7 Dec 2007

Reconsidering L.A.'s most controversial un-synagogue, the Kabbalah Centre

By Rob Eshman, Editor-in-Chief
The Jewish Journal of greater L.A,

The first time I visited the Kabbalah Centre, I thought it was weird. The congregants all wore white; the man on the bimah called out letters of the Hebrew alphabet ("Alef to bet to taph!"); the letters themselves were displayed in massive typeface on posters around the sanctuary.

At certain moments in the Shabbat service, congregants circled their arms around their heads, like background dancers in a music video. And when the Torah came out, everybody held their hands out with their palms up, to, as the man standing next to me explained, "Receive the Light."

My wife was there, too, upstairs in the women's section. She whispered something to a friend during the rabbi's sermon, and someone on the other side of her hissed, "Shh!" It was comedian Sandra Bernhard.

Weird? It all seemed to me a cross between Scientology and Hebrew school -- full of glassy-eyed acolytes who knew more about multilevel marketing than Torah.

Two weeks ago, I went back. And what I found and what I felt shocked me: I liked it.

That's right, I liked it.

I had been reading Jody Myers' (photo, left) just-released book, "Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest: The Kabbalah Centre in America" (Praeger, $49.95), and it is the book's great strength that it forces a second and third look at a group that the great majority of mainstream Jewry finds suspicious, aberrant, fraudulent -- even dangerous.

Myers is a professor of religious studies at Cal State Northridge. She is a scholar of orthodoxy and Zionism and a member of the Library Minyan at Temple Beth Am. In 1999, simply out of curiosity over the disdain her colleagues had leveled at the Centre, Myers walked for the first time into the Centre's attractive mission revival building on Robertson Boulevard, just south of Olympic Boulevard. This slim, diminutive and energetic academic decided then and there to use her sabbatical leave to research the Centre.

She dug into archival, academic and religious research, interviewed numerous adherents and leaders and attended two 10-week courses the Centre offers, along with numerous Centre services and events. She devoted seven years to this work.

The result is a rare example of open-minded, fair inquiry on a highly charged subject. She tracks the origin of the kabbalah movement, examines its main teachings, looks at the particular way Kabbalah Centre founder Rabbi Phillip Berg adapted those teachings to the American spiritual seeker, and she profiles Centre participants. She rarely lets the curious down -- though I suspect she will incense many readers who expect a mainstream indictment of this new form of Jewish expression.

Instead, what she offers is a dispassionate analysis of the Kabbalah Centre as one of many new religious communities that have sprung up to satisfy the spiritual needs of a new generation. While most Jews and their rabbis disparage it, the Centre has grown worldwide to attract tens of thousands of participants by appealing to a generation that is suspicious of religious authority but hungry for tangible spiritual benefits. At a time when mainstream Jewish life is struggling and often failing to reinvigorate itself, the Kabbalah Centre has successfully taken, in Myers words, "an elitist and highly complex religious tradition limited to Jews" and modified it to appeal to a large, universal audience.

It has done so without a dime of Jewish foundation grants or the benefit of focus groups, academic studies or any of the other hallmarks of 21st century institutional Jewish life, including membership dues or building campaigns.

What Myers teaches, and what my visit last month taught me, is that instead of shunning the Centre, we ought to at least be studying it.

The history of popular kabbalah in America doesn't begin with the Kabbalah Centre. It begins with a poor Polish Russian-born rabbi named Levi Krakovsky.

As Myers tells it, Krakovsky followed his teacher, Yehuda Ashlag, to Palestine in 1922. Ashlag considered himself a disciple of the 16th-century kabbalistic master Isaac Luria, whose esoteric system of understanding the deeper, divine meanings of Torah influenced all future generations of Jewish and non-Jewish mystics. (In the age of "The Da Vinci Code," it's easy to see the appeal of a system of images and symbols that claims the Bible's real, true essence is "a code that establishes correspondences between the divine realm and the earthly realm.")

On the death of his wife, Krakovsky placed his five children in a Jerusalem orphanage and came to New York to bring kabbalah to American Jewry. He failed. In post-war America, Jews wanted their religion staid, rational and practically Protestant. After two more marriages and an itinerant life spent carrying a satchel full of his English-language kabbalah book from Jewish community to community, Krakovsky -- a character in search of a Michael Chabon short story if ever there was one -- died in 1966.

"Kabbalah destroys families," his son, Shlomo, said by way of eulogy.

But before he died, Krakovsky met Shraga Feivel Gruberger in Brooklyn. Gruberger, born in Brooklyn in 1929, was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi at yeshiva TorahVaDat. Already successful in real estate and insurance, Gruberger decided to devote his life to spreading the understanding of Jewish mysticism he had received via the chain of Ashlag, Krakovsky and his colleague, Yehuda Brandwein -- kabbalah means "that which is received."

