Rabbi Philip Berg, founder of the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles and a spiritual adviser to A-list celebrities such as Madonna, has died, according to an announcement made on the Kabbalah Centre’s Web site on Sept. 16.
“Today we believe the Rav has begun to share with us from above, and we will all happily remain connected to and inspired by the Rav’s soul and his vision,” the center said in a statement.
The center did not specify the cause of death, but Berg — who was known as “The Rav” among his followers — suffered a stroke in 2004. He was 86, according to the statement, but the Los Angeles Times reported that public records reveal he was 84.
His wife, Karen, and two sons, Yehuda and Michael, survive him. Berg’s family has been leading the center ever since Berg’s health began deteriorating nearly 10 years ago.
[LISTEN to Jewish Journal publisher and editor-in-chief Rob Eshman discuss
Rabbi Berg at 4:55 and 6:55 p.m. on KCRW, 89.9 FM and kcrw.com]
Born Shraga Feivel Gruberger in New York in 1928, Berg was ordained at an Orthodox seminary in Queens. He sold insurance for a living until a visit to Israel during the 1960s introduced him to kabbalist Rabbi Yehudah Zvi Brandwein, to whom he became close.
After Brandwein’s death in 1969, Berg declared himself the heir to the kabbalistic dynasty of Brandwein, according to a 1997 Journal article by now editor-in-chief Rob Eshman.
In 1995, Berg founded the movement’s Los Angeles headquarters — formerly a youth center — on Robertson Boulevard. The center is one of 40 brick-and-mortar locations that are a part of the movement, a Jewish mystical tradition that combines elements of astrology and numerology with speculation about the creation of the universe, God and the soul.
Over the years, the center in Los Angeles gained worldwide attention as celebrities, including Madonna, Britney Spears and Demi Moore, became involved with it. These endorsements, coupled with Berg’s embrace of new-age teachings, helped draw in legions of followers.
“Thousands of people take its classes, buy its books and tapes, and participate in [its] services,” Eshman reported.
But its success is only one part of the story. Orthodox rabbis have denounced Berg’s methods, arguing that he has been teaching a watered down method of kabbalah, which should be reserved for talmudic scholars, and in 2011, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) began investigating the L.A. center for tax evasion. It is unclear how Berg’s death will affect the ongoing investigation by the IRS, the Times reported.
Additionally, former followers of Berg have provided stories about the center leading to divisions within their families, and Berg’s critics have claimed to be threatened by the organization.
The center did not respond immediately for comment about Berg’s death, but in its statement wrote: “[He] created a path for millions to learn and live Kabbalah ... through thousands of hours of teachings, examples of courage that we will never forget, and the comfort of a Kabbalah centre that we can all call home.”
According to the Jerusalem Post, Berg will be buried in the Israeli city of Safed. The historical center of the tradition, Safed is known as the City of Kabbalah.