Posts Tagged 'New Religious Movements'

Neo-Hasidic Revival: Expressivist Uses of Traditional Lore – Academic Article

An academic article of mine has been published in the latest issue of Modern Judaism, under the title Neo-Hasidic Revival: Expressivist Uses of Traditional Lore. As I write in my introductory  words, I aim in the article to analyze Neo-Hasidism, expounding its ideational and sociological birth, briefly reviewing its development and history, and elaborating on its current place and importance in the efforts made to "renew" Jewish religiosity and to "modernize" (i.e. de-mythologize, individualize and psychologize) the Jewish tradition by its contemporary well-wishers and popularizers in Israel. The lion’s share of the article is devoted to the examination of three examples taken from the Neo-Hasidic field in Israel: Rabbis Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Israel Isaac Besancon and Yitzchak Ginsburg. These serve as test-cases which differ in a structural way one from the other, and as such will allow us to decipher their common underlying principals.

The article is on the Modern Judaism site here. I am not allowed to hand out the article itself, but its full text is here in pdf, here in scribd and here in my academia.edu account.

Neo-Hasidism & Neo-Kabbalah in Israeli Contemporary Spirituality: The Rise of the Utilitarian Self

2014-07-24_14453922An academic article of mine was published yesterday in the Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review (ed. James R. Lewis), titled Neo-Hasidism & Neo-Kabbalah in Israeli Contemporary Spirituality: The Rise of the Utilitarian Self. To quote the first paragraph, I try "to explore the rise of what can be called ‘the utilitarian self’ in the contemporary spirituality arena in Israel. This social reality, which has its origins in the religious field of late nineteen century America, is in Judaic social circles quite a recent development, and has begun to play a significant part of Israeli contemporary spirituality only since the 1990’s. I would like to suggest that the proliferation of certain Neo-Kabbalah and Neo-Hasidic movements since the 1990’s is indicative of its rise. By examining these we can better understand the utilitarian self, which lies at their background and presents the cultural conditions for their popularity."

I use the works of current Orthodox Neo-Hasidic popularizes of the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Rabbis Israel Isaac Besancon and Erez Moshe Doron, to understand how the adjustments and modifications they had made to Rabbi Nachman’s Hitbodedut practice reflect the growing prominence of the utilitarian self as a religious reality. I then continue with the non-Orthodox Neo-Kabbalistic movements – Rabbi Philip Berg of the Kabbalah Centre and Rabbi Michael Laitman of Bnei Baruch – which fashion an up-to-date version of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag’s socialist Kabbalah, and also display such an interpretation of the spiritual path.

The article ends with an attempt to place the above analysis within a theoretical framework that seeks to understand the roots and development of the utilitarian self. I see it as a particular hybrid of the Romantic spirit and Enlightenment rationalism, joined together by the auspiciousness of capitalist instrumental reason. It represents the current fascination with finding ways – indeed "methods" or "techniques" – which will allow one to actualize and exercise her or his “hidden” or “unrealized” capabilities in order to undergo an inner transformation and maximize the external conditions of her or his life.

The article is part of a special issue of the journal dedicated to Israeli contemporary spirituality, edited by Shai Feraro. You can fine the entire issue here. My article can be downloaded here. I am not allowed to hand out the article itself, but its final vertion and full text are here in pdf, here in scribd and here in my academia.edu account.

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

Michael Leitman Rewrites the History of Kabbalah

In the introduction to his book “The Gates of Righteousness” Rabbi Yoseph Gikatilla, one of the first and greatest Kabbalists of 13th century Spain, begins with a warning worth heeding: “For the Sages have said: The Lord is most strict with the righteous ones.” Gikatilla tells us a simple thing: God demands the most meticulous adherence from his most righteous followers. Why do I open with this observation? Because I believe we should apply the same principle when we attempt to ascertain whether a certain spiritual teacher is a true guide, or not. And with this admonition I refer to Rabbi Dr. Michael Leitman.

In recent years the Israeli media has been airing, in printed and videotaped form, quite a few dialogues of some celebrity or other with said kabbalist rabbi. In these encounters Leitman assumes the figure of the omniscient sage, leaving his interlocutors to play the part of “He who knows not to ask” – the clueless son from the Haggadah whose father in tasked with “opening for him”, and showing the poor soul the way to the light.

And why celebrities? It appears that the Bnei Baruch movement has become most envious of its elder sibling, The Center for Kabbalah, which sports international superstars such as Madonna and Demi Moore, and also wanted to show that celebrities seeking meaning for their lives are willing to buy its wares. For ten measures of celebrities have descended upon New Age, and if The Kabbalah Center and Scientology hath taken nine among them, Bnei Baruch also coveted a measure of false fame, also desired a measure of the golden calf.

Twenty-two celebrities made pilgrimage to Letiman, speaking with him in meetings that were also filmed and broadcast on the “Karma” channel, from rock star Arkadi Duchin and poets Agi Mishol and Ronnny Somek to MTV veteran Eden Harel, from investigative reporter Gideon Reicher to former IAF Commander Eitan Ben Eliyahu. Recently this series of talks was collated in a book (available for download free of charge here [Heb]), and this is a good opportunity to summarize the reading experience.

