December 16, 2004
False Promises in Berg’s ‘Becoming’
"Becoming Like God" by Rabbi Michael Berg (Kabbalah Publishing, $21.95).
I have never been to the Kabbalah Centre, never studied with one of their teachers, and cannot comment on their practices. My sole direct exposure was to watch a videotape produced by the center, "The Power of Kabbalah: A Documentary," from 1996, in which they claim, among other things, credit for producing the Oslo accords -- credit which they may be presently inclined to disavow. But no matter. I spent an infuriating hour reading "Becoming Like God" by Rabbi Michael Berg. If I can succeed in persuading one person not to buy this confused, contradictory, intellectually disreputable and Jewishly perverse volume it will be well worth the exasperation.
The Torah recounts that at the very outset of the human journey God throws Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden. They are thrown out not for what they have done as much as for what they might do: "What if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and live forever?" (Genesis 3:22). Human beings must not be permitted to escape death. The Bible insists that built in to the human condition then are two fundamentals, each of them is the basis of faith, each irreversible: We are not God, and we are not immortal.
"Becoming Like God" promises two things: first to make you like God, and second, to make you immortal. We can conquer death. In one of the stranger passages in this surpassingly strange book, Berg writes, "Many consider the Bible the word of God, yet refuse to believe in the possibility of resurrection, even though it is declared in the Bible's pages."
Yet in order for there to be resurrections, there must be death.
Berg sees death as the enemy, the fate of the unenlightened. The conquest of death, resurrection and a different life is certainly part of classical Jewish belief, one that is borne of a Messianic hope. Yet the word Messiah does not appear in this book.
The word Torah does not appear in this book. The word Talmud does not appear in this book. Every Jewish sage cited in the book, of whatever era or orientation, is called simply "a kabbalist." There is an oft-repeated talmudic tale that everyone masters the entire Torah before birth, and the instant before we are born an angel presses a finger above our lip, causing us to forget our learning (Niddah 30b). But since the word Talmud must not appear in the book, nor the word "Torah," the story is credited to "a kabbalist" and the angel causes us to forget not "Torah" but "everything." The idea that there are no superfluous words in the Torah, a staple of Jewish interpretation that runs through the Talmud, becomes a kabbalistic idea. The use of the term yetser hara, the evil inclination, becomes kabbalistic, not a borrowing from the Talmud. And so on. If Ravina and Rav Ashi, the redactors of the Talmud, held a copyright, the allegedly massive holdings of the Kabbalah Centre might build them a very capacious yeshiva.
"Becoming Like God" opens with a story about leaping souls known to be from the Kotzker Rebbe, whose name actually does appear elsewhere in the book. Once again, the story is told without attribution. Although this may seem academic, not only do the rabbis teach us that one who quotes in the name of another brings redemption into the world, I fear there is a deeper motivation for the relative anonymity. This is a book that seeks to rip kabbalah from its Jewish moorings.
Anyone who opens a page of the Zohar, or any kabbalistic book, sees that kabbalah is inextricably bound up in the Jewish tradition. In kabbalah (real kabbalah, that is) ritual practices are given cosmic meaning. The Talmud is quoted on each page of the Zohar; authority is granted to the Zohar because it is attributed to Rav Simeon Bar Yochai, a talmudic rabbi. Kabbalah, for the uninitiated, is a Hebrew word -- that ought to provide a clue. To teach it as a universal "technology" of salvation is a travesty of tradition and a spiritual sham.
Permit me to quote Berg, lest you think that I exaggerate:
"A story is told in the Bible about Rebecca. During her pregnancy, she noticed something quite strange: Whenever she passed by certain parts of town -- a place of study or prayer -- she felt her child wanting to go there. At the same time, whenever she passed by other parts of town -- a house of idol worshipers or a den of thieves -- she felt her child wanting to go there also. The phenomenon worried her, because she thought her child might be hesitating over whether to follow the path of evil or the path of righteousness."
