Michael Berg, along with brother Yehudah, is heir to the Kabbalah Centre dynasty. The Centre, famous for popularizing Jewish mysticism and attracting non-Jewish celebrities from Madonna to Paris Hilton, was founded in 1969 by Michael's father Philip Berg.
The Kabbalah empire now includes learning centers throughout the world, a charitable foundation, a full product line, a children's education program, and a publishing arm. The latest offering from Kabbalah Publishing is Michael Berg's "Becoming Like God," which promises, like Berg's other books, to explain how kabbalah can transform readers' lives. Berg is also the author of "The Secret: Unlocking the Source of Joy & Fulfillment," and "The Way." Beliefnet's Rebecca Phillips spoke with Berg recently about what it means to "become like God" and why he believes Kabbalah is a universal philosophy, not specific to Judaism.
I have to admit when I first saw the title of your book, "Becoming Like God," I was taken aback. My immediate reaction was: That's not possible. The whole idea seems blasphemous. It is a concept that has been around for thousands of years, but people aren't necessarily aware of it. To underscore the point, I often ask people the meaning of the biblical passage that says that man was created in God's image. There aren't many ways to explain it, except in that simplest form. It means that every one of us is built with the essence of God. Our soul is the essence of God, and that means that every single one of us has the potential to become like God and to heal, to bless, to do almost everything that God can do.
So to become like God means to be able to do the same things that God can do?
It's a spiritually transformative process. As the Zohar teaches it, the barrier between every single one of us and our true potential is the fact that we are to whatever degree disconnected from God. And the Zohar teaches us how to break down those barriers and make a stronger connection with God. Through that strong connection, we reveal our true potential, which enables us to do amazing things, so much more than we even think we can do.
What are some of the major ways to remove those barriers to get closer to God?
The ego is the main thing within us that is not God; it is the strongest barrier between ourselves and God. In simple terms, when we break down the ego, we become like God. The concept of breaking down the ego sounds a lot like Buddhism.
Do you see similarities between Buddhism and Kabbalah?
I don't know too much about Buddhism, but I know that there certainly are similarities. Of course since Kabbalah is such an inter-spiritual wisdom, it makes a lot of sense that there are a lot of similarities between it and other spiritual teachings.
In your book, you introduce the idea that becoming like God somehow makes us immortal. Can you explain what you mean by that?
One of the things that Kabbalah teaches is that the contemporary world filled with pain and suffering is not the world as it is meant to be. As we continue to evolve spiritually, connecting with our soul and becoming more like God, we can transform this world. We can end the pain and suffering that we take as a given.
This is another concept that when you first hear it, may sound new, but it appears in the Bible. The Bible says there will come a time when death literally will be swallowed up, meaning, there will be an end to death. This notion of immortality is accepted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but most people have an idea that we sort of wait for the Messiah to come and when the Messiah comes, we will find ourselves in a utopian world. In contrast, Kabbalah teaches that we are not waiting for a personal savior to redeem us: It's our job, every single one of us and together as a collective, to bring about a world where maybe even, as God says in the Bible, it will be possible that death will end. And I do believe that's a possibility, as have kabbalists and sages for thousands of years.
You said before that Kabbalah is an inter-spiritual wisdom, and one thing I noticed about your book is that it never mentioned Judaism. Is there anything specifically Jewish about Kabbalah, or about your book?
The wisdom of Kabbalah, as the Zohar teaches, it began even before the creation of this world. Judaism as we know it began either with Abraham or with the exodus. But Kabbalah is a unifying wisdom. It's not exclusively the property of one religion. If, as the kabbalists explain it, this wisdom can improve our lives, can improve our world, there's no logical sense for it to be the domain of only one people. Although historically this wisdom had been taught for the most part by Jews to Jews, but at its core, the purpose of this wisdom and the goal of the kabbalist is to reveal this wisdom to the entire world. Therefore the books that I write are meant for everyone.
A lot of people are confused about whether Kabbalah is a religion, a philosophy, or a science of some sort. Can you give a very basic overview?
Kabbalah is an ancient spiritual wisdom that predates religion. As the kabbalists see it, Kabbalah is the wisdom that the Creator meant for all of us to use to better our lives and the world. As the kabbalists teach it, the wisdom of Kabbalah was given to Adam in the Garden of Eden.
When was this wisdom first written down?
The first book written down was called Raziel ha Malakh, or the Angel Named Raziel. And that was given to Adam and to Noah, all the early biblical figures. And then there's the Book of Formation, Sefir Zerah, which was written by Abraham the patriarch. Probably the next major text and the most important textbook of Kabbalah, the Zohar, was written 2,000 years ago by Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai. The Zohar was written in Aramaic, and for the 2,000 years since its original writing, it was only available in Aramaic. I was the first person to translate the whole Zohar in 23 volumes from Aramaic into English.
Why do you think it had never been translated before?
Well, there are a few reasons. First of all, historically, many of the scholars of Kabbalah didn't speak English. There have been sections of the Zohar which have been translated into Greek. But there weren't many kabbalistic scholars that had a strong grasp of both Aramaic and English. The second reason is that many people throughout the ages felt that the wisdom should be concealed. So even those who might have had the capacity to translate it did not.
I know you said Kabbalah is a universal wisdom that isn't limited to Jews, but I've read that the Kabbalah Centre conducts certain specifically Jewish observances, such as High Holy Day services. Do those religious services draw in non-Jews? How do they react to these Jewish practices?
Kabbalah views the holidays and the Sabbath not as Jewish traditions but as spiritual tools that the Creator gave to everyone. Historically, it has been the Jewish people who have kept that tradition and have done these actions not always knowing their purpose. But according to the kabbalists' teaching, what we find in the Bible was never meant to form the basis for a religion but was given to us by the Creator as tools to assist you in becoming like God. So whether it's the Sabbath or whether it's the holidays, we view them as spiritual opportunities, ways for us to draw more of the light of God and to become more like God in our lives. So certainly in the Kabbalah Centre, whether the person is Jewish or non-Jewish, he has the ability to use the tool of the Sabbath or of the holidays that the Bible speaks of, as a spiritual tool to become more like God, to be more of a light of God in his life.
What distinguishes a Shabbat or holiday service at the Kabbalah Centre from a traditional service in a synagogue?
Well, one of the most important differences between our practice and that of traditional, non-kabbalistic Shabbat services is understanding. The kabbalists teach that it is our understanding or as we call it, our consciousness, that makes the difference, meaning whether we reveal life, whether we connect, we have to understand why we do what we do, not just simply do it. So at the most important level, no matter what a person does at a Kabbalah service, he has to understand why he's doing it and how these actions would draw more light, more of the light of God into his life. In addition, we use meditations and certain prayers that the kabbalists have handed down through these thousands of years.
Do you consider yourself a rabbi, or a kabbalistic teacher, or does it not matter?
Well, it doesn't really matter. I would consider myself probably a kabbalistic scholar, although I am an ordained Orthodox rabbi. In the practical sense, the most important thing is the Kabbalah aspect of it, understanding why we do the things that we do, understanding what it can do for my life and for the world.
Note: For a rabbinical review of Yehuda Berg's book click here