"The Kabbalah Center teaches what life is all about. That's why people come to us. People want to understand not what, but why? Why about everything in life: Why is there chaos, why do I have ups and downs, why am I here?"
As Rabbi Avraham Kelman delivered his introductory lecture to an interested and hungry crowd at the Kabbalah Center Bookstore and Cafe in the Valley, I asked not why is there chaos, but why are there so many people sitting here? Why are Jews and non-Jews alike - to the tune of 3.9 million - gravitating to the Kabbalah Centers around the world? How can so many people accept what the Kabbalah Center dishes out - a combination spirituality and psychobabble? When someone tells me that all my problems will be resolved at the end of a 10-week beginner's course, or that Kabbalah Spring Water is the most unique and effective water in the world for healing, I begin to wonder. But then again, maybe it's just me.
Kelman had an answer for that, too.
"You don't have to accept everything. Our number one rule is don't believe a word I say, but be open to everything. If you're not open, if you think you are so smart and know everything about life, you can not learn from anyone," he said, in an over-the-top presentation.
"The only thing I can advise," he continued, "is to come to the next ten classes and you can try to have a change in your life. The proof is in the pudding."
Rabbi Phillip Berg, preeminent leader of The Kabbalah Center, opened his first center in the United States in 1969. Over the next three decades, Berg and his followers launched 40 worldwide centers in France, Israel, Canada, South America, Mexico and Japan. The Kabbalah Center of Los Angeles, the organization's U.S. headquarters, opened in a one-bedroom apartment in West Los Angeles in 1984. Its current location is in Beverly Hills.
The Valley's Kabbalah Bookstore and Cafe opened this year, signaling a rise in the popularity of Berg's teachings among San Fernando Valley's large Israeli population. With books by Berg and videos on his teachings displayed prominently on blond wood bookcases, along with shelves dedicated to spring water, the Kabbalah Center Bookstore and Cafe looks more like a Scientology center peddling Dianetics than the spiritual center it claims to be.
Controversy swirls around Rabbi Berg but that doesn't deter his followers.
Berg claims to be the direct heir to the teachings of the late kabbalist and mystic Rabbi Yehuda Zvi Brandwein. He met Brandwein in Israel in 1962 and began studying at his school in 1964. In an April article in New Times, Berg's claim is called a falsehood by Brandwein's son, Avraham Brandwein, who took over his father's school and runs it today. But despite documentation against him, Berg and his followers continue to sell the belief that the Kabbalah Center was founded in 1922 in Jerusalem. The so-called Kabbalah Center that they speak of, in reality, is the Yeshiva Kol Yehuda founded by the late kabbalist, Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, Brandwein's predecessor.
"If one wants to find controversy, one can find it," cited Rabbi Yehuda Grundman, teacher at the New York Kabbalah Center.
Grundman, who has known Berg for 10 years, was ordained in Berg's own Yeshiva Kol Yehuda, a small school within the Kabbalah Center. Grundman, who is a personable and reasonable man, has only the highest regard for Berg, and what he has brought to the world. "There's something unique that's being delivered here; all this attention must mean something is going on. Berg has been responsible for bringing the teachings of Brandwein out to the public at great personal sacrifice."
When asked what personal sacrifices, Grundman responded by displaying a fierce devotion to Berg - a devotion that seems to permeate the organization.
"He has known personal opposition, slander, from opponents of his teachings. But this opposition has always been blind opposition, heard secondhand from someone [who was ignorant of the teachings], without finding out where it came from... it came out of the fear of mysticism, the fear of the unknown."I personally believe Rabbi Berg is the foremost authority on kabbalah in the world. I've read many, many readings of traditional experts, and have found, personally, the wisdom of Rav Berg makes the most sense."In a brochure for Kabbalah Spring Water, obtained at the Kabbalah Center's Bookstore and Cafe, photos show the water's molecular structure changing after it has been treated by kabbalistic meditations, administered by Berg and a group of his rabbis. The brochure reads, "According to Kabbalah, the primordial water of earth had the power to heal and regenerate human cells. This power was lost and the molecular structure of the water changed in response. The Kabbalists revealed a unique blessing that restored water to its prior molecular structure. Note how the water image above [white spots spread out on a black slide] after it has been blessed [white fern like growths on a black slide] changes structure similar to the water found on a meteorite that dates back millions of years [more fern like growths]."
When asked about Kabbalah Spring Water, Grundman's voice softened. The Kabbalah Center, Grundman informed, is in the process of doing a scientific study, by scientist from around the world, that will demonstrate conclusively how the metaphysical affects the physical.
"After the report will come out, there will be scientific conclusive results [to back up this claim]. The water is healthy, of the physical purist quality. Nothing is added. The water is a tool to enhance physical cleansing... cleansing the physical while cleansing the spiritual."
When asked if the water can cure cancer, as many have claimed, Grundman reacted angrily. "If someone said that the water can cure cancer they are clearly not in line with the teachings of the Center. No one would say that."
But someone did.
"The water is something that is not explained," Kelman, also ordained by Berg, told me after his lecture.
"The kabbalist, over the millennium, say that water can cure... through certain meditations, the meditations have power."
Kelman continued to talk about the water, which is sold at the Center for $2.50 a bottle, $26.00 a box. "The meditations take place after the water is bottled in New York and Los Angeles. You're going to say you're blessing the water. But Rabbi Berg says no, the water cures. After treatment, it is proven that a physical change takes place. It's proven in tests that for the people who drink the water, it has an amazing effect. People say they can see a difference.... and people say, besides curing cancer..."
Is there a study? I quickly interrupted.
"Yes there are studies," Kelman answered. "The new studies are coming. It's proven in tests that the water has an amazing effect, not only on people but on plants, on sickness in plants and many other areas.""They're not the first people to claim that water has special powers because they have blessed it," said physicist Martin Simon, staff member of UCLA physics department. "There's a group in Russia that formed after the breakup of the Soviet Union that claims the same thing: that their water has healing powers. No one has ever proven that they have changed water by prayer."
When I tell him about the photographs, Simon responded, "The molecular structure of water is H20; unless something is added, the molecular structure is the same. There is no molecular difference between their water and the water you get out of any tap.
"Throughout history, groups have adopted scientific explanations to explain spiritual and religious beliefs, even Fascism," Simon said.
"[These groups] want to use scientific effectiveness, but ignore what has led to that effectiveness. It gives them the appearance of scientific knowledge... of something that makes no sense."
By giving the water a scientific cover, the Kabbalah Center is appealing to the gullible, Simon said.
"You can't rule out powers that physics can't explain, "Simon continued, "but when [the Kabbalah Center] gets into physical claims, then you need to test it."
I agree with Kelman that the question is not what, but why? Why does the Kabbalah Center, in its mission to teach a more spiritual approach to life, insist on "scienific certainty" for their holy water? Isn't the ancient study of kabbalah reliant on a leap of faith into the unknown, "something that cannot be touched," rather than scientific certainty of physical reality? Does Berg appeal to science in hopes of reaching those that can't be reached through faith alone?
I put a challenge out to the Kabbalah Center and Berg. James Randi, the leading debunker of paranormal and supernatural phenomenon is offering a terrific challenge: If anyone, or group, can prove psychic, supernatural or paranormal ability of any kind, under mutually agreed upon scientific conditions, they will be awarded $1 million. If the Kabbalah Center can prove, beyond a scientific doubt, that their water changes after kabbalistic meditations, as they claim, then they will be $1 million richer. I urge the Center to take the challenge. The application form can be found at www.randi.org
The proof is in the pudding.
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