Rabbi Art Green on the Kabbalah Centre: “Kabbalah Deserves Better”

Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times

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.


The Season of Our Service: Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5772

As my Torah study students will attest, the book of Deuteronomy can be pretty tough stuff. Deuteronomy, of course, is the final book of the Torah, and most of it is a monologue delivered by Moses to the Israelites before they cross into the Promised Land. As Moses is about to die, he engages in a kind of review lesson for the people, relating their history, describing their journey and reminding them of the laws they have agreed to as part of their covenant with God.

This last part – the theological emphasis on the covenant – is a major theme in Deuteronomy. Over and over, God tells the Israelites through Moses: “You’re about to enter the Land. Just follow my laws and you’ll be fine. But break them and you’ll be very, very, sorry.”

It’s really not to hard to discern these theological threats throughout Deuteronomy– in fact we read them over and over and over again. God tells the Israelites that a deal’s a deal – and they had better hold up their end or else. And of course the “or else” is spelled out repeatedly – often in gruesomely vivid detail.

Now, of all the laws contained in this covenant, there is one in particular that God seems particularly uptight about: that is, namely, the law against worshiping other gods. That’s not to say God isn’t concerned about laws such as murder, theft, providing for the poor, caring for the stranger… While these kinds of laws are certainly mentioned, the stakes always seem to be the highest when it comes to the commandment against idolatry – against serving gods of foreign nations.

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My Prayer for Elul

It’s Rosh Hodesh Elul, the first of the last month of the Jewish year – also known as the month of spiritual preparation that leads into Rosh Hashanah. I plan to write extensively about Elul rituals over the next few weeks – in the meantime, here is my own rendering of Psalm 27, which is traditionally recited every morning this month.

Rosh Hodesh Sameach – a joyful and spiritually fruitful Elul!

Psalm 27

You are my light my hope
why should I fear
You are my life and my strength
why do I tremble

When I contemplate surrender
to my dread
to my terror of the unknown
I hold tight to you
and your strength gives me strength

Just one thing I ask of you
just this one thing
that I find welcome in your home
all the days of my life
to behold your beauty
to dwell in your innermost place

For in you there is shelter
in times of hardship and disquiet
in your tent there is sanctuary
from that place I will sing
a joyful song to the darkness
with openness and love

Do you hear my song
do you hear me when I cry
do not turn away
I seek you endlessly
I turn toward your light
it seems
I’ve sought your face

Still in my darkest moments
this I do know
even if my father and mother abandon me
you will always be there
to gather me up

Teach me the ways of wholeness and justice
remind me that no matter how far I may stray
from this path
there is always a way to return

Even if I can’t always see it
I will ever believe in your goodness
right here
right now
in the land of the living

Hold on to your hope
and be strong
the time of our return will soon

Don’t Expect Applause

From Pirke Avot 1:3 (translation by Rabbi Rami Shapiro):

Antigonus of Sokho received the Teaching from Shimon the Righteous. He used to say:

Live without hesitation.
Dwell not on outcome or reward.
Act with full attention.

The 59th and final “slogan” of Atisha – a revered Buddhist teacher from present-day Bangladesh (980-1052 CE):

Don’t expect applause.

Commentary by Acharya Judy Lief, writing in Tricycle Magazine:

Another problem with the hunt for approval is that it to gain approval you must buy in to the dominant values of the society around you. If what gets approval is getting rich, that is what you strive for; if it is beauty, that is what you obsess about; if it is power over others, that is what you focus on. The desperation for outer rewards goes hand-in-hand with an increasing sense of inner poverty. If you are successful in your quest for recognition, you may be able to ignore what you have given up to achieve it. If you are unsuccessful, you may simply blame the system. But in either case, since you have given over our power to others, you are left empty.

Today’s practice
When you notice you are expecting applause, explore what lies behind that expectation. Notice the subtle shift between when you have done something and when you begin to look around you for recognition.