Posts Tagged 'Gurus and Spiritual Teachers'

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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Andrew Cohen and the decline of the Guru institution – Part II

While I have had several spiritual teachers, I have never had a guru – one particular main (or exclusive) teacher to whom had to submit myself and open my heart, trusting him to take me, hand-in-hand, to the end of the road. There are many reasons for this, one of which I am sure, is my excess of pride and ego. In order to surrender, one has to give up one’s independence and I’ve always been too proud to do that.

Do not hurry dear readers, to conclude that it is such a good thing that I’ve never submitted myself in such a way. There is a great spiritual secret in surrender, and sometimes it is surely necessary. Surrender to an external authority is no more than, when all is said and done, acknowledgment of the uncertainty of life and of our feebleness in the face of the forces of the universe – recognition of just how diminutive we are.

Along with its risks, total obedience can be a powerful tool for self-knowledge and development. If indeed “a man’s greatest possession is his choice”, then relinquishing one’s choice is relinquishing one’s greatest possession – and there are important things to be learned from such relinquishment, from such surrender.

The guru institute is in trouble. This is not, however, one of the signs of the Age of Aquarius or of a new spiritual dawn. The spiritual teacher is not some remnant from the past that can now be discarded, since we are now modern, progressive and oh-so-clever individuals. Anyone who assumes that we have hindrances and conditionings that we cannot liberate ourselves from on our own (either because we do not see them, or because we do see them but are tempted by them), also assumes that we need help. The guru constitutes a particular, intense, kind of help.

It is hard to believe that spiritual development that would not include inter-subjective relationships would be possible at all. No Man is an Island, wrote John Donne and as Wittgenstein added – no language is private. The guru constitutes – along with the spouse and the parent – a highly significant “significant other”. The reflections that we are able to receive from the psychological mirror provided by someone close to us can be invaluable – especially if that individual possesses depth and wisdom.

However, as we have been made aware, such relationships are liable to become exploitive and destructive. In a previous article, we touched on the demotion of Andrew Cohen, one of the most well-known spiritual teachers of our time. In order to explore the guru issue, as well as the issue of Andrew Cohen, I asked my friend Amir Freimann to share some of his experiences and insights. Freimann, currently an important social activist in the field of education, director of the Education Spirit Movement, spent twenty-two years of his life in Andrew Cohen’s community, until he left it five years ago. I asked him a few questions:

What made you give so many years of your life to a teacher? What did Cohen give you in your spiritual path?

First of all, perhaps above all, meeting him created within me a commitment to the spiritual life. Until I met him I had one foot in the “worldly” world – studies, career, fame, money, women and the other foot in the “spiritual” world – existential questions, love for the mystery, attraction to the sacred, religious feelings. Even the two years I spent in a Zen monastery in Japan with a wonderful Zen teacher did not lead me to change that ambivalent position. As a result of my meeting Andrew and spending time in his company and as a result of the confidence he gave me in the validity and significance of the spiritual journey, I planted both my feet in the spiritual world. This meant that I availed myself fully to the process of closing the gap between my deepest experiences and insights and who I am as a human being.

In addition, when I met Andrew, at the age of 29, my life revolved around myself and even my “spiritual aspirations” were completely self-centered. I didn’t really care about other people – unless they could be of some benefit to me. Of course, I wasn’t aware how egocentric I was – how could I have been aware of it? But when I left the community five years ago, at the age of 50, I could say whole-heartedly “that life is not for me” and commit myself to work aimed at profound internal development of our society and culture, as well as of individuals and groups that I come into contact with and form friendships and collaborations with.

There’s something else too – thanks to Andrew I had the opportunity to participate in profound spiritual work in a community of serious, intelligent and committed people, for a period of two decades. I don’t think that such communities and such endeavors can really exist without the guidance of a spiritual teacher. I have not encountered or heard of such situations. I’m referring to a process in which I faced and engaged with many of the conditionings that distort and limit my human-ness -, the free, full and creative expression of who I am and of who we are as human beings.

