It's just before midnight, and the Pico-Robertson neighborhood is bustling. Teenagers are hanging out on corners near the pharmacy and suited men and high-heeled women are walking from synagogue to synagogue to attend the lecture of their choice.
It's the first night of Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates when the Jews received the Torah, and it's customary to stay up all night studying Jewish topics in what's called a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, which literally means a repair (as in tikkun olam). It's a repair for the fact that the Israelites fell asleep the night before the Torah was given; they were not excited enough, so now Jews, throughout the centuries, have studied, sometimes in a private chevruta but often by listening to scholars speak.
Around this neighborhood -- and the city -- the standard lectures were being given on topics ranging from the Book of Ruth to Israel, but something off the beaten path was taking place on Robertson Boulevard in a lecture at Anshei Emet Synagogue. The subject was "Kabbalah and the Red String."
Kabbalah is not often a topic studied by the Orthodox (who believe, according to tradition, that the mystical studies should only be done by scholars older than 40), and this was not necessarily a lecture one would expect to be delivered by Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, who is the head of Jews for Judaism, an anti-missionary and anti-cult center.
Jews for Judaism was founded 21 years ago "to keep Jews Jewish and defend the community from threats and missionaries." Its primary purpose has been to train Jews to ward off traditional missionaries, such as Jews for Jesus (which its name seems to parody), messianic Jews, Mormons and Evangelical Christians.
At the late-night lecture addressed to some 40 men and women -- seated separately on wood benches on the men's side of the synagogue -- Kravitz never mentioned any kabbalah institution by name. Well, not exactly. But add up the references to red string, Madonna, Britney Spears, Ashton Kutcher, expensive holy water and you can put it all together. The rabbi was alluding to the controversial practices of The Kabbalah Centre, whose L.A. base is on Robertson Boulevard.
"If Madonna can wear a T-shirt saying she's a cult member, who am I to argue with her?" Kravitz said.
Kabbalah is a library of Jewish mystical writing initiated in the 12th and 13th centuries of the common era in the books of the Zohar. The Zohar tells you the mystical reasons of the commandments, and that when you follow these commandments, you hasten the bringing of the Messiah.
During the hourlong midnight lecture Kravitz discussed why the kabbalah being promulgated by celebrities at the Kabbalah Centre is not the real kabbalah of ancient Jewish mystics. He talked of what true mystical study really is and how religious Jews can benefit from it in their own spiritual practices.
He spoke of what it means to have spiritual kavanah, or intention, when you do something. Spiritual intention is good, he said, but intention without action is meaningless. Take charity for example. One can be meditating kabbalistically on charity, "but if there's a person sitting opposite you starving to death, you're commanded to actually feed them."
Mystical thoughts can enhance spiritual practice, "but the action is always the main thing," he said. "And without mentioning names, when people take the action out of it, they're missing the purpose of why we do mitzvot and connecting to God."
At the center, a common practice is to read letters and words repeatedly, including the Zohar, the original kabbalistic mystical text.
Kravitz earlier told The Journal in a phone interview that he didn't want to focus on The Kabbalah Centre by name because "I'm not interested in giving them more publicity. It's giving them credibility -- they don't belong in the paper -- every time some star decides to do something with them, they deserve space in a Jewish paper?" he asked, referring to The Jewish Journal. "To me, they're no different than Mormonism or Jews for Jesus or Scientology. They're using the terminology to make themselves look Jewish, but they're not part of it."
This was not the first time Kravitz has delivered his lecture "Kabbalah and the Red String," whose advance flyer included questions: "Why are people seeking answers to modern-day issues in an ancient Jewish wisdom? Why has kabbalah left so many disillusioned, angry and confused?"
In the last couple of years, he's delivered the same talk at synagogues and institutions like the University of Judaism. But Kravitz's open questioning of the center represents a shift in the notion of what constitutes today's missionaries and today's threats to Judaism.
"I don't think cults have become less of a threat today; there are just different kinds of cults," he said. "There are psychotherapy cults, freedom of mind cults.... People being pressured to volunteer and get their friends to join -- if you're told that you can't benefit from the program, that may be a form of manipulation," he said.
"I don't need to call [The Kabbalah Centre] a cult. They don't understand what a cult is. A cult is a group that uses deception and manipulation to keep members in its group."
Rabbi Michael Berg, co-director of The Kabbalah Centre, was not available for comment as of press time. He has denied in the media that The Kabbalah Centre is a cult and rejects the idea that anyone is being brainwashed. In 2000, he told New Times, "One of the basic teachings of the center is, 'Don't accept a word that anyone tells you; you have to come to your own understanding and live with it.' Unlike many other religious organizations, there's no coercion. It's the opposite of that. We're very open that we need financial support to continue publishing books and running the organization, but there's no push. It's more like, 'If you have a chance, please help us out.'"
Kravitz, of course, is far from being the first Jewish rabbi or academic scholar to denounce the center.
For example, in February, the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies hosted Rachel Elior, a professor of Jewish philosophy and Jewish mystical thought, and chair of Hebrew University's department of Jewish studies, to discuss "The History of Jewish Mysticism and West Coast Kabbalah." Elior was much more direct than Kravitz. She said that The Kabbalah Centre is "part of the new age phenomenon, when ideas are for sale. The center would not be spending one day on this if they couldn't sell it. Kabbalah was once a matter of defiance and freedom of creativity; nowadays it is www.kabbalah.com -- not 'dot-edu' and not 'dot-org' -- but commerce. The center is part of the new age, part of globalization. They are trying to couple spiritual grace with material success."
"The Kabbalah Centres today have nothing to do with the Divine Plan for hidden meaning of the text or with any of that," Elior said. "They are basically about selling books for people who don't read them ... or for people who believe that by having a red string or drinking holy water they are connecting to the mysteries of the world."
But not all rabbis and scholars in the Jewish mainstream agree with Kravitz's dire assessment.
Jody Myers, professor of religious studies and coordinator of the Jewish studies program at CSUN, is writing a book about the popularization of kabbalah in America. She doesn't believe that there is any such thing as authentic kabbalah, and she points out that The Kabbalah Centre doesn't claim to be part of the Jewish community. Myers says she neither condemns nor condones The Kabbalah Centre.
In terms of its fundraising, Myers says that The Kabbalah Centre needs to raise funds, as do all Jewish organizations; it's just doing it differently.
"I think that the American Jewish community puts a lot of pressure on people to raise money. It costs an awful lot of money to be Jewish today," she said. At The Kabbalah Centre, "there are no membership fees, there is no annual membership, they get money from selling stuff and charging for lectures and classes. And they get money asking people to donate to a good cause, which is them."
The participants, she said "give their money freely; they feel very grateful for [the center] and they are getting something from them that they are not getting from somewhere else."
In the past, The Kabbalah Centre has shrugged off its critics.
At one Shabbat service in 1997, which The Jewish Journal attended, center founder Philip Berg sermonized that rabbis who oppose the center "don't want you to know the truth. They want you to live in chaos. They are the enemies of enlightenment."
During the last two decades, Kravitz said that Jews for Judaism has worked with thousands of people -- people targeted by missionaries and cults and their concerned family members -- and in recent years, these have included people from the center. "The people that I've come into contact with clearly accuse The Kabbalah Centre of being very manipulative and being very deceptive with their promises," he said.
What advice does Kravitz offer to those at risk of an unhealthy involvement?
"Always use critical thinking," the rabbi said. "Always question. Don't accept what people say because it sounds good at first."
Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz will be teaching a countermissionary survival seminar Tuesday evenings through June 27 at 7:30 p.m. To register, call (310) 556-3344.