Philip Berg: A Counter-Obit
Published on: September 23, 2013
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  • Cults like the fraudulent Berg version of kaballah always need a good, scornful debunking like this one, but the dig at Reconstructionist Judaism is really uncalled for and unworthy, even if partly retracted toward the end of the piece. I have close family and friends who are involved in the Reconstructionist movement, and while I have my own problems with the movement and its obsessive focus on denigrating the concepts of the divine as being anything more than “all the good things in people” and the chosenness of the Jewish people, to even contemplate for a moment placing a serious, scholarly religious thinker like Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in the same class with a con artist like Berg is absurd. It ought to be possible to slam Rabbi Arthur Green for having it both ways on the Berg cult without smearing Reconstructionism as a whole.

    • I took care not to denigrate or smear Reconstructionism as a whole. You misread me. I also know people involved in it. As for Mordecai Kaplan, I’m sure he wouldn’t recognize the movement he inspired, and suspect he’d be none to happy with a lot of it.

      • PS: I did write, toward the beginning: “Not that I am equating the two—Heaven forbid!!—….” Did you miss that line?

  • I did see that line. I read it as ironic. I apologize if I was mistaken. I think you are onto something: Rabbi Kaplan was reluctant to make Reconstructionism into a movement, perhaps with good reason.

    • Writers are taught never to use irony or sarcasm because it’s bound to be misunderstood; here I am perfectly sincere but taken to be ironic. Not fair. As in darn.

      If you want to read more about this, on a more personal blog I keep (and that no one reads), I can arrange that.

  • Eliezer Pennywhistler

    All you write is true, but I have some quibbles:

    Somehow I don’t think the KC will have much effect on some abstract Detroit teenager, nor do I think that it will lead to forms of fake Judaism that in some way may take hold in the United States – in the fullness of time.

    Unless you have evidence to the contrary.

    Perhaps Rabbi Green was in a particularly charitable mood right after Yom Kippur. Nothing he said was actually WRONG, but I have no evidence that any Jew “found their way back to Judaism through him”. Do you?

    And I am surprised that he would say “both Orthodox and liberal Jews accused him of charlatanism and hucksterism”, as if that was a discussable issue – maybe, maybe not, rather than a flat out statement that Berg WAS a charlatan and a huckster. I know it, you know it, and certainly a mystic like Green knows it.

    • Well, as to the first matter, we’ll see, won’t we?

      As for Reconstructionism helping some Jews find their way back to at least some form of Jewish identity, sure I know of examples. I also know of examples of non-Jews becoming Jews via Reconstructionism, and from there becoming more traditional in their practice.

      As for your surprise about Art Green’s equivocation; yes, me too–that’s why I wrote the piece. It was an unfortunate comment, whatever its motive.

      • Eliezer Pennywhistler

        1) I asked for evidence. “We’ll see” doesn’t come close to refuting my doubt.

        2) You quoted Rabbi Green, who said “there were people who derived great benefit from his teachings, who found their way back to Judaism through him.” “Him” being Berg.

        Where you pulled Reconstructionism out of that is beyond me.

        • Oh, I misunderstood you. Any evidence that Berg brought anyone to Judaism. No, not that I am aware of. As for evidence that people now think very strange things about what Judaism is and what Jews do, largely on account of the internet, just get and read Jewcentricity. There are examples from South Korea to South Africa.

          • Eliezer Pennywhistler

            Though I have not read it, I will be happy to share one review of your book: “In this elegant, witty, learned, insightful, always interesting, and occasionally alarming book, Adam Garfinkle explains the world’s fascination with the practitioners of its oldest mono-theistic religion.”

            But … if there is no actual evidence that Berg has brought anyone to actual Judaism, then that makes the ordinarily thoughtful Rabbi Green look silly.

            If there is no evidence that anyone’s view of actual Judaism has been impacted by “Rabbi” Berg, then you are worrying over a non-existent problem.

            The first time some strange ideas lead to forms of fake Judaism Saul of Tarsus was involved. The last was “Messianic Judaism” – whose churches are listed as synagogues in most telephone directories and city government listings. THAT deserves a lot more attention than theoretical 17-year old cultists from Detroit.

            Oh, yeah — my obituary of Berg: yimakh shemo ימח שמו “May his name be obliterated”.

          • We disagree: I think you underestimate the potential hijacking of what “Jewish” and “Judaism” can come to mean in an internet age. Berg may or may not have led anyone to Judaism, but he led many astray–and that phenomenon, in my view, is probably only the beginning of a trend.

  • Eliezer Pennywhistler

    Perhaps I DO “underestimate the potential hijacking of what “Jewish” and “Judaism” can come to mean in an internet age.” But I am still waiting for examples, evidence and all like that there (to quote The Goons). Unless you mean “Jews for Jesus”.

    To claim that “Berg … led many astray” you would have to show me someone who was on the path to becoming a Jew who ended up in the red thread cult instead. Know anyone like that?

    You suggest that “that phenomenon [of being led astray from Judaism], in my view, is probably only the beginning of a trend”. Ignoring Berg and his alleged astray-causing activities, where do you see this trend?

    I know that my black-hat nephew thinks that about Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, but I do not. Do you have “Humanistic Judaism” in mind? I know I do.

  • Eliezer Pennywhistler

    Then again, what to make of Philo, Alexandrian Jews and their Temple? The Karaites? Maimonides (who was excommunicated by some rabbis, as I recall)? The folks in S’fat? And, yes, Reform?

    • Sorry, but I don’t have time for an open-ended exchange like this.

      • Hey. it’s Esther, not Madonna … 🙂

        Wow, Adam Garfinkle really doesn’t like the Berg cult! But he’s right to be angry about it. I hope anyone interested in this movement has also read the related writings of Yossi Klein HaLevi. The comments of Art Green were disappointing and should have been more forceful. Not a Catholic, but Art was no doubt thinking nonetheless , de mortuis nihil nisi bonum.

        It’s hard to compare Berg and people like him to historic figures like Maimonides or Philo. Maimonides was considered a heretic by a handful of the ultra-pious, but the overwhelming majority of rabbis and Jews ignored them and made heavy use of Maimonides’ work in codifying Jewish practice and law, even as they rejected his Aristotelian framework, which they considered illuminating but not authoritative.

        The case of the Hellenistic Jews is harder to elucidate, because Judaism had not taken on the exclusively rabbinic form it had by late antiquity. However, Philo and other writers of his type did use the whole of Jewish tradition and did not fraudulently break off and misrepresent one piece as the whole. Philo did attempt an intellectual synthesis with certain aspects of Greek philosophy, at least Plato. It had a large impact on early Christianity, but no further influence in the history of Judaism, which was Aramaic-based and centered in Persian-ruled Babylonia.

        I do agree with the comment that, in a broader social context, that the “messianic Jew” and “Jews for Jesus” movements have done more damage and caused more confusion than did Berg, whose influence was confined to “the 1%,” as they say. (What does Warren Buffett think BTW?)

        In reality, kabbalah is closely related to Jewish practice and the achievement of spiritual focus (kavana) around performing the commandments (mitzvot). It also includes speculation about the nature of the divine and grappling with the problem of evil (Lurianic kabbalah).

        Anyone interested in the real thing should read the works of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (esp. The Thirteen Petalled Rose). Kabbalah was certainly influenced by non-Jewish trends (Platonism, Sufism, Christian Mariolatry and troubadours, although the influence went the other way too) and has certain parallels to the mystical traditions of Asia. Nonetheless, kabbalah is its own thing, not reducible to any of these influences and parallels.

        • I appreciate your taking time to address an earlier question. I don’t have it now.

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