Is the celebrity-studded Kabbalah Centre bringing the benefits of age-old Jewish mysticism and learning to the masses, or is it a multimillion-dollar family enterprise scamming the gullible?
That basic question, raised with growing frequency and ever-larger headlines in recent years, was given a surprisingly well-balanced national airing last week on the ABC-TV newsmagazine, "20/20."
Founded in 1971 in Los Angeles by Philip Berg, addressed as The Rav by his followers, the Kabbalah Centre is an American success story, with 40 branches around the world, many thousands of faithful students and followers and a thriving commercial enterprise. The center's recent explosive growth and fame can be largely credited to an enviable Hollywood roster, led by Madonna. The celebs testify that they have found spiritual renewal and insight through Kabbalah Centre studies.
Celebrity titillations aside, the most useful aspect of the 40-minute segment for the open-minded viewer was a rare question-and-answer session between co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas and members of The Rav's family: Karen Berg, The Rav's wife, and their sons, Michael and Yehuda. The three Bergs have been running the center network since the founder suffered a debilitating stroke last year.
The Bergs insisted that all their teachings, however popularized, are based on the Zohar, the authoritative kabbalist text, and that even glancing at the book would infuse the practitioner with God's energy.
"We teach a hipper, user-friendly form of kabbalah," Karen Berg said.
The Bergs made no apology for the commercial portion of their ministry. The center sells a range of items that are supposed to be spiritually beneficial, such as red strings, candles, T-shirts, shot glasses and bottled water. They tout their merchandise as being able to cure diseases, dispel radiation and bring prosperity.
"You can do with kaballah what you want," Berg said. "We are not God's policemen."
The mainstream rabbinical view was presented by Yitzchok Adlerstein, an Orthodox rabbi who teaches Jewish law and ethics at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Adlerstein, who consulted a lawyer before venturing on the program, proved a restrained but witty commentator.
He compared the "real" kabbalah to the Bergs' version as like "taking astrophysics and reducing it to 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.'"
When shown a photo of Britney Spears with one of God's 72 names in Hebrew tattooed on her neck, Adlerstein commented dryly that this would contribute to Spears' prosperity as much as it would help him to tattoo "Britney's name on my neck."
Although there were snippets of Madonna in her "Kabbalists Do It Better" T-shirt and also video cameos of red-string wearers Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and others, the only celebrity interview was with Roseanne Barr.
"Kabbalah gets you off yourself and your ego," she said. "I am now a calmer, gentler person than I used to be."
Neither the TV program nor other pro-and-con arguments are likely to sway those who believe in the Kabbalah Centre's power to effect spiritual and physical healing.
The poster boy for the center featured by "20/20" was not a lost-and-found Jewish soul, but Don Ellis, a Southern Baptist, ex-FBI agent and lawyer in a small Texas town. He has spent thousands of dollars buying a complete set of the Zohar in Hebrew and Aramaic from the Kabbalah Centre. He cannot read a word of the languages, but no matter.
"That's my telephone line to God," he declared, pointing to the books. "All I have to do is plug it in."