San Diego -- With Hollywood starlets donning red-string bracelets and toting the Zohar around as if it were the latest fashion accessory, serious proponents of Jewish mysticism find themselves struggling over the commercialization and popularization of Kabbalah. In particular, students and teachers have been trying to figure out whether they should be ecstatic or despondent over the broad success of the Kabbalah Centre, the highly controversial sect that preaches to Jew and gentile alike and touts Madonna as its most famous adherent.
A recent conference held in this sunny California city, running concurrently with a larger gathering of Jewish studies professors, sought to address the issue. Organized by an upstart Cleveland-based center for the study of Kabbalah, the Tiferet Institute, the daylong conference, titled “Kabbalah for the Masses? The Promise and Problems in Mainstreaming Jewish Mysticism,” brought together a broad swath of scholars, rabbis and students to probe the implications of the widespread phenomenon.
The day’s most famous participant was probably Rabbi Michael Berg, one of two sons of Rabbi Philip Berg, the man responsible for selling Kabbalah to the masses under the aegis of the Kabbalah Centre. The center now has 50 branches worldwide, a sizable charitable foundation and a product line that includes a “Kabbalah” energy drink. Controversy has swirled around the center for decades, but with its entry into popular culture, and its notable financial successes, it has come under increasing scrutiny. At issue are its tactics in soliciting donations from its membership, and its claims to being the rightful successor to a revered kabbalistic lineage in Israel, which some nay-sayers have labeled specious.
Few of these issues, however, were broached at the conference, held in a backroom at San Diego’s downtown Hyatt Hotel. Instead, scholars addressed the content of the Kabbalah Centre’s program and challenged what they viewed as a reductive approach to an ancient and complex system intended for study solely by a select group of learned Jews.
Addressing about 50 participants, who had come from as far away as New Mexico and as close as San Diego and Los Angeles, Rabbi Yacob Travis, the Tiferet Institute’s founder, kicked off the debate with a simple explanation of his intentions. It rang like a swipe against the Kabbalah Centre. “We are trying,” he said, “to bring all the voices to the table, even those that are wrong.”
Indeed, all voices were at the table. At an early afternoon panel December 19, titled “Disseminating Light: Zohar for the Masses?” Berg was seated next to Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, an Arizona State University Jewish history professor who is a staunch critic of the Kabbalah Centre.
Dressed in the pressed white shirt, black pants and black yarmulke of an Orthodox Jew, Berg addressed the question of how his group disseminates the Zohar, the mystical tract at the center of Kabbalistic spirituality. The center’s approach to Zohar, he said, is the central rift between his organization and others. According to Berg, to give the Kabbalah to non-Jews and have them “scan” it, or simply look at the text without actually reading it, is a legitimate use of the text. Some scholars say it is a violation of the tradition. In order to prove his point, Berg repeatedly quoted Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag, founder of a historic kabbalistic institute in Jerusalem, that the modern-day center maintains is its precursor. Ashlag’s own grandson, however, has vociferously denied any connection between the two.
Speaking on the same panel as Berg, Rabbi Pinchas Giller, an associate professor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, appeared to defend the Kabbalah Centre’s courting of non-Jews. “Kabbalah,” Giller said, “has always crossed over, and outreach to the gentiles is not necessarily a deal breaker when it comes to authenticity.”
But not all scholars at the conference were as generous. Tirosh-Samuelson, in her response, delivered a harsh rebuke to the Kabbalah Centre and to Berg’s writings. After reading his books, she said, she found “a very truncated lineage.” She also derided the center’s economic successes, implying that what motivated its leaders was the desire not to share kabbalistic wisdom but to attain personal wealth. “It is impossible to separate the business model from the Kabbalah Centre,” she said.
At an earlier panel on teaching Kabbalah to non-Jews, Tamar Frankiel, dean of students and professor of comparative religion at Los Angeles’s Academy for Jewish Religion, hit on yet another point against the center. Frankiel sounded off on the potential damage to Kabbalah when it is split off from the Jewish religion. According to Frankiel, “We cannot separate Kabbalah from Torah.”
In an interview following his panel discussion, Berg seemed unfazed by the trenchant criticism. He called it unfair that his group is criticized for its fundraising tactics, among other things, when all Jewish organizations raise money. He also defended the center’s broad appeal. “We don’t want for people to become Jews,” he said, “we want them to become better people.”