In the weekend newspapers one can find obituaries for “Rabbi Philip Berg”, dead at 86. The New York Times obit headline credits Berg as follows: “Updated Jewish Mysticism.”“Updated”, huh? Well, that’s one way to describe the shenanigans of the huckster who “ministered” all the way to the bank to the likes of Madonna, Demi Moore, Roseanne Barr and Monica Lewinsky at the Los Angeles Kabbalah Center, with his red wrist strings and “holy kabbalah” water.Of course, we don’t want our newspaper of record to wax judgmental in obituaries, do we? Where might that lead, after all? So we give the lately late the benefit of most doubts. And to be fair, the NYT obit, written by a master of obit writing, Margalit Fox, (who, by the way, doesn’t get to choose the headlines that adorn her writing), does spread the description of Berg, his wife and sons, and his multimillion-dollar scams to include at least some of his many shady dealings. But, unfortunately, it also invokes the excruciating even-handedness of Rabbi Arthur Green, of the Reconstructionist movement, to set the obit’s abiding tone:
It’s a mixed legacy. On the one hand, both Orthodox and liberal Jews accused him of charlatanism and hucksterism. . . . On the other, there were people who derived great benefit from his teachings, who found their way back to Judaism through him. . . . He tapped into the fact that modern educated people can still be superstitious and still have insecurities and still have needs that were once filled by people who wrote amulets and gave blessings. And he was willing to do that for people in the modern world.
Yes, Berg was willing to do that for fees that made him and his family multiple millions of dollar, and all he had to do was indulge the credulous and untutored by bowdlerizing Jewish traditions to the point of unrecognizability. Yes, afterlife/immortality themes and astrology had a place in medieval Jewish thought, mystical and otherwise; but Berg brought them front and center and disregarded most of the rest. He didn’t just gently humor the superstitions of confused people; he actively encouraged, embellished, bolstered and profited from them.It may not be all that surprising that a leader of the Reconstructionist movement would give Berg the benefit the doubt on this score, because that movement, in my view, for all the good it may do, also at times plays a little fast and loose with tradition in the name of helping Jews find their way to (or back to) Judaism—or at least a version of it. Not that I am equating the two—Heaven forbid!!—but it is distressing, of which a bit more below.Fox, meanwhile, doesn’t help the overall impression of factual solemnity the obit wants to make by offering a translation of “kabbalah” as “tradition.” This is wrong. Kabbalah is a noun derived from the Hebrew verb meaning to receive, so it means “the received”, or “what has been received”, really meaning in context the received gnostic wisdom. The Hebrew word for “tradition” transliterates as “masorah”—not even close.Now, it happens that I wrote about Berg in Jewcentricity, my 2009 book of which mention has been made in this space. After introducing the subject via Madonna and the other celebrities Berg snookered, I noted toward the end of chapter 7 that I had been putting the word “kabbalah” in scare quotes for a reason: There is such a thing as kabbalah, I explained: It’s the generic name for Jewish mysticism, based in large part around the Zohar, the Book of Splendor. I noted that for Orthodox or traditional Jews, kabbalah is difficult, esoteric and even potentially dangerous knowledge reserved only for the most serious, emotionally mature and well-educated. There were no shortcuts to it either. It was hard and exhausting study, and most important, it was not about or for the student; it was about God and mysteries of creation. Its purpose was to attain enlightenment; the point was intellectual and spiritual, as in any serious form of mysticism. If dime-store therapy has an opposite, genuine kabbalah is it.I wrote that Philip Berg’s “kabbalah” is to real Judaism what Thunderbird is to real wine. It’s McMysticism—an outsized, distorted knock-off, a fake and worse, as any educated Jew who reads the web page of Philip Berg’s Kabbalah Center can readily see. Berg presents “kaballah” as esoteric knowledge separate from Judaism, rather than as an outgrowth or expression of it. In the website’s question-and-answer section, the viewer learns that it is not necessary to be Jewish to study and follow kabbalah. Berg’s son Yehuda told Daphne Merkin of the New York Times, apparently in a moment of unsafeguarded candor, that the Center downplays the Jewish aspect of the Center’s version of kaballah, because it might alienate the clientele.It is indeed a strange mix that Berg and his family came up with: Seating in the Center for prayer services is segregated by sexes; adepts are enjoined to keep kosher; the weekly Torah portion is read from a bima on the Sabbath, yet no claim