Kabbalah for Dummies
by Rachel Claflin
On April 13, in its “Bizarre” section, the
British tabloid The Sun reported that during her upcoming
“Reinvention” tour, Madonna would refuse to play concerts Friday nights in
order to observe the Jewish Sabbath. This devotion to Judaism, the paper
reported, had (among other things) led Madonna to ask her “pals” to call her
Esther, her “religious name.”
The months-long tour and the hitherto
unreported Madonna-as-“Esther” phenomenon initiated a new round of pop
Kabbalah stories in the American press. Once again, readers were treated to
accounts of blessed bottled water and knotted red string around the wrists
of their favorite stars.
Kabbalah figured heavily in the tour, which
began in Los Angeles May 24. Madonna appeared on stage sporting a T-shirt
with the legend, “Kabbalists Do It Better.” A giant video screen showed the
Hebrew letters Lamed, Aleph, Vov, which Kabbalists believe to be one of the
72 names of God.
Reporters and reviewers did not fail to note
the references. Kabbalah, noted Olivia Barker in USA Today on May 26,
is “the spiritual movement rooted in Jewish mysticism that’s weaving through
Hollywood in a way not seen since Scientology attracted converts and
controversy a decade ago.”
Kabbalah Hollywood-style emanates entirely
from one source—the Kabbalah Centre at 1062 S. Robertson Blvd. in L. A. With
(according to its website, www.kabbalah.com) additional “locations” and
“satellites” in eight American cities and several dozen places around the
world, the Center calls itself “the largest, leading educational
organization on the wisdom of Kabbalah worldwide.”
The website claims that the Kabbalah Centre
was established in Jerusalem in 1922 by Rabbi Ashlag—Yehuda Leib Ashlag, a
distinguished Hasidic rabbi from Poland who died in Israel in 1955. Ashlag
is famous for his 21-volume interpretive translation of the Zohar,
the most important Kabbalistic text.
The Centre’s current proprietor is Rabbi
Philip Berg, who was an insurance salesman for New York Life before he got
into the business. Berg claims that he and his rabbinic teacher, Yehuda
Brandwein, set up the Centre in 1965 in order to publish the Kabbalistic
works of yet another rabbi, Levi Krakovsky.
If the Centre’s institutional history is
rather murky, its interest in popularizing one of the most intellectually
demanding traditions in Western religion is not. As the Centre’s website
puts it, “Our purpose is to make accessible the ancient wisdom and tools of
Kabbalah in order to illuminate the minds and hearts of individuals, groups,
and organizations—regardless of faith, political belief, or race.”
Or, as the Israeli writer Yossi Klien Halevi
less enthusiastically put it in an article in the May 10 issue of the
New Republic, “The [Kabbalah] Centre has transformed Kabbalah—considered
by Jews to be the inner sanctum of Jewish devotion and thought—into generic,
A taste of the Centre’s approach can be
found in the 1996 trial of a lawsuit brought by Krakovsky’s estate that
accused Berg of plagiarizing Krakovsky’s translation of Kabbalistic
materials in Berg’s 1988 book, The Power of the Aleph Beth. Here is
Berg on the witness stand responding to his lawyer’s questions.
And when you made The Power of the Aleph Beth, did you literally
translate the Zohar?
The top part, yeah—I don’t recall
because that was not important…
What about Rabbi Ashlag’s Commentary
that is contained below?
No, I did not do a literal translation
of Rabbi Ashlag for the purpose that this book—I’m sorry. That—Rabbi Ashlag,
in my estimation, could not be understood by, maybe, more than three or four
people in the world.
So, what is it that you did do with respect to
Rabbi Ashlag’s commentaries?
What I did is take his Commentary,
not always translating his Commentary, and make an attempt to provide
the Zohar in a language and comprehension for the layman…
Now you said that you translated or wrote the
Commentary so that it would be accessible to the people; is that
And throughout The Power of the Aleph Beth
you would use language like “Darth Vader” or Telstar when you
were actually explaining the commentaries; is that correct?
You make comment to Madonna; is that right?
“The Material Girl,” is that right?
The trial, which came to an abrupt end when
the parties agreed to settle the case, failed to attract any media
attention. It coincided, however, with the beginning of the Centre’s
On January 27, 1996, Casey Korstanje of the
Hamilton (Ontario) Spectator, in an article pegged to an
upcoming talk by the Kabbalah Centre’s Toronto director at the local Jewish
Community Center, portrayed the Centre as the latter-day culmination of a
Jewish mystical tradition that went back to the beginning of time. Korstanje
made a good faith effort to describe the history of Kabbalah in less than
1,100 words. A similar article by Steve Gushee in the September 20, 1996
Palm Beach Post covered much the same ground.
