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Jewish Journal

Feds investigate Madonna’s Kabbalah Centre for Malawi scandal

by Danielle Berrin

April 1, 2011 | 2:55 pm

No stranger to controversy or community contemptuousness, the iconic Kabbalah Centre is once again finding itself in hot water.

Several days ago, reports surfaced on the internet that a new spate of lawsuits and an IRS investigation are targeting the Kabbalah Centre, the Kabbalah Learning Centre and several members of the Berg family, the center’s founders and leaders. 

According to the entertainment Website showbiz411:

  Courtenay Geddes, a wealthy heiress from Pasadena, California, has sued the Kabbalah Centre of Los Angeles and all of its entities alleging a major swindle. Geddes’s suit — for $20 million– was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in February 2011. The news of the lawsuit comes on top of headlines concerning Kabbalah’s Raising Malawi charity reneging on a promise to build a girls academy in Malawi with pop star Madonna. As I reported exclusively yesterday, the Kabbalah Centre and Madonna have now hired a top spin doctor, Mark Fabiani, to protect the image of the singer and the organization.

  Geddes didn’t name Madonna as a defendant in her suit, but she named everyone else from the Berg family to John Larkin of Larkin Business Management. Larkin is the accountant for Kabbalah. (His firm was sued in 2009 by the Black Eyed Peas for failing to file a decade’s worth of tax returns.)

Also under investigation is the Madonna-backed charity Raising Malawi, which I first reported on in April 2009 when a FOX News report suggested that millions of dollars earmarked for Raising Malawi, the Kabbalah Centre’s official charity arm, had disappeared.

The report centered around a 2008 New York City fundraiser hosted by Madonna and co-sponsored by The Gucci Foundation and UNICEF, which reportedly raised $3.7 million for Raising Malawi. According to reports, the funds were earmarked for a school project that would teach spirituality to Malawi orphans, but a year later, no progress had been made and the $3.7 million remained unaccounted for.

The report also questioned why the Malawi government had initially rejected Madonna’s request to adopt a second child from that country (they eventually acquiesced). Was it an act of retaliation? A hint of bad blood between the government and the pop star?

As Jewish Journal editor Rob Eshman wrote on bloggish, “From it[s] inception Kabbalah Learning Center has been a frequent target of lawsuits, rumors, publicity good and bad, and controversy.”

From a 1997 story on the Kabbalah Learning Center, Eshman wrote:

That a Jewish institution has met with such success would—or should—normally be the cause of much rejoicing in the Jewish community. But if a golden touch blesses the center, a cloud of rumors, investigations, lawsuits and exposés shadows it. “What they’ve done is taken Kabbalah and twisted it out of shape for their own purposes, and it’s very destructive,” said Congregation Neve Shalom’s Rabbi Steven Robbins, founder of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles’ Cult Task Force. “This is not Judaism. This is not kabbalah. This is narshkeit [nonsense].”

But supporters hail the KLC as a salve for all the ills of the modern soul. The center survives on and solicits contributions like any synagogue, they say. And adherents are no more loyal than Chassids are to their rebbes. Said Michael Berg, the son of the center’s founder, Rabbi Philip Berg: “We teach kabbalah; we wear white on Shabbat. Is it a cult or is it a group that is different from what you’re used to?”

Like Scientology, whose practices are shrouded in secrecy and have aroused public suspicion, the Kabbalah Centre attracts celebrities who are struggling to make sense of their lives. Madonna, for instance, didn’t wind up there because she felt fulfilled and stable on her pop-music pedestal, but because she was questioning her values, selfish behaviors and seeking deeper meaning. Listen to her 1999 album “Ray of Light” and you’ll hear the center’s diluted version of Kabbalah in nearly every lyric.

As Eshman notes in his story, there are several main criticisms of the center’s methods:

Sore points for the critics include:

* “Scanning,” a KLC practice that means looking over the pages of the Zohar, the five-volume central kabbalah text, even though some can’t read the Hebrew it’s written in. “The Hebrew words are channels through which light is transmitted,” said Michael Berg.

“It’s like an Evelyn Wood thing,” said the Chai Center’s Rabbi Schwartz. “This is so anti-intellectual, and we are the People of the Book.”

* Teaching that the victims of the Nazi Holocaust chose or provoked their fate. Inflammatory as this subject may be, the conclusion is inevitable considering the center’s approach to kabbalah. “We should all remember this,” wrote Karen Berg in a recent issue of Kabbalah, the KLC’s magazine. “If it happens to me, I must deserve it.”

“If you look at it in the big picture, the Jews were, in some way, the cause,” said Michael Berg. The KLC’s promotional video, “The Power of Kabbalah,” states that Ashkenazic Jews were slaughtered and Sephardic Jews were saved because only the latter studied kabbalah. “That’s ridiculous,” said Dr. Alex Grobman, national director of the American Society of Yad Vashem. “The Sephardim were simply not in the Nazi’s line of fire.”

* The lack of traditional Jewish instruction. “Real kabbalists were also Talmudic scholars,” said a local Orthodox rabbi. “People can’t have a full spiritual experience without putting in the work.”

The Orthodox particularly abhor the KLC’s non-halachic approach to Jewish learning. “They’ll sell you a Zohar before they sell you a mezuzah,” said Schwartz.

But most KLC participants, said Eitan Yardeni, a senior teacher at the Los Angeles center, have “never been involved” in Jewish learning. For them, learning observance is secondary to learning spirituality and kabbalah.

* Teaching love, preaching intolerance. Rabbi Berg emphasizes the importance of “causeless love” among Jews. But at least one public utterance seems to fall short of that. At one Shabbat service, which The Jewish Journal attended, Berg, who was in town, 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.”

According to the article, Dr. Rabbi Philip Berg has repeatedly refused over the years to disclose the source or official credentials of his doctorate.

More than a decade later, and as evidenced by Geddes’ the newly filed lawsuit, the Kabbalah Centre continues to attract major donations in support of its services. But where the money goes and why one-time supporters of the center become disillusioned and angry remains enshrouded in mystery. 

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Read more on the Kabbalah Centre
Madonna’s Kabbalah-backed fundraiser missing millions
L.A.‘s Kabbalah Learning Center: Center of Controversy
Maybe It’s Not So Weird After All

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Danielle Berrin writes the Hollywood Jew blog, a cutting edge, values-based take on the entertainment industry for jewishjournal.com. A Los Angeles Times profile dubbed her...

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