is made that any of this is Jewish! Mitzvoth are not called mitzvoth, but “tools.” What goes on in the Center is never referred to as “religion”, and in all discussions of the matter religion is always put in quotation marks to separate “kaballah” from it—as if, as Merkin put it, religion “were another of those tossed-out, old-hat ideas, like fidelity.”This is why we can be told on the website with an apparent straight electronic face that Sir Isaac Newton was an adept of Bergian kaballah, for example. So was Pico de Mirandolla, the remarkable man who wrote the Oration on the Dignity of Man that helped kick off the Italian Renaissance. This is a bizarre half-truth, like much of what the Kaballah Center proffers. Pico believed the Zohar predicted Christianity, and so had the remarkable Jewish scholar Abba Hillel Delmedigo teach him Hebrew so that he could read the original. This, however, did not make Pico de Mirandolla a master of kaballah, for he came at it with a preconceived purpose at odds with its teachings.So did Philip Berg. Rabbi Berg claimed inspiration from genuine kabbalists like Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, and this claim is partly true. But to see how, we must know a little something about Yehuda Ashlag—something you are unlikely to find out about in a NYT obit.Rabbi Ashlag was a rather unorthodox Orthodox Jew. Born in Poland in 1885, he founded the Kaballah Center in Israel in 1922. While others, like Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, were busy fusing Orthodoxy with modern Jewish nationalism, Ashlag tried to fuse his understanding of Orthodoxy with communism. There are stories of Ashlag’s audiences with David Ben-Gurion that left Ben-Gurion complaining: “I wanted to talk about kabbalah, but the rabbi wanted to talk about socialism.” One of Ashlag’s students was Yehuda Tzvi Brandwein, and Berg claims to have been a student of Brandwein. (He was, but Brandwein repudiated Berg and all he stands for.)But while Ashlag was influenced—or addled, depending on how one sees it—by the incandescent idealist currents of his day, Berg was moved instead by elements of New Age and standard hippie culture. His version of kaballah bears little resemblance to Ashlag’s, only two generations removed from that original, which was itself a departure from tradition. Berg claimed that there is greatness inside everyone, but that only by subduing one’s ego can one find this greatness. One seeks greatness by extirpating the ego? Sounds interesting, er….., but doesn’t the very act of seeking greatness make that difficult?In any event, the advertised motivation for Berg’s “kabbalah” is not primarily to seek knowledge about God, it’s about helping the student. What does “losing” one’s ego and aura of negativity mean to someone like Madonna? One can only speculate, but if I’d done more to popularize vulgarity than any other woman in the 20th century, I might want to slim down my ego and expel my negativity, too. And if all I have to do to accomplish this is tie a red ribbon around my wrist—a negative color, by the way, in real kaballah—learn about the 82 names of God, drink expensive designer water and buy costly books I don’t understand, well, that’s a super deal if one happens to have millions of uncommitted dollars on hand.It seems that Madonna has another interest in “kaballah”, however: immortality. Merkin learned this when she interviewed Madonna for a woman’s magazine. Madonna knew that Merkin has been raised as an Orthodox Jew, so she asked her if she believed in death. Wrote Merkin: “I answered somewhat bleakly that I did. When I turned the question back on her, she announced that she didn’t because she believed in the concept of reincarnation as taught by the Kaballah Center.” Madonna was referring to the authentic, if exotic, kabbalistic concept of gilgul neshamoth, or the recirculation of souls. So Merkin asked Madonna why she didn’t stick with Catholicism, since life after death is far more prominent in Catholicism than in Judaism. Madonna’s answer: “There’s nothing consoling about being Catholic. There’re all just laws and prohibitions.” Merkin, who went to yeshiva as a child and understands full well what “laws and prohibitions” are really about, doesn’t record her response to this astonishing remark because, doubtless, she was completely nonplussed.Perhaps the Kabbalah Center has actually helped Madonna and others. Fine: Lots of people think that mixing and matching aspects of different religions is amusing and harmless. But Rabbi Berg’s Kabbalah Center has nothing to do with genuine kabbalah, and the organization is anything but harmless. There are now fifty “kabbalah centers” worldwide, five in Israel, and there are far too many stories about the rip-off cults some of these centers have become for none of them to be true. In one Israeli center a so-called rabbi stole thousands of dollars from a couple, one of whom was dying of cancer. Giving this “rabbi” their life savings would