It’s thanks to an email forwarded by my friend Boaz Huss that I heard the news: Philip Berg died this past Monday, September 16. He was 84, or possibly 86, depending on who you want to believe.
Who’s Philip Berg? you may say. Or, if you know and despise Philip Berg and most of what he stood for, and you know the significance of September 16 in Jewish history, you may say: how appropriate.
I’ll tell you about Philip Berg in just a minute, and about September 16 in next week’s post. (If you don’t want to wait for next week, check out my Fan Page post for September 16.) First a word about Boaz Huss:
Boaz is Professor of Jewish Thought at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, in Beer-sheva, Israel. He’s a scholar of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition by which so many today (myself included) are entranced. He’s a learned and brilliant man, blessed with a stubborn curiosity which ranges from the Zohar, the classic text of medieval Kabbalah (about which he’s written a wonderful book, soon to be translated into English), down to … well …
In 2005 he published a paper entitled “All You Need Is LAV: Madonna and Postmodern Kabbalah.”
I’m gonna break the cycle
I’m gonna shake up the system
I’m gonna destroy my ego
I’m gonna close my body now
I think I’ll find another way
There’s so much more to know
I guess I’ll die another day
It’s not my time to go.”
The words are Madonna’s, in a promotional video for the 2002 James Bond film “Die Another Day”; Boaz starts off his article by quoting them. You can watch the video, if you’ve got the stomach for it, at http://vimeo.com/6951416. Like almost everything about Madonna, I find it horribly repellent. (James Bond is also not a favorite of mine.) Yet, as Boaz points out, Madonna’s performance in the video–notably, the three Hebrew letters tattooed on her arm–is rooted in her involvement with Kabbalah, which seems to be as genuine as anyone’s religious commitment has ever been.
Which she learned from the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles and from its long-time director, the late–yes, this is the man who died last Monday–Philip Berg.
Now the unavoidable question:
How seriously can one take the L.A. Kabbalah Centre–the place where the likes of Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, and Paris Hilton go to become spiritual? Surely, with its red strings and holy “Kabbalah water,” it’s got to be some dopey cult, its real deity the cash register. Or worse (says a scholarly Canadian rabbi, quoted in USA Today, 5/26/04): “a dangerous cult … distorting kabbalah … taking some of our sacred books and reducing it to mumbo-jumbo, all kinds of hocus-pocus.”
If that’s what you think, you’ve really got to click here and read Boaz’s article. (The prose is academic, and a bit dense. Read it anyway. It’s worth the trouble.)
Boaz traces back the pedigree of Madonna’s Kabbalah to Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag (1886-1954), whom Boaz calls “the most important and innovative Kabbalist of the twentieth century.”
Ashlag came from Poland to the Holy Land in 1921, and shortly afterward established a center dedicated to spreading knowledge of the Kabbalah, Judaism’s secret mystical doctrine, amid the Jewish masses. It’s this that the modern Kabbalah Centre looks back to when it proudly proclaims itself “ESTABLISHED 1922 – Jerusalem.” And if you want to know, what kind of a “secret doctrine” is that, that needs to be taught to anybody and everybody?–that’s one of the ways in which Ashlag broke away from Kabbalistic tradition.
For Ashlag, the older Kabbalists were right to keep Kabbalah under wraps–for their times. But a new age had arrived, which Ashlag’s American successors were to identify with the Age of Aquarius. Now it was important that EVERYBODY know Kabbalah, and with that knowledge strengthen the spiritual core of the cosmos that was about to erupt into the redemption and perfection of the world. To this end, Ashlag published a multi-volume edition of the Zohar, with a translation of the original Aramaic into clear modern Hebrew, and a simply written Hebrew commentary that set forth the Zohar’s ideas as Ashlag understood them. He called his magnum opus Ha-Sulam, “The Ladder”–and for the Kabbalah Centre it’s a sacred text.
(It’s also an essential reference work for anyone interested in Kabbalah. I use my copy frequently.)
By “everybody,” as you’ll gather, Ashlag meant Hebrew-reading Jews. But his logic required that the wisdom of Kabbalah be brought also to Jews who didn’t know the Holy Tongue. It prepared the way for the next step: for the world to be truly perfected, non-Jews must learn Kabbalah as well.
Philip Berg took that next step.
Berg was a disciple of Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein (1903-69), who was a disciple of Ashlag. Berg’s book Education of a Kabbalist describes–or claims to describe–his experiences with Brandwein. It’s what we might call a “hagiography,” its purpose to depict Brandwein as a pure and holy saint, perfect in all his ways, vouchsafed the gift of prophecy. And, just incidentally, to establish Berg as Brandwein’s (and therefore Ashlag’s) true and legitimate successor:
“A few days after Rabbi Brandwein and I had finished preparing Rabbi Ashlag’s book for publication, Rabbi Brandwein took me into his private study. He said he had something important to say to me and that he wanted me to pay close attention.
He closed his eyes for a moment to focus his thoughts, which he often did when he was concentrating. ‘Rabbi Ashlag once told me that someone would appear who would explain his books completely and perfectly–so perfectly that everyone would at last be brought back to spirituality. And I have decided that person is you.’
Rabbi Brandwein held my gaze steadily. I could not turn away. What he had just told me was hard to believe, and yet his words had been clear and unmistakable.
‘Your gift and your duty,’ he said, ‘is to explain Kabbalah in such a way that all people will easily understand. You have merited this gift with your devotion and faithfulness. I want you to accept it and use it.’
I nodded but remained silent. In reality, I was speechless. It was a great responsibility that he gave me that day but, thanks to The Creator, I have been able to carry it out”–
And the rest is history.
(I’ll talk about Berg’s Kabbalah Centre, and my own encounters with it, in next week’s post.)
by David Halperin
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