But once the Hollywood angle came to the
fore, the coverage became less intellectually ambitious, and more formulaic.
First, there was the celebrity hook. In July
of 1996, for example, the magazine Jerusalem Report published an
article crediting the Centre with helping the actress and comedienne Sandra
Bernhard to eradicate “at least 80 percent of the chaos” from her life.
On September 20 of the same year, USA
Today had actresses Roseanne Barr and Diane Ladd on the Kabbalah
bandwagon. “It’s the kind of thing Jews don’t talk about,” Barr said. “It’s
something you’re told when you’re growing up that only the rabbis know about
after 40 years of study.”
Said Ladd, “I’m a Catholic shiksa, but I’m
on a spiritual journey.”
Then came the attempt to say what Kabbalah
is: “the keys to unlock the Hebrew Bible, and hence all existence” (Time,
November 24, 1997); “centuries-old Jewish mysticism” (Houston Chronicle,
February 28, 1998); “a hip spiritual movement,” (London Guardian,
March 27, 1998).
Next, the reference to the Kabbalah Centre,
usually portrayed—with suitable quotes from scholars—as purveying a
degenerate form of the tradition.
“There are some cultish goings-on at the
celeb-friendly Kabbalah Learning Center that have some observers likening it
to the Church of Scientology,” announced the New York Post October
“It’s really a shallow use of an ancient
tradition,” Hebrew University professor Rachel Elior told the Baltimore
Sun July 21, 1999. “It turns it into a spiritual amusement for the
Or, from the Melbourne Age on
March 27, 2002: “Celebrities in Los Angeles and London have flocked to
Kabbalah Learning Centres, established by the controversial Rabbi Philip
Berg, who has been accused by mainstream Jewish groups of dumbing down an
All in all, readers could be expected to
come away from the coverage with the sense that interest in Kabbalah was
merely a celebrity fad.
This year, however, journalists seemed to be
cutting Kabbalah lite some slack, since it appears to have inspired the
notorious Madonna to clean up her act.
“In a sentence, she’s grown up. Or seems to
have,” Jane Stevenson averred in the Ottawa Sun June 18. “Her study
of the Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah will do that to you.”
“I think she’s a spiritual seeker and not
just a faddist,” Arthur Green, a scholar of Jewish mysticism at Brandeis
University, told the Boston Herald June 25.
“It’s good for Judaism when a prominent
public figure expresses an interest, especially when anti-Semitism is such a
live issue,” Rabbi Justin Lewis told the Toronto Star June 18. “Any
expressions of positive interest in Hebrew and Judaism are good for the
Jewish community and may help diminish anti-Semitism.”
Not that the cynicism has entirely
disappeared. “Presumably, those in this new breed of Hebrew mystics are
dropouts from Scientology and people who feel that Buddhism is “like totally
’91,” speculated Phil Perrier for the Los Angeles Daily News June 22.
But positive or negative, the striking thing
about the coverage since the beginning has been an almost complete lack of
on-the-ground reporting of what actually goes on by way of religious
practice at the various Kabbalah Centre locales. The notable exception is
the New Republic piece by Halevi, who took the time to attend
services and talk to adherents:
“The Rav [Berg] leads his disciples in the
Kaddish prayer, shouting its words as if in a rage. Then he interrupts the
conventional service and begins chanting ‘Chernobyl’ and other names I can’t
identify. A devotee explains that these are all names of nuclear power
plants: The Rav is trying to heal the problem of nuclear waste.”
Halevi noted that a large portion of the
attendees in Los Angeles were Israeli expatriates, who, in his view, found
the Centre “Jewish enough to be comfortably familiar but non-Jewish enough
to allow them to maintain distance from the American Jewish community, which
many of them despise with an old, Israeli snobbery.”
After interviewing staff and reading Berg’s
works, Halevi concluded that the esoteric message of the Kabbalah Centre had
to do with the promise of physical immortality—an actual escape from death.
As one devotee put it, “They don’t tell everyone who walks through the door
that it’s really about immortality. But, subtly, the more you get into it,
the more they reveal their real agenda.”
Because of the focus on celebrity adherents,
the Kabbalah story has for most part been given to entertainment reporters
to cover. But the Kabbalah Centre’s appeal goes far beyond celebrities, and
its doctrine appears to be far more distinctive than mere pop mysticism.
It’s time for religion reporters to get into the act.