Archive for September, 2013

Death of a Neo-Kabbalist: Philip Berg passes away

The note on Berg's death (his wife Karen to the left) from The Kabbalah Center's site - click picture to get there

I haven’t written for a while, all due to an academic paper I am toiling at and absolutely must finish soon, which deals with a certain aspect of current spirituality in Israel. Just as I was writing, and just as I reached the part dealing with Neo-Kabbalah (Bnei Baruch, The Kabbalah Centre), came word of the passing of Phillip Berg, founder of The Kabbalah Centre. If I were into Kabbalah I would of course have deduced that this is no coincidence, but rather a sign and an omen and message and a signal, but I’m not really into that, and so I won’t deduce. What I will do is write, because ignoring this occasion isn’t an option.

It is not an option, because Phillip Berg is probably the greatest popularizer of Kabbalah ever. No man in human history showed such tenacity and creativity in spreading “the wisdom of Kabbalah” in every direction possible, including the addition of women and non-Jews to the circle of Kabbalah. Berg built an empire of Kabbalah that numbers tens of thousands of members, who are active in over forty centers worldwide, from Hong Kong, through Tel Aviv and Berlin to Buenos Aires.

The fiscal value of ‘The Kabbalah Centre’ is currently estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars (some two and a half years ago an investigation against the center was launched by the IRS), at it serves as a magnet for Hollywood celebrities such as Madonna, Ashton Kutcher and Gwyneth Paltrow. Furthermore, the echoes of The Kabbalah Centre reach far beyond its registered (and paying) members, and Berg’s phenomenal success in getting multitudes of people interested in the Jewish teachings of the occult brings Jewish content into the spiritual field of our times, which is mostly dominated by variations of Christianity and imports from Oriental religions.

Rabbi Ashlag’s Modernist Kabbalah

Rabbi Yehuda Leib AshlagLike other branches of the neo-Kabbalist explosion since the 1990’s, Berg is the spiritual offspring – spiritual bastard, some would no doubt say – of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ashlag. Rabbi Ashlag (1885-1955), one of the greatest Kabbalists of the twentieth century, was born in Warsaw to an upper-class Hassidic family and was exposed fairly early in life both to Kabbalah and the scientific and ideological developments of the fin de siècle. In 1921 he arrived in mandatory Palestine and spent the rest of his life in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv developing his interpretation of Kabbalah and in attempts to disseminate it.

Ashlag presented a modern interpretation to Rabbi Luria’s Kabbalah, combining a Hegelian historical perception, a Marxist vision and psychological insights. One can say that he “stood Marx on his head,” for although he borrowed from him the vision of an egalitarian, collectivist society, he added to Marxism the Kabbalist exegesis regarding the inner structure and logic according to which the world works, including the necessity of divine influence on human transformation that must occur in the course of achieving a model society. For Ashlag, general salvation meant a collective transcending of man over his egotistical needs.

To elaborate, the shift from egocentric life to an altruistic existence can occur, according to Ashlag, only by the spreading the wisdom of Kabbalah and its mass study. When the denizens of the world realize that Kabbalah gives them the only key to understanding the universe, they will clearly see the need to erect an egalitarian society that cares for the needs of its individuals. Then they will be free to observe the commandments and concentrate on “bestowing” – bestowing plenty on others – which will bring about their metamorphosis from egotistical beings to altruistic ones – that is, for Ashlag, divine ones. This will launch a new era of peace and brotherly love. (For further reading, see “Altruistic Communism – Rabbi Ashlag’s Modernist Kabbalah” by Boaz Huss, here [Heb, PDF].)

The Extended Ashlag Family

click to enlarge

Although he tried, Rabbi Ashlag failed during his lifetime in breaking through the walls of the ultra-orthodox society and spreading his teachings further. But he had students whose followers do so today with great success, even if they are hostile to one another. In the above diagram (and also here) you can see the distribution of the tree of sons and students of Rabbi Ashlag to this day. Legend: Vertical – generational sequence; Straight lines connect fathers and sons; broken lines connect teacher and student; the dotted line connects husband and wife; To the left of the broken vertical line are the followers of Ashlag whose view of Halakha is unorthodox. It must be stressed that these are only Ashlag’s central followers. If anyone spots an error, I shall be glad to be corrected.

