As someone who cherishes Jewish mystical tradition, I confess that I’ve long been dismayed by the shallow pop culture hucksterism of the the Berg family’s Kabbalah Centre (made famous in recent years for attracting Hollywood celebrities such as Madonna, Brittany Spears, and Ashton Kutcher among their devotees.) Whenever asked by those interested in learning more about Kabbalah, I’ve made a point of steering them away from the likes of the Kabbalah Centre in favor of contemporary scholars such as my own teacher Rabbi Art Green, author of “Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow” and “Seek My Face, Speak My Name: A Jewish Mystical Theology.”
For years I’ve been interested in what someone like Art would say about a phenomenon such as the Kabbalah Centre. Now I’ve just discovered that he did precisely that in a HuffPo piece last October:
What (Kabbalah Centre founder Rabbi Philip) Berg figured out is that superstition and the insecurities that attract people to it did not disappear with modernity. They exist in Hollywood just as much as in poor neighborhoods of Jerusalem. You just need to know how to market them. At this he became a genius. He took his outrageous promises and bundled them together with the sort of self-help advice one can readily find in many books sold in airport bookstores. To these he joined some light bits of true Kabbalistic learning. He wrapped them all up in bundles of red string, making an old Eastern European talisman, used mostly for keeping witches away from babies’ cribs, a new identifying symbol for his “Kabbalists,” most of whom had no real idea of what the Jewish mystical tradition was all about…
The sad part of this story is that it represents a thorough mixing of goodness and cynicism. Many people testify that their lives were set straight by loyalty to the Kabbalah Centre, that they were freed from addictions, brought back from depression, or even just redeemed from the triviality of Hollywood and its values. Who could not thank the Bergs for the positive effect they have had on the lives of so many? But in the end, hucksterism seems to have won out. The “evil urge” is a pretty slippery character, especially when big money becomes involved. The Kabbalah Centre’s founders and leaders, especially in creating a dynasty, have taken the reputation of an ancient and noble tradition and have sullied it for their own gain. Kabbalah deserves better.
Art’s piece followed upon a thorough investigative article in the LA Times on allegations of corruption and financial shenanigans at the KC. Click here to read more.
Interesting. So recently I actually read a text published by the Kabbalah center, kind of a cliff-notes on the Zohard (http://www.amazon.com/The-Essential-Zohar-Source-Kabbalistic/dp/0609609270). I had read before I picked up the book that the Kabbalah center wasn’t exactly the best place to learn about the Zohar, but it was admittedly the cheaper book to buy. Having read it though, I didn’t quite understand what all the fuss was about, as the book’s assertions were fairly general. Do you find the Kabbalah center guilty in terms of the information they espouse, or simply things more along the lines of negatives motivations and dirty dealings?
As the LA Times article mentions, there are serious allegations of financial fraud and corruption. Beyond this, there is the troubling fraudulent “snake oil” aspect of their marketing. They’ve since desisted from selling their expensive “Kabbalah Water,” which some KC leaders claimed had the power to heal diseases such as cancer and AIDS. If you go to their online store, you’ll see they’re still selling their famous Red String which will protect you from the evil eye. (I notice that they’ve marked down the price of their string from $26.00 to $19.50.)
Disappointing to hear such. I am at least glad that the book I read didn’t (at least overtly) pander in such a way. Hopefully it, at least, didn’t stray too far from consensus or objectivity, but alas I’m obviously no expert. : /
Art and I agree on the Kabbalah Centre. Two of our close friends were members and later became disillusioned because of the Berg’s insistence on more and more contributions.
There are prerequisites to studying Kabbalah. One must master Tanach, Mishnah and be a have a working understanding of Talmud first. None of this is done at Berg’s place. It’s trying to study Differential Equations with only studying middle school Pre-Algebra.
The only good I see from these stars such as Madonna learning at Berg’s Kaballah Centre is that they have gained a nice affinity towards and a respect of Israel.
My hope is that these stars convert to Judaism in Israel and study.