She decided to go to a wise man for advice, and he told her, "you are carrying two children. One twin is going to be a spiritual giant, and the other is going to be drawn to darkness." He was referring to her two sons, Jacob and Esau.
"Upon hearing this news, Rebecca had an astonishing reaction: She was not in the least bit dismayed. She was delighted."
At this point, the faint of heart might just give up. For this story does not appear in the Bible. It is a rabbinic Midrash, and a badly paraphrased one at that.
Rabbi Berg, did you think that none of your readers would actually look in the Bible? Do you perhaps treat it as you do the Zohar, as not essentially a Jewish book and legitimately subject to garbled paraphrase? Is this all fair game because, after all, we would all like immortality?
The implausibilities pile up, producing an astonishing page-to-foolishness ratio. Berg tells us "Looking out for No. 1 is not wrong because it isn't nice. It's wrong because it violates the laws of physics, the connectedness scientists have called the Unified Field."
Preaching against selfishness is an admirable thing. Is it necessary to point out, however delicately, that if being selfish indeed violated the laws of physics, one would not be able to do it? We do not write books cautioning pedestrians to avoid walking faster than the speed of light. It may be an inadvisable practice, but it violates the laws of physics and is therefore impossible to boot. Selfishness is a lamentable human trait, not a scientific impossibility.
Berg solemnly warns us: "Wherever we can, we must take actions to destroy the ego."
Yet this advice does not discourage him from putting his name on the cover and his picture on the back flap. Nor does it stop his announcing his own "feat of momentous proportions" in translating the Zohar by age 28. The seeker is entitled to understand what sort of ego we are talking about. The only non-Jewish individuals cited (as examples of paradigm-shattering individuals) are the Wright brothers and Leonardo da Vinci, none of whom were renown for their lack of ego. We might do well to remember that ego often drives accomplishment. Indeed the Talmud says, "The jealousy of sages increases wisdom" (Bava Bathra 21a).
This was, perhaps, the one talmudic bromide not attributed to a noted kabbalist.
Can we become like God? Berg's advocacy of humility and goodness is cogent and admirable. But this does not amount to much more than an exhortation to be nicer. His one piece of "evidence" that we are to become "like God" is the biblical verse that we are created in God's image. Never was this understood as promising us divinity, but rather that there was in human beings a spark to be carefully nurtured.
The Bergian worldview is Manichean -- that is, there is a war between light and darkness. God is the source of light (Berg never teaches us where all that darkness in the universe comes from). We have to connect to one or the other, and we become like that to which we connect, light or dark. We become like God by destroying our egos, sharing and creating a life of "total joy and fulfillment." These, in capsule, are the six steps that promise divinity and deathlessness.
Promising physical immortality is, simply put, spiritual snake oil. But a more generous view of this book, with its extravagant promises combined with the mundane rhetoric ("unlike Club Med, life is not as it should be"), is that becoming like God is a fairy tale.
What this says about the devotees of the center I do not know. But one who reads this book with anything but head-shaking incredulity ought to compare this book, with its pink capitalized commonplaces ("Becoming God does not fit into our schedules") to a work of genuine spiritual significance, such as the writings of A.J. Heschel, Rav Soloveitchik and so many others, to feel the difference between pabulum and poetry.
Immortality? Becoming godlike? Reaching perfection? Total purity? You may doubt, but Berg tells us that everything depends on certainty.
A man once approached the Baal Shem Tov and asked him how he could tell true teachers from charlatans. The founder of Chasidism (not solely "a famous kabbalist") answered as follows. He said, ask the teacher if he knows how to banish machshavot ra'ot, or evil thoughts. If he says he has the secret, the Baal Shem Tov continued, he is a fraud.
David Wolpe is rabbi of Sinai Temple in Westwood and is the author of several books, including "Floating Takes Faith: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World" (Behrman House, 2004).