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
Like 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
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
Berg 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
What 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.
- Most of the data on Rabbi Ashlag’s followers was culled by Prof. Yonatan Meir in the wonderful essay “Revelation and hidden revelation: On the ‘followers’ of RYL Ashlag, Opposition to them and dissemination of occult literature,” Kabbalah, Vol. 16, 5767
- On the Kabbalah of Rabbi Ashlag see Huss’s excellent essay mentioned above. Also, see his essays on New-Age Kabbalah: All you need is LAV: Madonna and Postmodern Kabbalah; The New Age of Kabbalah: Contemporary Kabbalah, The New Age and Postmodern Spirituality
- On The Kabbalah Centre itself see Jody Myers’ book: Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest: The Kabbalah Centre in America
- An investigative report on The Kabbalah Centre was published two years ago by the L.A. Times.
- A Very nice essay by Yossi Klein Halevi on the Centre can be found here.