My first encounter with Philip Berg’s Kabbalah Centre wasn’t in Los Angeles, to which the organization’s headquarters eventually migrated. It was in a subway station in New York City. It was hot there, and noisy; and a pretty young Israeli woman was handing out leaflets. It was the summer of 1987.
WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT YOUR LIFE?
So ran the Hebrew text in the bilingual leaflet. The menu of subjects, taught by what was then called the “Research Centre of Kabbalah,” wasn’t quite the same as in the English text. “Basic Kabbalah” … “reincarnation” … “astrology” … “Kabbalistic meditation.”
In case the reader didn’t understand the fancy word meditatziyah, the leaflet added in parentheses the traditional Hebrew word for “contemplation.”
An address in Kew Gardens, NY, and a phone number were provided. I never called the phone number. But I have kept the leaflet for more than 26 years.
That was my first encounter. The second was at the end of 2006. It was in San Diego, California, on the last day of the annual conference of the Association for Jewish Studies. The session that I and many, many others attended wasn’t technically part of the conference. It was organized by the “Tiferet Institute,” a now defunct organization dedicated to the intellectually responsible teaching of Kabbalah as a spiritual discipline. But it was in the same hotel, and we all understood it as an unofficial adjunct to the conference. It drew upon scholars from the conference for both speakers and audience.
One of the keynote speakers was Michael Berg. The son of Philip Berg. Since his father’s stroke in 2004 he’d been one of the principal figures at the Kabbalah Centre, which had grown from its modest beginnings in Kew Gardens 20 years earlier–and even more modest antecedents in Israel in the 1960s–into an international and exceedingly lucrative corporation.
“A cult leader,” we might have sniffed. But we didn’t; most of us wouldn’t have. We weren’t a hostile audience, or closed-minded. I don’t remember if my friend Jody Myers, author of a magnificent scholarly book on the Kabbalah Centre (published the following year), was there that afternoon. But all of us were ready to treat the Kabbalah Centre and its leaders with sympathy and respect. Wasn’t it a bona fide NRM, “New Religious Movement,” like dozens of others? Our business as scholars wasn’t to judge, but to understand.
And yet: we were the ones looking through the microscope. Michael Berg was the specimen on the slide. We took him seriously, in the way that we took seriously the great Kabbalists of old–not to mention the ragtag bunch of charlatans and lunatics who’d advertised themselves through the centuries as prophets and Kabbalists, mystics and messiahs. But as a colleague with us in the study of Kabbalah? No way!
The Kabbalah Centre people would agree. They aren’t our colleagues; they don’t want to be. “We teach Kabbalah,” they say on their home page, “not as a scholarly study but as a way of creating a better life and a better world.” For them, of course, that’s a plus; for us, rather eccentrically, a minus. Our aims as scholars are more modest: to understand what is and what was, not to bring into being what never was.
Nor–we might say, if we weren’t taking care to be polite–to take money from the gullible by promising the impossible. Nor to be photographed, like Michael’s brother Yehuda Berg, with our arms around international pop stars.
Maybe some of us were a little bit hostile after all. And a little bit jealous.
And maybe Michael Berg of the Kabbalah Centre, speaking before a room full of folding chairs occupied by academic scholars of Kabbalah, was a Daniel marching into the lions’ den.
He wasn’t scared. Or if he was, he didn’t show it.
Maybe that was what he was doing at that session. To show us–and more important, his followers and potential followers–that he could hold his own before us. That the big guns of the secular academy couldn’t intimidate him.
“Fleshy, bearded (short-bearded), bald,” I wrote in my notes. “Black skull-cap behind large, shiny foreheard. Glasses, open-necked white shirt.” Pugnacious and combative, in his way. A great Kabbalist, he announced bluntly, is one who does what he can to disseminate the Kabbalah’s wisdom widely. His father Philip Berg is therefore the greatest Kabbalist in the world.
Then came the texts. He spent much of his time quoting in Hebrew and Aramaic, from the Zohar and Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag–I wrote about them in my previous post–and from the lesser Kabbalists who came in between. He translated, with complete accuracy, each text he’d just read. One of my academician friends said to me afterwards, as we discussed his performance: he wasn’t speaking to his followers but to us; his followers don’t know the languages. I think my friend missed the point.
Berg was speaking to his followers. He was showing them that he could hold his own against the professors, on the professors’ turf. Which he did–brilliantly.
You’re entitled to your own opinions, he told us. You’re not entitled to your own facts. Did we sneer at the Kabbalah Centre’s practice of “scanning,” of teaching its followers to run their eyes over the printed text of the Zohar even if they didn’t understand a single word, couldn’t make out a single Hebrew letter? We’re perfectly entitled to say, I don’t like “scanning,” I don’t go for it, it’s not for me. We’re not entitled to dismiss it as some kooky innovation of the Kabbalah Centre, without roots in Kabbalistic tradition.
There followed quotation after quotation from the Kabbalistic classics, in Hebrew and then on-the-spot translation, endorsing the theory that underlies the “scanning”: that reading the Zohar, even without understanding it, will connect you with the celestial realms.