It was the 1960s. Gruberger -- who by now went by the anglicized name of Phillip Berg -- promoted kabbalah as a way to keep young Jews out of the cults and away from non-Jewish religions that were sweeping them up. One study at the time found that Jews, just 2 percent to 3 percent of the American population, constituted between 6 and 20 percent of the membership of radical new religions. Berg, Myers writes, wanted to "show alienated and spiritually hungry Jews that their own religious heritage contained everything they needed for fulfillment."

Berg's genius was in making something that was dense and esoteric into something highly accessible. What Ashlag wanted to teach to all Orthodox Jews, what his disciple Krakovsky wanted to teach to all Jews, Berg wanted to teach to all -- period.

And his success is inarguable. Berg opened the first Centre in Toronto in 1988 (hence the spelling of Centre). There are now 26 Centres around the world and dozens of study groups. The Centre's Web site and marketing machine are arguably the most sophisticated of any Jewish organization, even one that denies it is Jewish. Go into any bookstore and books on kabbalah and mysticism dominate the new releases, just as kabbalah classes proliferate at synagogues and JCCs. How did Berg do this?

At root, he offered an easy-to-grasp mysticism, a mysticism with handles. Take God. The Kabbalah Centre God is not an angry old man on a throne. "The picture of God [presented by the Kabbalah Centre] is, for many people, quite unlike the conventional one," Myers writes, "and they welcome it." The Kabbalah Centre God is like light, "a sharing good power ... often called simply, 'the Light.'"

"The Light is warm, life giving, loving and completely and utterly devoted to fulfilling all the needs of the recipients of its glow. God desires only to share and never to withhold Light."

If the Light is yours for the receiving, that great bugaboo of organized religion -- compulsion -- falls away. As Myers points out, at the Kabbalah Centre, there is no compulsion.

In Berg's worldview, the Torah's directives -- mitzvot -- "are not mandates but suggestions." Kabbalah Centre adherents can -- and many do -- follow traditional mitzvot: keeping kosher, keeping the Sabbath. The more you follow, the more you let "the Light" shine in. But no one is pushed or made to feel compelled to do more than he or she desires.

Where it gets weird is when Berg asserts that people's misdeeds in past lives, including their lack of kabbalah study, cause illness and misfortune in this lifetime. That explains how Berg could tell the mother of a young boy gravely ill with leukemia that the disease is a result of something from the boy's past life. And it explains how Berg could continue to teach that Sephardic Jews were not destroyed in the Holocaust because they hadn't abandoned kabbalah as the Ashkenazim had (in fact, Sephardic Jews were slaughtered). "Jewish persecution occurs when the Jews are receiving rather than giving," Myers writes in summarizing Berg's lesson. "This applies to the Holocaust, as well."

The theology continues to be, to my mind, loopy, or at least unsatisfying. But Myers does an entirely admirable job of laying it out clearly and dispassionately.

And, she points out, few religious thought systems have a lock on logic or consistency. The classes and teachings of the Centre resonate among boomer and post-boomer religious seekers not because they answer every big question with perfect sense (by the way, which Jewish movement can claim that?), but because they address central concerns about healing and self-fulfillment. The Centre teaches that our human desires or our reactions to life's challenges often block the Light. But when we shut down our reaction and let the Light in, when we "connect with the Light," we have the power to transform ourselves, those around us and the world.

If you sniff intimations of "The Secret" and EST and other self-actualization psychologies in this, you aren't far off. Myers actually has a nifty chart comparing how Kabbalah Centre beliefs match five fundamental New Age beliefs.

She also addresses head on the most visible and ridiculed aspects of the Centre:
  • The Products: The Centre created two "spiritual tools": a rather pricey bit of red string and "Kabbalah Water," both purported to have healing powers. Wearing red against the "evil eye" has ancient precedent, Myers said, and Berg extrapolates from a passage in the central kabbalistic text, the Zohar, to make this point. The Kabbalah Water, which The Jewish Journal had tested for any special chemical properties several years ago -- it has none -- is part of the Centre's emphasis on both spiritual and physical healing, a "central concern" of the Centre -- and of younger spiritual seekers.
  • Scanning: Adherents are taught that passing their eyes over the Hebrew text of the Zohar, even though they can't read Hebrew, confers spiritual benefits. Myers found precedent for this among 18th-century kabbalists. But more importantly, she sees it as an outreach strategy. Anti-intellectual to be sure, but a way to bring Hebrew-illiterate Jews and non-Jews into the fold.
  • Cult-like Behavior: Myers directly addresses whether the Centre is a cult. I came across these accusations frequently when I wrote what was the first in-depth article on the L.A. Kabbalah Centre in 1997. Young men and women I spoke with told of being strong-armed into donations. One wife described how her husband burned through their savings, donating and buying Centre reliquaries. Myers doesn't re-investigate such charges or unearth and examine new ones. She does assert that while early Centre techniques and adherents might have been overly strident, the organization, as it has grown, has softened its approach and reined in its zealots. The difference between a cult and a religion is, as the saying goes, about 100 years.
  • Celebrity: The pop goddess Madonna was reported to be taking Centre classes in 1997. Since then, a string of celebrities -- Britney Spears, Demi Moore, Roseanne Barr, Bernhard and others -- have been linked to the Centre and studied under Berg or his sons, Yehuda and Michael.
Readers who want a thorough explanation and detailed account of the Centre and these celebrities won't find it in Myers' book. She could have devoted a chapter to the powerful intersection of spirituality and celebrity and, at the very least, sold more books. But she does acknowledge the invaluable free publicity these affiliations have brought the Centre. Moreover, the involvement of Madonna raises one of the central and most controversial features of the Centre: its outreach to non-Jews.