You said that meeting Andrew helped you decide to commit yourself to the spiritual journey – what was it in your meeting that caused that?

When I met Andrew, in the summer of 1987, I was at the end of the fifth year of medical studies in Jerusalem. A good friend of mine, who had already met Andrew in Europe, told me that a “spiritual teacher” was visiting Israel and invited me to join them for dinner. I remember the first impression Andrew made on me – I was surprised by how young he was (around my age) and by his odd laughter. I thought to myself: “He’s just a typical neurotic Jewish guy from New York…” It was not at all how I expected an “enlightened teacher” to be, but during that evening, in which we spoke for hours about enlightenment, time and spiritual practice, I sensed that the man was the most open and vulnerable, unassuming and unpretentious person I had ever met. I felt that in his presence, a kind of tough knot within me started to relax and dissolve.

At one point during that evening I asked him what he thought the reason was that I was not yet enlightened, even after years of spiritual practice. He looked at me for a while and said “because you’re afraid”. I had no idea what he was talking about. “What do you think I’m afraid of?” I asked He replied that I would have to answer that question myself. That night I sat on my bed for hours and tried to work it out what it was that I was afraid of, until I found an answer that satisfied me. In the morning I called him and asked to meet him. When we met I told him that more than anything I was afraid that I would waste my life and die without knowing who I am, what it’s all about and what I am here for. I’ll never forget the look on his face when I said that – he was so happy! Then he looked at me very seriously and said: “You should treasure that fear, it will take you all the way.”

It was the first time in my life that somebody validated, with such confidence and conviction, my search for answers to the “big questions” and the possibility that I would find those answers myself. I felt that he knew exactly what I was talking about, and that his confidence and conviction were based not upon belief but upon his personal experience. Looking back, I think that it was that validation and his confidence and conviction – which he expressed again and again in different ways – which enabled me, within a few weeks, to undergo a breakthrough. The breakthrough came in the form of a series of experiences, which transformed me from a “spiritual seeker” to a “spiritual finder” and completely changed my priorities in life. As a result, I decided that my overriding purpose in life was to live an “enlightened life”. Since I lost all interest in my previous ambitions, I left medical school, left Israel and went to England to be in Andrew’s company and continue with him, the process of my spiritual awakening.

I’m very moved by that story. But after all that beauty, what led you to become disillusioned and leave Andrew and his community 5 years ago? Was it related to the latest developments?

The reasons for my leaving were very much related to the reason for which he was recently demoted. However, at the time when I left, neither I nor Andrew’s other senior students realized quite how severe the problem was. At that point I saw the reasons for my leaving as personal and specific to me. I didn’t realize that they were actually related to a fundamental and serious problem in Andrew’s conduct and in all our relationships with him. Only over time, particularly since I heard the news of his stepping down and read his apology and the criticisms of him, have I started to see how my story was only a symptom of a malignant condition.

Anyway, my leaving was triggered by two issues relating to Andrew and to his community. The first was that I felt that instead of moving forward and discovering new territory, as I had felt during the first 15 years or so in the community, we were now going around in circles. Despite all the bells and whistles, we weren’t actually going anywhere, we weren’t developing. The second issue, which I began to become aware of about a year before I left, was that although we said that our purpose was to participate in the evolution of consciousness and culture and facilitate it, in fact we were investing all our energy in attracting people to join us, to join our specific spiritual teaching. You could say that I started becoming aware of our ego, as a spiritual movement and as an organization, and I started feeling increasingly uncomfortable with it.

At the time I was co-managing the center in Israel, and I decided that if we really wanted to contribute to the development of the society and culture here, then we have to go out and get involved with what was happening in the society and culture, rather than keep busy only with our small center in Jaffa. The moment I started doing that, I started flourishing. Within a few months I was managing an online community called “Spiritual Culture”, interviewing cultural leaders for a column I had in Ynet, called “I Have a Dream”, collaborating with a group of educators to establish the “Education Spirit Movement” and connecting with all kinds of people who are contributing, with deep commitment and a lot of spirit, to the cultivation of depth in our society. You could say that I discovered that I have brothers and sisters outside of the community as well and even outside the so-called “spiritual world”.

