The death on Sept. 16 of Rabbi Philip Berg, 86, who founded the Kabbalah Centre with his second wife, Karen, did not come as a surprise. Rav Berg, as he was known at the center, had suffered a stroke in 2004 and had been little heard of since. Yet his legacy remains significant: In the last 20 years, the Kabbalah Centre International, headquartered on Robertson Boulevard, has opened branded centers and study groups all over the world, offering courses, books and merchandise that are based, they said, on the sacred medieval mystical texts known as the kabbalah. For these goods and services, the Centre charges fees ($180 for a course of 10 lectures; $360 for a set of the books of the Zohar; $26 for a red string; $6 for kabbalah water); it also solicits donations, which have brought to the Kabbalah Centre — and the Bergs — untold millions. And they have popularized the kabbalah — once both exclusive and esoteric — to the point that it is regular fodder in the pages of People magazine.
Kabbalah first emerged sometime in the 12th to 13th centuries, but traditionally was not known outside a small circle of Jewish scholars and rabbis, and has over the years, drawn a decidedly mixed reaction. Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism said: “If one turns to the writings of the great Kabbalists one seldom fails to be torn between alternate admiration and disgust … [for] the simultaneous presence of crudely primitive modes of thought and feeling and of ideas [of] profound contemplative mysticism. …” The Bergs, however, found in kabbalah an ontology to base a behavioral results-oriented spiritual system useful in contemporary society, offering both mystery and systems for controlling one’s self as well as, they claimed, one’s destiny. They attracted the devotion of celebrities such as Madonna, Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Roseanne Barr and Britney Spears, all of whom signaled their adherence by wearing a simple red string around their wrist. The Bergs also triggered the return of a number of individuals and families, including my own, to religion in general, and Judaism in particular.
In the mid-1990s, for a two- or three-year period, my wife and I were part of a group of a half dozen or more couples of varying faiths who took a series of courses sponsored by the Kabbalah Centre. Like a book club, we met weekly at a group member’s home, shared a potluck dinner, then listened to a lecture by a teacher from the Kaballah Centre. Our teacher was Eitan Yardeni, who had met Rabbi Berg in Israel as a teenager and was an integral part of the Centre. We attended occasional services at the temple — for Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of each month, a big deal), for Purim (a big party). We also went to Palm Springs one year to the Riviera Hotel, where the Kabbalah Centre offered Rosh Hashanah services. On several occasions, we met Rabbi and Karen Berg, and heard each of them give both sermons and informal talks. Rabbi Berg blessed my infant daughter and her Hebrew name, Netanya (gift from God).
The Kabbalah Centre’s teachings could be reduced to, “Let there be light.” The Centre teaches that our individual actions matter and that it is our spiritual mission to increase the light in our lives, in our community and in the world by being a beacon for the light. This light is channeled by sharing, through good deeds, by prayer, observance and charity. It was not hard to see why this message would be of value to celebrities, among others, for whom success provided no roadmap to happiness or a meaningful life.
Another mainstay of the Centre’s teachings is that when one is faced with a challenge, a problem, a decision, one should not act “reactively” (emotionally) but should “restrict” to allow the light in, and for the correct answer to emerge from our consciousness. “Restrict” is smart advice (think before you act), and one that my wife and I use to this day.
Even one of the Centre’s most derided practices, “scanning” (i.e. passing your fingers over, or looking at) Hebrew text that you can’t understand, was not without value. It allows one to participate in prayer, be comfortable in a setting where others are reading Hebrew and to engage with the text — even when it is foreign to you.
There was a warm feeling in having a group of friends putting aside time to reflect about our lives, our issues and how we could be better people. For a group of people, such as my wife, who grew up Jewish-Lite and didn’t necessarily see the why of religion, kabbalah promised personal benefits. Standing for a religious ceremony, or a festive meal, at the Robertson Centre with a group of friends and strangers, many of them dressed in all white, provided a feeling of belonging to something, being part of something — a feeling that perhaps we didn’t even know we craved.
Rabbi Berg, in person, did not strike me as a particularly spellbinding speaker, deep thinker or charismatic personality, yet he had a beatific look that radiated that quality the Kabbalah Center trumpeted — the light. Karen, by contrast, was much more engaging, down-to-earth, personable and funny.
If you were to ask me if the Kabbalah Centre is a cult, Jewish Scientology or a bastardized version of the Jewish religion, or did the Bergs seem to enjoy the trappings of success perhaps too much — the short answer is that the Kabbalah Centre is what you make of it, and while any of the aforementioned critiques may be true, in part, they seemed less so to our group. In the end, what bothered many of us was the greater involvement the Centre demanded. It was not only that they charged so much for every piece of string, book and bottle of water, but that they encouraged us to pledge allegiance to the Centre over all other places of worship, and to contribute to the Centre above all other worthy recipients.
Once Eitan was no longer our teacher (he left us for Madonna, among others), our group disbanded. Yet it is impressive, the extent to which each of us went on to greater involvement and commitment to our respective religious institutions. Almost all are today church or synagogue members (even one temple board member). For my wife, kabbalah was a bridge to Jewish thought and observance, one that led her to the congregation to which we now belong. For me, who had a more traditional Jewish education, it was an opening to the Jewish mystical tradition. For us, and the members of our group, the Kabbalah Centre turned out to be but a way station on our spiritual journey. In the end, is that such a bad thing?
Rabbi Berg is survived by his wife Karen and the two sons of their marriage, Michael and Yehuda, all of whom remain involved in the stewardship of the Kabbalah Centre, as well as those children still extant from his first marriage.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears here regularly, and his blog can be found at jewishjournal.com.