a thorough and well-researched expose of the Kabbalah Centre.

As a student and teacher of Kabbalah and Hasidism for more than 50 years, I have been watching this travesty unfold. It now apparently is reaching its denouement. Along with many others who study Kabbalah, both within the academic world and beyond it, I have been hesitant to speak out publicly against the Bergs' empire because of their reputation for suing anyone who rises up against them. Unfortunately, some of my academic colleagues, fascinated by the numbers attracted to the Kabbalah Centre, have lent to them a certain legitimatizing cachet.

The truth is that the Kabbalah Centres are a bizarre combination of well-intentioned religious outreach and sheer hucksterism. Philip Berg, whom I met back before he became famous, was indeed a student of authentic Jerusalem Kabbalists of the Ashlag school. He decided in the 1980s to proclaim himself a rebbe or spiritual master. I do not think this was a cynical move from the beginning. Berg probably thought he was doing good by bringing Kabbalah to the masses. He looked around and saw the popularity of all sorts of eastern spirituality, attracting many Jewish followers among others, and decided that the turn of Kabbalah had come. He would simplify the abstruse teachings and make them accessible to those without his learning, allowing for a broad following.

The problem is that Berg went for the worst rather than the best within the Kabbalistic tradition. His own teachers had been interested in an otherworldly meditational system, one focused on restoring energies directed toward cosmic tikkun, or repair, leading toward messianic redemption. One may believe in this or not, but it is surely high-minded. But Kabbalah had always had a more popular and practical side, one that leaned close to magic. It was this part of the system that Berg peddled. His promises of success in love, business and other realms to those who drank his "holy" water, or stared, even without comprehension, at his highly priced books, were sheer nonsense. This is the worst of Kabbalah, preying on people's fantasies and fears. These claims would have horrified Berg's teachers, and he must have known that.

What Berg figured out is that superstition and the insecurities that attract people to it did not disappear with modernity. They exist in Hollywood just as much as in poor neighborhoods of Jerusalem. You just need to know how to market them. At this he became a genius. He took his outrageous promises and bundled them together with the sort of self-help advice one can readily find in many books sold in airport bookstores. To these he joined some light bits of true Kabbalistic learning. He wrapped them all up in bundles of red string, making an old Eastern European talisman, used mostly for keeping witches away from babies' cribs, a new identifying symbol for his "Kabbalists," most of whom had no real idea of what the Jewish mystical tradition was all about.

He did two more things that were revolutionary from his teachers' point of view. He opened study of Kabbalah and participation in its rites both to women and to non-Jews. One might think this to be praiseworthy. Many of us would like to see Kabbalah brought "out of the closet" and made accessible. Some of my own writings seek to do exactly that. But in Berg's case one has the sense that this was largely a commercial decision. There were more women than men wanting to learn what he had to teach and willing to pay for it. This is true of all the self-help literature and the following of many gurus in that field. But once he was willing to cross the bigger line of welcoming non-Jews to his fold, he really had struck gold. Thousands of seekers, many of them confused or disillusioned Christians, ex-Mormons and so forth, swelled his ranks. They were undoubtedly more awed than some of his Jewish followers, and more willing to pay.

The sad part of this story is that it represents a thorough mixing of goodness and cynicism. Many people testify that their lives were set straight by loyalty to the Kabbalah Centre, that they were freed from addictions, brought back from depression, or even just redeemed from the triviality of Hollywood and its values. Who could not thank the Bergs for the positive effect they have had on the lives of so many? But in the end, hucksterism seems to have won out. The "evil urge" is a pretty slippery character, especially when big money becomes involved. The Kabbalah Centre's founders and leaders, especially in creating a dynasty, have taken the reputation of an ancient and noble tradition and have sullied it for their own gain. Kabbalah deserves better.