Initially, to my surprise, Andrew supported me in that endeavor but at some point he must have decided that I and the Israeli center were becoming too independent, and to put a stop to that. He demanded unequivocally that we focus our energy on “inter-organizational” activities related to his teaching. At that point I started doubting his motives and developed an increasing sense of grievance towards him. Then, while I was visiting the community’s world center in the USA, he called me for a meeting and told me that he had decided to close the center in Israel and that he wanted me to return to the US and be part of the “core group” around him. At that moment something broke within me. I knew that he was completely wrong and that I shouldn’t acquiesce – that complying with his instruction would mean I would be betraying myself and all the people I had developed connections with in Israel. Suddenly the magic was gone. As soon as I said “no” to him, I ceased regarding him as my teacher. I returned to Israel as a “free man” and although I went through a lot of pain as a result of leaving him and all my spiritual comrades, who had comprised my entire world for the last 20 years, I was in no doubt that I was doing the right thing. Everything that has happened since then showed me that I was right.

From the perspective of a very committed disciple, who also knew when to move on, do you think that the “guru institute” has validity in the current Western spiritual world?

The highly unusual relationship between a spiritual teacher, rabbi or guru, and the disciple, has always offered an extraordinary opportunity for spiritual growth – as well as fertile ground for sexual, financial and mental abuse and for all kinds of pathologies. Anyone who decides to enter into such a relationship with a teacher should take into account both the rare opportunity and the huge risk involved. The way I see it – if the individual making the decision is relatively mature and sane, the responsibility for this decision and its consequences ultimately lies with him or her.

I may not be an objective judge regarding myself but it seems to me that I came out of my 22-year relationship with Andrew a better person than when I entered it – and I can testify that some of my friends in the community underwent a process of significant mental and spiritual deepening and growth. Others, as you know, had quite a different experience, and came out hurt and traumatized from the very same situation.

Based on my impressions of other spiritual communities led by a teacher, it seems to me that in those communities you often find a kind of spiritual work that would not be possible under different conditions. Yet so many people come out of such communities hurt and psychologically damaged, including people from Andrew’s community, that the damage often seems to outweigh the benefit.

What, then, are we to conclude about the validity of the “spiritual teacher institute” in our era? The conclusion is unclear to me, especially because I don’t yet see a proven substitute for this institute. I can try to imagine one but I haven’t yet seen one that actually works, so for me, the question remains open.

Andrew Cohen (left) and Amir Freimann, 1991

Published in Maariv newspaper, 26.7.13, and today aired on Integral World.

Andrew Cohen and the decline of the Guru institution – Part I

Andrew Cohen (from Wikipedia)A stranger would not understand the magnitude of the affair, a stranger might even mock it, but last month an earthquake took place in the world of New Age. A tectonic shift the likes of which the elders of Rishikesh cannot recall. It was revealed that Andrew Cohen, one of the most famous spiritual teachers in the world, and until a few years ago one of the most powerful and influential figures in contemporary Western spirituality, is about to step down as guru and resign the leadership of the movement he founded, EnlightenNext, against a backdrop of repeated allegations of tyrannical conduct and financial and mental (but not sexual) abuse of his followers. In an official message, he announced that he would soon be stepping down, and apologized to his students for the wrongs he had done them in the past. In short: he admitted that despite hopes to the contrary, he does have an ego after all.