And so, on the right are various Ashlag brothers and ultra-orthodox Ashlag students (The Ashlag brothers fought amongst themselves over the copyrights to their father’s writings). A little to the left, Adam Sinai and Yuval HaCohen Asherov represent two different organizations for the dissemination of Ashlagian Kabbalah: Sinai with HaSulam and Asherov as the student of Rabbi Mordechai Sheinberger, who himself heads the ultra-orthodox/Ashlagian village Or HaGanuz. Other students of Sheinberger not mentioned here are Moshe Sharon and Rabbi Arik Naveh.

Among the “Left Ashlagians,” if I may call them such, there are currently two very large neo-Kabbalistic movements, and several others of lesser scope. Rabbi Michael Laitman, who studied with Berg early in his career, went to study later from Ashlag’s son, Rabbi Baruch Ashlag, apparently due to criticism he had regarding what he saw as Berg’s overly liberal interpretation of his master’s teachings. After Baruch Ashlag passed away, Laitman founded Bnei Baruch, where he offers the same liberal interpretation, more or less. I have written about Bnei Baruch previously on this blog.

On the left we also find Shaul Youdkevitch, a student of Berg’s who recently left The Kabbalah Centre and started a Kabblah center of his own. The sole woman in this diagram is Karen Berg, who currently runs The Kabbalah Centre, and her sons from Phillip, Yehudah and Michael, who also run the Kabbalah empire at present, and look certain to keep running it in the future.

Neo-Kabbalah and pseudo-science in the land of endless opportunities

Neo-Kabbalistic red stringBerg was born Shraga Feivel Gruberger in 1927 (or 1929) in Brooklyn. He was ordained as an orthodox rabbi at age 22, worked as an insurance broker and made quite a fortune in real-estate. In the 1960’s he began to study Kabbalah, first from Rabbi Yitzhak Levi Krakovski, a direct student of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ashlag (who also received his permission to leave Israel and spread Kabbalah among US Jewry, placing his children in orphanages for the purpose). Then he lived for a while in Israel, and studied under Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Brandwein. He became Brandwein’s right-hand man, and went to the US to raise funds to spread Ashlagian Kabbalah. In 1965 he established the National Institute for Research in Kabbalah in New York, which would later become his Center for Kabbalah.

Brandwein passed away in 1969. Berg, after getting divorced and remarrying the current Karen Berg, embarked on an independent path and began attempting to spread Kabbalah in his own. At first he distributed books by Krakovski and Brandwein, but as of the 1980’s began writing Kabbalah books on his own. In her excellent book (although somewhat too favorable to my taste) about The Kabbalah Centre, Jody Myers follows the evolution of Berg’s teachings (for instance, by tracking changes in different editions of his books): At first we find popular Kabbalah intended for Jews, which emphasizes its connection to the Halakha. From the 1990’s onwards it becomes a universal wisdom intended for all mankind whose connection to Halakha is tenuous at best. Unsurprisingly, from the nineties onwards The Kabbalah Centre experienced phenomenal growth.

It was not only the targeting of non-Jews which produced the impressive business growth. As of the nineties the Kabbalah offered by Berg underwent a general re-branding. It was then that Berg began to emphasize the utilitarian nature of Kabbalah for the individual: Kabbalah, he taught, enables each of us to achieve spiritual development, peace and serenity, finding true love, economic prosperity and physical well-being. All this goodness will certainly come to us, for Kabbalah according to Berg is after all a science. The Kabbalistic science also enables the production of “Technology for the Soul” (a Kabbalah Centre trademark) in the form of red laces ($26), holy water ($2) or a set of The Zohar books ($415). Thus, quite ironically, Berg used Rabbi Ashlag’s altruistic Kabbalah in order to sell utilitarian, egocentric self-help spirituality to the masses.

This was the background for Rabbi Professor Arthur Green attacked Berg fiercely two years ago, arguing that he took the dregs from Kabbalah, rather than the cream. Instead of spreading the wisdom of Kabbalah, he exploited the fears and dreams of his students to sell them a package containing pop-psychology, superstition and magic, all wrapped in a greedily-priced string of red wool. The tradition of Kabbalah deserves better, Green concluded. One may say that Berg turned Kabbalah into a Jewish version of Yoga, or the various forms of Oriental meditation – that is, a universal “method” expropriated from its traditional context and repackaged for the Western capitalist market.