In a 2004 interview on National Public Radio, Terry Gross asked Madonna if she planned to convert.

"Oh please, don't make me sick!" Madonna exclaimed. "I'm never going to be Jewish, and I hate that phrase."

The pop star was reflecting a Centre teaching that what it offers is not Jewish; it's not even religion. By not naming a Jewish thought system as Jewish, by abhorring the idea that adherents must convert, Berg repositions Kabbalah as universal wisdom, available to all.

"The term 'Jew' is not used" in Centre discourse, Myers writes. Jew and gentile are ethnic terms. Kabbalah is for all humanity."

(This grand distinction, Myers points out, didn't stop Centre co-director Karen Berg, Phillip Berg's wife, from asking Myers herself to write a letter to a government agency testifying that the Centre deserves status as a religious organization, when it served the Kabbalah Learning Center's purpose.)

But the experience of walking into the Centre on a Shabbat morning is recognizably, undeniably, like walking into a traditional Orthodox synagogue, albeit one on steroids and joy juice.

My second time at the Kabbalah Centre was oh so different. A woman I had met at a movie screening -- a professional woman from a wealthy and connected Persian Jewish family -- was one of two, perhaps not coincidentally, beautiful young women greeting people at the door.

Inside, almost every seat was taken, and the place, by 10 a.m., was filling up fast. Average age, I'd say, was 35. I didn't notice any celebrities, but there were plenty of men and woman who could have been on magazine covers. As is common at the Centre, Israelis were well represented.

The traditional prayers were projected in Hebrew, along with a transliteration, above the bimah, using a high-tech Shabbat-kosher projector. Men and women, separately seated, fully participated, the singing and chanting often reaching a crescendo. Men who led prayers or blessed the Torah went from person to person receiving hugs. The man next to me, a 20-something African American, said he had first picked up a copy of Michael Berg's book, "The Way," at Costco, and it led him to the Centre.

That was four years ago. Now he's studying Hebrew.

Rabbi Phillip Berg appeared on the bimah. The crowd leapt to its feet and began chanting and dancing. No one sat until he sat. The rabbi had been seriously ill lately, and his presence was a cause for celebration. Men approached him for his blessings. The relationship appeared not so much cultish as, perhaps, Sephardic or Chasidic -- the rebbe in the house. Another rabbi gave the sermon -- as lackluster as any number of sermons that probably were being given across the town that Saturday.

But the energy in the room never flagged. The davening, the praying, was intense, focused and, yes, uplifting. At the end, I realized something uncomfortable: As a Shabbat morning in shul goes, this was good. And it was familiar: the Centre had long ago done what any number of new Jewish communities and old-line synagogues have, over the past 10 years, been learning to do: embrace visitors, use music (in this case, noninstrumental), emphasize personal and world healing, stick to Hebrew liturgy.

Professor Shawn Landres, co-author of a just-released study on these "emergent communities," told me the Kabbalah Centre -- though it denies it is Jewish -- was a "predictor" of innovative forms of Jewish worship and outreach.

"American Judaism is no longer an Ashkenazic conversation with itself, which is what the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox schism was -- it was all an Ashkenazic conversation with itself," Landres said. "The Kabbalah Centre proves the total success of Judaism in America, as it has spun off heterodoxies at the fringes."

I can't help but think that part of what rubs establishment Judaism the wrong way is the very popularity of this heterodoxy. Berg, in trying to keep young Jews from cults, was accused by the Jewish establishment as promulgating a cult of his own. But Myers shows that the Centre, while far from flawless, has pioneered a way of reaching Jews and non-Jews.

Her book begs a serious, unanswered question: What if we were to see the Centre not as a threat but as a model?

What if every rabbi and synagogue president and executive director spent a Shabbat morning in the sanctuary on Robertson, experiencing the undeniable warmth of the congregation, its immersion in an experience that, if not normative, is certainly recognizably -- forgive me, Madonna -- Jewish. Perhaps this form of kabbalah is, as Myers calls it, "a singular type of Judaism." It is a hybrid religious culture that reflects not just the utter embrace of Judaism in America -- the assimilation by non-Jews of fundamental Jewish beliefs -- but also the pluralism and reach that all religious movements are capable of today.

Even ours.

You can hear Jody Myers discuss her book at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles on Dec. 13 at 7 p.m. For more information call (323) 761-8644


1 comment:

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