Cohen’s rise and fall stretches across a good chunk of the annals of contemporary New-Age spirituality. He began his journey in the late 1980’s, at first as a follower and torch-bearer of the famous Papaji, an Indian guru who left many disciples. After a few years Cohen severed ties with his master, and embarked on an independent road. His spiritual teachings have undergone several transformations. At first he insisted that there’s nothing to be done for spiritual enlightenment and release, and all that is left is to want it above all else. When he saw that this path leads to spiritual experiences but not fundamental changes in his pupils he turned sharply to the other way, and tasked them with exhausting spiritual exercises, including sexual abstinence, withstanding severe physical challenges, various humiliations and repeated demands for financial donations – all supposedly designed to “break the ego.”

Over the past decade Cohen increasingly stressed a spirituality of the evolutionary type, in which each of us must sublimate his or her awareness as part of the general development of the cosmos, and for same. He collaborated with Ken Wilber, a spiritual guide in his own right and one of the most interesting thinkers currently living in the US, and with him composed a model of “evolutionary enlightenment,” which he claimed combined the best in Oriental spirituality and Western thinking.

Beginning in 1994 Cohen edited a highly popular magazine titled What is Enlightenment? (Kant apparently transcended his ego, and did not insist on copyrights), through which he raised questions important to many spiritual seekers, and no less important, set the agenda for many in that world. The magazine was an enormous center of power for Cohen, for through it he could create new stars in the New Age firmament or cast them down as he chose. However through the years the magazine became an obvious mouthpiece for Cohen’s own teachings, lost readers and became a burden to his movement (it was shut down two years ago.) Yet only last year, well past his peak, Cohen was chosen 28th among the 100 most spiritually influential people living today by Watkins Mind Body Spirit. Below the Dalai Lama, ahead of the Pope.

Tyranny, Crazy Wisdom and Lies, Damn Lies

Complaints about the high-handedness and exploitation of Cohen’s leadership began surfacing as early as fifteen years ago. In 1997 Cohen’s mother published a critical book titled “Mother of God” about her experiences as his pupil. Another book by a disillusioned follower appeared in 2003, and a third book in 2011. This last one included testimonies by some former leading students, who described a saga of degradation and abuse inflicted by Cohen upon his followers, painting the mustachioed guru as a power and expensive-gift craving egomaniac. According to the book Cohen would extort massive donations from his students, send them on pointless missions to instill humility in them, punish them for every violation of his rules and make up all sorts of tricks to keep them moving forward on the path to enlightenment. He would never admit error, and on the other hand take credit for any and all positive developments within his community. (See more here on the litany of abuse/denial/lies.)

It is worthwhile to reflect for a moment on Cohen’s attempts to react to these disclosures. At first he denied the whole matter, dismissing it as “rumors” spread by ill-wishers. Upon accumulation of the testimonies – and, it should be stressed, the growth of the Internet – Cohen realized he couldn’t just wave his hands and create a magical forgetfulness effect. He thus began to admit, and even take pride, in being a “tough teacher” and “rude”. With time the claim was made that his entire behavior can be explained away by that marvelous concept of “Crazy Wisdom”.

To those unversed in the lore of spiritual excuse-making du-jour, this concept comes from Tibetan Buddhism, where it describes the boundary, law and custom-shattering wisdom of those who have utterly rid themselves of any ego or illusion. These sages are allegedly incapable of error, since they are in full resonance with the workings of the universe. In the context of New Age as practiced lucratively in the West this concept has undergone an insidious mutation, and is interpreted as license for the teacher to cause his students physical pain or emotional crisis in order to waken them from their blindness. The problematic nature of this arrangement is clear: Since the teacher is enlightened and crazy-wise, then as much as his actions may seem ludicrous or even evil to mere human eyes, it is a-priori impossible that he is in error. Therefore, any abuse of the student is affirmed as legitimate, and even praised as a radical attempt to free him or her of all their troubles.