But let us return to Berg himself. In the year 2000 the Kabbalist Rabbi announced that Kabbalah, in essence, guarantees eternal life. In his book Immortality: The Inevitability of Eternal Life published in that year, he ties the unison of awareness of Kabbalistic Messianism with the unison of body cells and their transformation into embryonic stem cells, which guarantees not only the blissful union of our awareness with the divine spirit but also the prolonging of our physical lives for ever and ever. This neo-Kabbalistic, pseudo-scientific, hyper-capitalistic spiritual babble took a frying pan to the face when Berg himself suffered a brain stroke in 2004. The disillusion caused several members of the Centre to withdraw, but most accepted the explanation that Berg was needed for holy endeavors in heaven, and was therefore neglecting his corporeal body on earth. His death no doubt completes his summons to heaven. As befitting a Kabbalist, he was buried in Safed.

Modern Kabbalah, Post-Modern Neo-Kabbalah

Hebrew Kabbalistic name of God tattooed on Britney Spears' neckWhat is the difference, then, between Kabbalah and Neo-Kabbalah? As mentioned briefly above, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ashlag’s Kabbalah was already a modernist Kabbalah (I have written about this (Heb) regarding Rabbi Sheinberger’s “Ummah” movement). So, for instance, is Rabbi Kook’s Kabbalah, as he was also greatly influenced by modern philosophy and even more so, by the zeitgeist of his time. Thus it would be incorrect to compare Rabbi Berg’s Kabbalah (or Rabbi Laitman’s) to Rabbi Luria’s Kabbalah and find great differences, since the Kabbalah of Ashlag and Kook is also very different from Luria’s. And yet, we can easily point out several important differences between Berg’s Kabbalah and that of his teacher, Rabbi Ashlag.

First and foremost, of course, would be the connection to the commandments and the commitment to halacha. With Berg there is no necessary connection and no commitment. Second, and no less significant, the focus on the individual and his or her spiritual development rather than on the higher worlds and their correction. The openness towards non-Jews and women is also an important difference, as is the turning of Kabbalah into the centerpiece of a religious movement that is deliberately and consciously not part of Judaism as a religious tradition or a nation.

All this does not mean, despite all the reservations that many of us apparently feel toward it, that this is a Kabbalah that is not a legitimate offspring of Jewish tradition. It should also be said that alongside reports of financial exploitation, many report that the movement has helped them bring order into their lives and has done them good. And yet, it is likely that The Kabbalah Centre will continue its current trend of being more of a business than a spiritual movement, and as Arthur Green has written, Kabbalah deserves better.

Sources

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Untying the knot: Rethinking the Israeli Rabbinate’s Laws on Marriage

"Safa Ahat Udvarim Ahadim: Iyyunim Bemishpat Vehevra" ("One Language and One Set of Words – Studies in Law, Halachah and Society"), by Pinhas Shifman. Shalom Hartman Institute, Bar-Ilan University and Keter Publishing House, 336 pages

book coverAt the beginning of his (failed) campaign for the position of the next Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Rabbi David Stav published a large paid advertisement in the national-religious daily Makor Rishon. In it, he cited some "shocking facts," as he put it: In recent years, about one-third of all secular couples got married abroad so as not to come in contact with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Among them are people who do not accept or do not like the rabbinate’s marriage procedures, and also members of quite a large group of citizens (about 400,000 ) who are not allowed by law to marry in this country, as the Jewish bona fides of at least one member of the couple are questionable in the eyes of the rabbinate.

Forcing certain procedures based on Halakha (traditional Jewish law ) upon the citizens of Israel is therefore ineffective in two respects: It distances Jews who for various reasons are interested in a civil or different type of religious ceremony, and it is not available to citizens whom the rabbinate does not recognize as Jews. On the other hand, there is concern among the religious authorities that various types of civil marriage agreements will lead to a split among the Jewish population, as the religiously observant will not be prepared to enter into marriages with nonobservant Jews or their descendants.

In his new book, Pinhas Shifman attempts to suggest solutions to this complex situation. Shifman, a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University faculty of law, has written numerous books and articles about family law in Israel. A special report he prepared (together with Avishalom Westreich ) for the Metzilah Center for Zionist, Jewish, Liberal and Humanist Thought on the issue of the possibility of civil marriage in the country was, for example, published (in Hebrew ) in March. He is, therefore, exactly the right person to confront this subject.