(I remembered what I’d been told by a former colleague who grew up in a Jewish family in Aleppo, Syria. When he was a little kid his grandfather made him read page after page from the Zohar. “I don’t want to!” he protested. “I don’t understand any of it!” Doesn’t matter, the old man told him. The holy words will do you good anyway.)
Neither he nor his brother Yehuda, Michael told us, were ever pressed to study Kabbalah. He took it up at age 12 or 13. He studied at a yeshiva in Queens; he regretted the dismissive attitude taken by his teachers toward non-Jews. The Kabbalah Centre, faithful to its roots in the Ashlagian tradition, has gotten beyond this. Hence its outreach to people of every religion. Its aim is not to convert them to Judaism. This is an irrelevancy.
“We don’t seek to make people better Jews,” I remember Michael Berg saying. “We seek to make them better human beings.”
Sounds wonderful. But surely there’s another side?
There is. You can read about it ad nauseam–and a lot of it is pretty nauseating–in the posts about the Kabbalah Centre at Rick Ross’s anti-cult site. “I’m thousands of dollars poorer, pissed off,” runs one “testimonial” to the Kabbalah Centre experience. “I should have known better, but they are GOOD at what they do.”
One of Ross’s posts, actually, is about Michael Berg’s appearance in San Diego–the one I’ve just described. Read it; you’ll come away with a totally different impression from the one I’ve given.
A two-part article, published in the Los Angeles Times in October 2011, doesn’t exactly savage the Kabbalah Centre. But neither does it leave out the ugliness that’s part of the story. A distinguished scholar of Jewish mysticism, Rabbi Arthur Green–who also participated, by video, in the San Diego meeting–has responded to the L.A. Times articles by calling the Kabbalah Centre “a bizarre combination of well-intentioned religious outreach and sheer hucksterism … a thorough mixing of goodness and cynicism.”
Maybe a little bit like … well … the man who became a Muslim on September 16, the same day of the year that Berg died. That’s September 16, 1666; and the “man” in question was named Sabbatai Zevi. His notoriety in his time–more or less at the Madonna level–put Berg’s in the shade.
I’ve already blogged about Sabbatai Zevi, and expect to blog about him–and more especially his followers–a great deal more. Here’s his story, in brief:
He was born in Izmir, on the western coast of Turkey, in 1626. Always a strange fellow, and eccentric in his religiosity–he used to meditate on Biblical verses and imagine he must be levitating–he came to conceive he was the Messiah and to announce himself as such. No one listened. Until 1665, when everyone listened.
For a few dizzying months in 1665-1666, the whole Jewish world went crazy over Sabbatai Zevi. People sold their goods, booked passage to the Holy Land so they could be with Sabbatai when he rebuilt the Temple. Then–September 16, 1666–Sabbatai Zevi did the unthinkable.
The Messiah converted to Islam.
Seems that the Turkish sultan, who didn’t care too much for Jewish Messiahs stirring up mass excitements in his empire, had summoned Sabbatai for an interview. Threats were made. Sabbatai emerged from the sultan’s presence with a Muslim name, wearing a turban–just like any other Turkish Muslim.
But maybe not “just like.” In one sense, Sabbatai’s messianic career was just beginning. For the next ten years, he tried to live as Jewish Messiah and Muslim courtier in one body, and in his person to fuse the Jewish and the non-Jewish worlds. This was a “redemption” more profound than any Temple-building could possibly be.
It didn’t work. Eventually the sultan, fed up with Sabbatai’s interfaith antics, banished him to Albania. There he died in 1676, ten years almost to the day after his conversion–September 17, 1676, the afternoon of Yom Kippur.
(And Philip Berg died right between Yom Kippur 2013–which fell on Saturday, September 14–and September 17.)
So Philip Berg was a Sabbatai Zevi for the 21st century? Is that what I’m hinting at, with this coincidence of dates? (It’s got to be just coincidence, right? Right?)
A dissolver of boundaries, in an age when religious boundaries are already more fluid than anybody in Sabbatai’s time could have imagined. An age of restless mobility between lands, between cultures. An age when Berg’s most famous disciple could say (in 2006) about her newly adopted son: “If David decides he wants to be a Christian, then so be it … I believe in Jesus and I study Kabbalah, so I don’t see why he can’t too.”
Philip Berg, Sabbatai Zevi … it’s an interesting comparison. Maybe even a useful one. Like all comparisons, it’s got its problems. It overstates Berg’s importance. Maybe–though I’m less sure about this–it does an injustice to his character. Sabbatai Zevi was not precisely the human species at its finest. “He is not an easy person to like, this flawed and fallen messiah,” I wrote in my 2007 book about him. “At times it is difficult not to detest him.”
I suspect history will go a bit less hard on Philip Berg.
And Berg’s Kabbalah Centre? Will that turn out to be a present-day analogue to Sabbatianism–the religious movement with Sabbatai Zevi at its center–after its founder’s death? Enduring for centuries? Spreading, morphing, taking on different forms depending on the contexts in which it emerged?
Let’s all stay tuned for that one.
by David Halperin
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