Well, bottom line first: The book is full of hogwash as a pomegranate seeds and as usual, the problems begin with presumption. Leitman writes two bad checks: One is the presentation of his method as “science” and the second is his claim to speak for all of Kabbalah. Let us dismantle these claims one by one.

Michael Leitman. Screen picture from the article as it is published on the nrg portal

“A science in every way”

So first, Leitman claims it’s all scientific with him. It’s “Not a philosophy nor a faith,” but “a science in every way” (p. 40). “Kabbalah is a science” (p. 219, and many places besides) he repeats, and proudly tells us that when he explains kabbalah across the great wide world, “scientists understand and accept it” (175). Well, I don’t know what universe the kabbalist rabbi is living in, but even by Leitman’s own testimony, in this very book, one can clearly see that any relation between him and the empirical world as science understands it is purely coincidental.

For instance, Leitman has an alternative history of the Jewish people: According to him, “Abraham was the first kabbalist” (100) and until the destruction of the temple the People of Israel lived as one big kabbalistic community. Upon the destruction “they all fell to worldliness” (132) and began observing the commandments out of compulsion.

The problem is that any history book about the first and second temple periods disproves this fantasy: Jews were never cut of a single cloth, and were always divided and conflicted internally, and most of the time actually worshiped idols. Truth is, you don’t need a history book for that – it’s enough to read the bible.

But the kabbalist doctor deals not only in rewriting history, but also in denying modern research. It is of course his right to refuse to be impressed by findings that place the time of the Zohar’s writing in the 13th century; but not to say a single word about how his traditional approach, which he repeats several times and which holds that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai wrote the book in the second century, lies in stark contrast to research consensus, is not a behavior consistent with scientific standards. Leitman relies on the ignorance of his readers on these matters and feeds them falsehoods.

By the way, this rhetorical trick where you call your fabrications “science” was known back in the days of Rudolph Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy, in the early twentieth century, and it is still with us today with movements such as Transcendental Meditation and Scientology. Everyone wants some of the wonderful translucence of science to rub off on them, and Leitman is simply towing the line of other movements and sects. On the other hand, since Leitman apparently was a scientist before becoming a kabbalist (He claims to have been in bio-cybernetics,) one could have expected a little more scientific integrity from him.

The Kabbalah?

It’s not only the scientific pretension that knocks holes in the rabbi’s credibility, but also his presenting his method as the Kabbalah. Leitman is erudite enough to know that besides the school of thought he represents there are many different others, each rooted in the immensely rich fountain of kabbalistic wisdom. Taking sole credit for this popular brand is a little much.

I mean, is it “Kabbalah” that claims that has always claimed that “the basic laws are the result of human thought” (106) – or in other words, a Jewish version of “The Secret”? Of course not. Did “Kabbalah” always claim that reward and punishment “mean nothing” and that common man has no free choice (117)? Of course not. Did “Kabbalah” always talk about how “observing commandments is beside the point” (27), meaning its adherents don’t need to observe Halakhic laws? Guess.

Just to make clear, I am in no way claiming that what Leitman teaches isn’t Kabbalah. Kabbalah isn’t static and like anything else, including Judaism itself, it changes with time (although it is true that the scope of this change is rather surprising.) It’s just that Leitman’s presumption to be the sole representative of Kabbalah is simply inappropriate, and borders on fraud.

At the same time Leitman repeats the well-known claptrap about how “science is now discovering facts that Kabbalah has been relying upon for thousands of years. Well, rabbi, here’s a newsflash: Kabbalah hasn’t existed for thousands of years. It originated in the 13th century. That’s what science has discovered. And if indeed Kabbalah knows facts that science has yet to discover, please don’t hold back: Tell us one provable or disprovable new fact, and I promise that we’ll all be very proud to escort you to the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm.

So Leitman takes the name of both Kabbalah and science in vain. He feeds his listeners with fables as he baselessly pretends to global wisdom and complete certainty. He presents himself as a font of Kabbalic knowledge, and his listeners as babes in the woods who crawl to him to suck their fill. In the end they receive nothing more than a thin potion brewed by a witch-doctor.

Oh, by the way, anyone buying the book to understand anything about Kabbalah will be disappointed, since it says almost nothing about the teachings themselves, only about how good and wise and ancient and scientific those teachings are. Indeed, it appears that the book is not meant to introduce us to Leitman’s Kabbalah, but rather to famous people who are themselves trying to understand Leitman’s Kabbalah.

One last word, also having to do with false pretension: According to Leitman “all methods, save for Kabbalah, are based on the oppression of man” (29). I’m sorry, but the way to freedom from oppression begins and ends in knowledge of the truth. A road spun from fables and false pretensions cannot possibly lead there.

This article was first published on the 12/6/2008 on the Maariv-nrg site. Wow, that was some time ago. But all is still relevant, I assure you. Translated by Rechavia Berman.


Tomer Persico

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