In the second part of the book in question, Shifman goes into what could be called the "intra-religious" issue because, in his opinion, it is necessary to deal with the difficult problems created vis-a-vis the wedding ceremony due to Orthodox Halakha. Even if secular Israeli Jews are given the opportunity to marry as they see fit, the religiously observant will still have a problem because they have no other options because of their beliefs. Shifman fears that enabling civil marriage would in fact encourage rabbis and rabbinical court judges to ignore the moral difficulties inherent in the halakhic wedding ceremony as it stands today – that is, "anyone who doesn’t want to [get married this way] doesn’t have to and anyone who sees himself as obligated [to do so] can suffer in silence."

Not Just a Civic Matter

Specifically, Shifman is worried about this tendency because it leaves in place certain injustices that exist in Halakha. Issues like agunot (wives whose husbands will not grant them a get, or bill of divorce ), extortion on the part of husbands in delaying the get, and in general the inequity in traditional Jewish marriage rituals which are being ignored and remain unresolved. Even among poskim (rabbinical arbiters ) who are actually concerned about agunot and other women who suffer ill treatment by their husbands – dealing with such problems for the most part boils down to attempts to circumvent them by finding flaws in the particular ceremony from the halakhic perspective and nullifying it retrospectively.

Such ploys demonstrate the problematic nature of the Orthodox marriage ceremony, which turns out to be a stumbling block for the Jewish woman. This is a terrible reality, in the author’s opinion, because it leads to the conclusion that "the more people refrain from behaving in accordance with Halakha, the better off they will be and the less they will suffer." When Shifman moves on to various suggestions for changing nuptial arrangements for couples, he tries to take into account not only the suffering of secular Jews who are subjected to religious laws in which they have no interest, but also the pain of men and women who are religiously observant and are subjected to a rabbinical law in which they are interested, but which is also characterized by a cruel and insulting lack of justice.

The Possible Solutions

He brings up various possibilities for altering the existing situation, each with its own inherent problems. In addition to the most meager of the possibilities, which would in general permit marriages only between two people who are not presently allowed to marry each other under Halakha – Shifman examines the possibility of allowing civil marriage alongside marriage as per religious law, so that each couple would be able to decide in which manner, via which establishment, they want to seal their marital covenant. The disadvantage would be open competition between these two establishments, which is liable to lead to alienation on the part of the religious public. Moreover, this approach would exacerbate the problem of agunot and women whose receipt of a get is being delayed, since religiously observant couples who marry under the auspices of the rabbinate would be subject to Halakha and thus not be able to seek help from the civil court.

Another possibility Shifman mentions, which prevails in some European countries, is a uniform civil law for everyone. In this case the state is perceived as responsible for proper civic order and marriage by means of state authorities is the only valid marriage. Citizens who are interested in marrying in a special ceremony are respected and are married by, for example, their rabbi, minister, spiritual leader etc. In a situation like this, ostensibly there is no competition between civil and religious law, and divorce is also egalitarian because even religious women are in general protected by the state.

The Malicious Combination of Halakha and Bureaucracy

If a woman who has been married in a Halakhic ceremony gets divorced only via a civil procedure and then remarries – her children from her latest marriage become mamzerim (or, bastards; in Halakha, that is what a child is called who is born to a woman who is still married ac cording to religious law, and fathered by another man who is not her husband ). This possibility might precipitate the usual threat by Orthodox Jewry to construct lists (or "family trees" ) of names, in order to ensure that all those who marry by civil law and their descendants would be prohibited from marrying anyone who is religiously observant.

However, Shifman notes that even today millions of nonreligious Jews in the United States, for example, choose to marry according to civil law and, of course, also divorce that way, and no one is talking about shunning all American Jews – i.e., not marrying them. In the author’s opinion, this problem, like others, requires "broad emendation of regulations in Halakha that will provide a universal and principled solution." And once again he criticizes the lack of interest on the part of today’s halakhic arbiters in investigating thoroughly and eventually changing what needs to be changed in traditional Jewish law.

The matter of bastardy demonstrates a problem unique to our times, which has not been accorded a solution by that law. In the past, a Jew suspected of bastardy, or an aguna or a woman whose bill of divorcement is being delayed, could possibly, in their distress, move to another Jewish community where nobody knew them and build a new life. But our era, in which when everything is registered, documented and computerized, does not allow for reasonable doubt as to an individual’s identity, doubt that in other periods sufficed to qualify a person for marriage (from "a family that has been accepted … is accepted," Tractate Kiddushin 70-A ).