supposedly cure the wife—of course, it didn’t. This is the lowest of the low, the scummiest of the scummiest kind of thing to do in the name of any religion. Some of these centers look to be a combination of kooky Scientology-like nonsense—teaching courses in “anti-matter” and palm reading—and the social cohesion of the Moonies in the way they combine rank superstition with ego escapism.This is not Judaism, and, again, it is not harmless because it raises the prospect that large numbers of innocent but uneducated people around the world may to think that this cynical rogue operation as an authentic expression of Judaism. And that, unfortunately, is not so far-fetched. Imagine some impressionable 17-year old in Detroit, or Malawi, where Madonna has spent millions to teach young people “kaballah”, hearing a rabbi say that the Berg Kabbalah Center is a manipulative cult that has nothing to do with Judaism, and Madonna saying otherwise. Indeed, she already has, as has her (former) husband Guy Ritchie, who explains that the only difference between “kabbalah” and Catholicism “is the amount of people. You don’t call Catholicism a cult.” To this Rabbi Berg added: “Eventually, when there’s enough people doing kaballah, it won’t even be an issue.”So who is that 17-year old going to believe? An international rock star who has cultivated an aura of social consciousness and given millions of dollars to charity, or some bearded schnook she’s never heard of? When Brittany Spears gets a Hebrew tattoo on her neck and claims that’s cool and part of kabbalah, but some unknown educated Jew points out on a talk show that tattoos are forbidden by Jewish law, who’s she going to believe?The “kabbalah” phenomenon exists separate from Hollywood, to be sure, but it is Hollywood and American celebrity culture generally that has vaulted it into the limelight, and given it the potential to do such harm. That is why it is probably not such a great idea for people like Shimon Peres to appear in public with Madonna (her Jewish name is Esther, she says, but she’s not actually a convert) when she comes to Israel, as she did in 2004 and again in 2007. Peres may not realize how wacky Madonna’s version of kabbalah is, but neither he nor any other Israeli official has any business stamping a heksher—a seal of kosher approval—on it, and this making more plausible Madonna’s claim that she is “an ambassador for Judaism.”Thanks to the internet, we live at a time when demagogy, bigotry, fads and foolishness of all kinds can careen around the planet at near the speed of light. There are no filters and few controls, enabling Jewcentricity to be expressed, magnified and mixed within and across national borders as never before. Philip Berg never quite qualified as a madman leading multitudes to perdition, as did the false messiah Shabbtai Tzvi of the 17th century. But stranger things have happened. Berg may be a precursor of who-knows-how-many charlatans in the future who may try to take Judaism for a talisman-like ride on a Jewcentric merry-go-round for fun and profit. In the fullness of time, forms of fake Judaism may take hold in the United States, and perhaps Israel too, that respond to a growing need for spiritual guidance in a psychically unstuck time, but that bear no resemblance to actual Judaism. With the sharp decline in Jewish education and with it historical memory and understanding, Judaism could face the challenge of mindless heresies like never before. Just imagine what Shabbtai Tzvi could have done with the internet.That’s what I said in the book, and so there you have it: The notion that Berg “updated” Jewish mysticism isn’t remotely accurate, anymore than “kabbalah” means “tradition.” What Berg did and what his Center will no doubt keep on doing, since it is so lucrative. But make no mistake: Philip Berg’s Kabbalah Center is way beyond the pale; he was a charlatan and a huckster preying (not praying) on the cluelessness of those seeking easy and instant spiritual gratification.Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism, despite their casual attitude to rabbinical tradition and authority, are certainly nothing of the kind. But for that very reason it’s probably not a good idea for Jewish clergymen of any variety to defend Philip Berg, even a little. Whatever the motive may be, it sends the wrong signal about their own activities and standards to those who may not know better. We should remember: Most of the time the alternative to high standards isn’t low standards, it’s ultimately no standards. The benefit of the doubt cannot be infinitely elastic, and even benign ends do not justify flexible means in all cases. Sometimes the best way to help spiritually thirsty people is to challenge by telling them, “No, you can’t do that, and I won’t help you do it; there is no easy answer, and you’ll have to work hard, possibly for a long time, to find one. And your money is irrelevant.” (What? That’s going to happen in Hollywood!? Who am I kidding?…..)