But as of now it seems that this too was to no avail. In recent years, largely due to increased reports of his problematic behavior, Cohen’s organization suffered the defection of top students and rather heavy financial problems. The magazine, as mentioned above, was closed, and the mansion that served as commune/HQ/ashram for the community was put up for sale. Part of the blame for this situation lies on Cohen’s shoulders: he insisted on keeping the magazine alive well after it ceased to make business sense (largely, I’m guessing, because of the power and influence it gave him). The demise of the movement’s center removed the students both from under his direct control and from the group-dynamics characteristic of such places, and allowed for more independent thought and reflexive critique. Matters reached a point that a resolution was formed saying the movement can no longer keep going as it has. Cohen was forced out.

A month ago internal email correspondence of Cohen’ community appeared on the Internet, in which the participant discuss the ways to manage the publicity of the crisis the movement will fund itself in once Cohen officially announces his resignation from the post of guru, and apologizes for some of his past actions. A day later he published the official announcement, in which he confessed that “in spite of the depth of my awakening, my ego is still alive and well.”

Whither The Guru Institution

As stated above, this can be seen as a landmark in the history of western contemporary New Age, and I would like to use it to try to examine not only Cohen, but the entire institution of the guru. One didn’t need the fall of Cohen to understand that this institution is in trouble, but as one of the most prominent teachers in the West, Cohen surely emphasizes how dire the situation is.

The problem begins with the fact that just as the term “Crazy Wisdom”, the guru institution has also been taken out of context. Spiritual teachers who gather pupils around them have existed in the Oriental religions for thousands of years, and for a thousand or more in Judaism and Islam. What’s different these days is that while in the past those teachers functioned within a constant, well-known context – that is to say, within a certain spiritual tradition – today there is often no normative framework in which gurus and their acolytes operate. The guru institution has been removed from its traditional context (“traditional” here in more than one meaning) and implanted into conditions foreign to its nature.

This should not be taken lightly. Instead of being surrounded by a system of checks and balances that can limit and stabilize him, the Western spiritual teacher in essence develops his spiritual path on his own, and therefore does not enjoy the benefit of previous generations’ experience, nor is his will bound by traditional laws and restrictions. If in the past the guru would ask the student to yield to his will on the authority of a tradition of which he was but a link, today’s guru asks his disciples to submit to him alone, and solely to his own authority. Instead of joining a veteran spiritual heritage that has withstood the test of time, today’s student binds himself to one person, original and perhaps special, but not necessarily very intelligent or responsible, and in more miserble cases merely a charlatan. Who will question his every whim? His conscience, one would hope, but sometimes he lacks one, or the spine to obey it, and the consequences can be dire.

What we see here is the magnification of the well-known problem of contemporary spirituality. Alongside the freedom to take different ideas and practices from various traditions and mold the spiritual path best suited to the individual, and alongside the personal discipline which spiritual seeking without a set tradition requires, there are the drawbacks deriving from inexperience and a lack of boundaries. In solitary seeking this situation may lead to useless paths, but when one yields the authority over her or his spiritual development to an exterior force who also lacks the benefit of experience or constraints on his actions, results can be far more troubling. Moreover, without clear rules of engagement it is very difficult to reprimand such a person or make him admit his mistakes.

And yet, a wholesale rejection of the guru institution is a solution not only devoid of real probability, but also speaks of a simplicity and lack of understanding. Spiritual teachers exist not only, as detractors would have it, because people like to surrender their freedom or fear loneliness. The spiritual teacher exists because this institution does indeed help us discover new things about ourselves. One must also recall that lacking in spiritual tradition as they were, Cohen’s students – however tragically late – did manage to free themselves of his control and put him in his place.

I myself have had many spiritual teachers, but never an outright guru. In my next article I will seek to delve deeper into the question of the guru and Andrew Cohen’s specific case. To that end I will interview a long-time student of Cohen’s who left his community several years ago, and together we shall try to understand what are the qualities, and the pratfalls, of a guru. In addition, I will provide updates on developments in the community following Cohen’s resignations. So, definitely to be continued.

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Published in Maariv, 5.7.13, and yesterday aired on Integral World


Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

Yehudah Mirsky, "Aquarius in Zion", Jewish Ideas Daily, 17.5.12

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