Rabbi Joseph di Trani (1538-1639 ), known as the Maharit, also ruled to the effect that, "Anyone who knows of a flaw [vis-a-vis] someone’s marital eligability is not permitted to reveal it, but will leave it as if it were kosher." This points to the malicious combination of Halakha and bureaucracy that is unique to the modern era.

Nor does Shifman spare criticism when it comes to secular Israeli Jews who seek to institutionalize civil marriage. His treatment of court rulings that equate single-sex couple relationships to marriage is fascinating, and dwells on the question of the secular insistence on using the term "marriage," which he says expresses a definite religious and traditional institution, while attempting to foment a radical change – via the courts – in its original meaning.

Morality, Religious and Natural

Finally, Shifman examines local rulings that have led to equating the rights of common-law partners to those of married people. He discusses in detail three rulings by former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, who, in a sophisticated way helped to wage a quiet revolution with respect to personal status in Israeli law. Thanks to his efforts, the court recognized and legitimized marriages undertaken by Israeli citizens abroad – initially with respect to couples who in any case could have married in the country, and subsequently with respect to couples who could not have married here legally (one case involved a Jewish man who married a Christian woman ) – and finally marriages involving single-sex couples. In this way marriage abroad finally became the semi-official (if expensive ) way of entering into a civil marriage in Israel.

The first part of Shifman’s book deals with an artificial distinction between Halakha and morality, based on the idea that God’s commandments should be the sole basis for understanding what is good and what is evil, and any consideration external to Halakha constitutes a surrender to the liberal fashions of our times. The clinging to a specific religious precept, even if it may be illogical or in direct contradiction to one’s conscience, is considered by the believer to be a courageous effort to abide by the word of God and creates the desired experience of "authenticity." But Shifman shows that such a perception itself quite a new phenomenon and its primary framer in Israel was none other than the late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz (and in the United States, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik ). He reminds readers that without an independent sense of morality, which is not connected to Halakha per se, lofty concepts of the sages like lifnim meshurat hadin (beyond the letter of the law ), derekh eretz (common courtesy ) and darkei shalom ([toward] a peaceful way ) become meaningless.

The same holds for the concept of naval bereshut hatorah (roughly, "a Torah pedant but a scoundrel" ), attributed to Nachmanides in the 13th century, and comments by Rabbi Naphtali Zevi Judah Berlin (1817-1893 ) condemning "righteous men and hasids" who are not "honest in the ways of the world." The halakhic tradition itself is full of examples of the influence of natural morality on the law.

Shifman criticizes Leibowitz’s approach, which aims to protect the primacy of Halakha by disengaging its precepts from the daily, transient world, that also disconnects it from reason and the heart. According to Shifman, this approach has trickled down, in fact, into the ranks of Gush Emunim (the religious movement for settlement in the territories ), Leibowitz’s major ideological rivals: Shifman quotes remarks by settler Rabbi Shlomo Aviner that purport to be based on the views of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook (1865-1935 ), but are really very similar to those of Leibowitz. In fact, it was Kook who said fear of heaven that ignores natural morality "is no longer pure fear of heaven."

Shifman’s criticism is also rooted in principle since it holds that "the existing richness of a plethora of sources and opinions in Halakha sharpens even further the conclusion that it is impossible to imagine a ruling in which the arbiter discounts the personal element – that is, a ruling that is not affected by the arbiter’s own value judgment."

In other words, there is no rabbinical law that is not born out of a certain moral position. From within this insight Shifman attacks the imperviousness of many rabbis toward women who are unable to receive a get, people who are deemed bastards and other individuals whose "credentials" as Jews are in question. He accuses such authorities of doing nothing, and writes: "A claim that a rabbinical sage is unable to be of help because it is not within his reach is very often a political decision in disguise that allows him to avoid dealing with the difficult questions of values underlying that decision."

Shifman’s book is a sharp indictment of the dissembling sanctimony of the Orthodox rabbis of our day and the fact that they cling to so-called Halakha as an excuse for standing still and stagnating. It’s not that they can’t do anything, they simply don’t want to. It’s not a matter of impotence, but rather a values-based stance. In a reality in which many couples shun the offices of the rabbinate, Shifman’s book is timely. His treatment of issues in family law in Israel is learned and profound, and his criticism of the situation of rabbinical rulings in our day, criticism that comes from within the world of Torah and Halakha, is sharp and precise. The associates of the new chief rabbi who will be selected in a few months’ time would do well to bring Shifman’s book as a gift on the occasion of his appointment.

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Published in Haaretz on 29.3.13


Tomer Persico

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