The Rabbinic world isn’t what it used to be. It used to be the great rabbis came exclusively from the yeshivah (study hall) and earned their reputations purely on the virtue of their scholarship. The great villains of the Rabbinic world also came from there but distorted the message. Some even fell into both categories and were either vindicated only post-humus such as the Rambam (Maimonides). Today, the rabbis of greatest note are there as a force of their charisma and popularity rather than their piety and wisdom, what I have called the shin jin ryu of rabbis.
If anyone typifies this latter category, it is Philip Berg. Philip Berg took the age-old teachings of Kabbalah to the masses and even non-Jews. In doing so he has left a dubious legacy. I know in one post I won’t get the whole story but I’d like to at least contribute my own insights and knowledge that I have learned about the man, the Kabbalah center, and the teachings as well as some gleaned from various articles. I seek not to eulogize, but to analyze this individual whose name conjures up very strong feelings for many different types of people.
I welcome corrections from anyone who would like to contribute:
Philip Berg was actually holding in Kabbalah. He believed himself to be the rightful successor of Rabbi Brandwein (possibly his uncle or father-in-law) as Rosh HaYeshiva (head of the yeshiva) of Yeshiva Kol Yehuda, and took the step of publishing the Kabbalistic prayerbook Tefillah L’Ani with his name as Rosh Yeshiva in the front pages before being given the position officially. Brandwein’s son ended up taking the position and disavowed knowledge of Berg. My friend has a copy of one of those old siddurim. He received smicha (ordination) from Yeshiva Torah v’Daat in Brooklyn which is a highly respected institution so he knew the niglah (revealed Torah) as well. The total picture is that he had some right to call himself a scholar.
His personal life, especially as it relates to the Kabbalah center, reflects something quite different. Berg was 44 when he married his second wife Karen in 1971, who is 18 years his junior. Some sources suggest there may have been overlap between his first marriage to Rivka and his relationship with then-secretary Kathy (now Karen Berg). At any rate, the fact that Karen was not religious until having encountered Berg raised serious questions in the minds of the rabbinic world both about the relationship and Berg’s religiosity in general. No rabbi I have ever met has married someone who was not already on board with Judaism for a significant length of time. In the ba’al tshuvah (newly religious) seminaries, they generally tell the girls not to even date for a year after they first enter so that they have a solid foundation on which to build a Jewish home.
You can read in the various articles about the inspiration and the scandal, Madonna and tax fraud. The only thing I can offer to the conversation my personal exposure to it:
My first time encountering the Kabbalah Center was in Dizengoff in Tel Aviv. I noticed a few things: they only had their own books for sale and none of the kabbalah classics except for the famous blue Zohar. There was a mehitza (dividing curtain) between the men and women but it was so low you could step over it. There were a lot of people wearing white and they did this weird thing during kaddish where the guy used a pointer to circle around a big poster of the names of G-d on the wall and there was some shouting at random times. Otherwise it was basically just a regular Jewish service.
The people I have met who are involved keep speaking about “the Light”, obviously referring to G-d. The difference between the Jewish G-d and the G-d of the Kabbalah center is the personal relationship. Basically, reward and punishment doesn’t sell books, so the issue doesn’t seem to be discussed in Kabbalah Center literature frequently, despite occupying a feature role in the Zohar.
There is a major argument between the Kabbalah Center and the rabbinic community about whether the Kabbalah Center teaches real kabbalah. My experience with members is that it does not. For example, I was sitting with one guy in the sukkah when I was still in smicha. I asked him what gevurah meant. He said severity, which happens to be the literal translation. I asked him what that meant. Not a clue. My friend in smicha with me helped make the guy’s head spin, me emphasizing theory and he practice. The guy probably learned more about kabbalah in one night with us than he did in all of his time and money at the Kabbalah Center.
The other observation I had about the Kabbalah Center was around the stuff they do. Everyone is of course familiar with the red string bracelet, which you could easily make yourself but then you wouldn’t get the special energy associated with spending $26 on it. I’ve seen people staring in siddurim with patterns of letters they don’t understand, a guy using his luluv to sword fight the yetzer hara (evil inclination), and heard the story of my friend’s cousin who summoned his energy by wiping the sides of his body. I’ve been in the company of a number of mekuballim (kabbalists) and spent many a Shabbat at the yeshiva of Rav Yitzhak Kaduri, the greatest mekubal of the last generation. None of them did this stuff. Could it be that the Kabbalah Center gets its members to do weird stuff so they won’t fit in with the Jewish community and have to keep coming by them?
Phillip Berg accomplished something very few rabbis have ever done. He built a worldwide network of adoring followers, Jew and non-Jew and died very wealthy. While the books the Center sells weren’t terribly expensive, it’s a sweet deal getting your followers to give over 10-20% of their assets as a religious duty. However, the way in which he accomplished this feat is suspect at best, criminal at worst. Perhaps that is for the IRS to investigate, which apparently they are. The facts are clear though: you can get what the Kabbalah Center offers cheaper and better, from rabbis such as myself, and I am not holding at a particularly high level.
The real question however is who is the real G-d, the G-d of Berg or the G-d Israel? The answer isn’t just theoretical.