McWisdom of the Ages?

The Kabbalah Centres have been embraced by Madonna and the spiritually thirsty, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Not everyone thinks that's good.

Las Vegas Weekly/March 8, 2003
By Steve Bornfeld

Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding.
-Old Testament

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. -New Testament

Alone at the end of the row, he wears a yellow wool cap to conceal his skull.

He is here to begin the healing. To seek a specialist of the soul.

"The religions say that things will get better after the flat line," the rabbi tells a handful of listeners. "Flat line" hangs in the air, its stark power palpable. The young Catholic, head still covered, doesn't flinch.

"The purpose of the journey is not expressed, but purpose is the most important factor in any act. We are smart but not wise. It's about living from the inside-out."

Chris wants, needs to discover purpose here. "I got diagnosed with leukemia two and a half months ago, and I've been pretty down with having the sickness," says the 29-year-old fifth-grade teacher after the free, introductory lecture at the Las Vegas Kabbalah Centre, which promises further purpose in 10 follow-up classes for $220. "I'm looking for some positive ways to look at it and get through it and keep my spirits up at the same time."

"We all know about physical rape, that someone's body was physically violated without their consent," says an ex-student at the Las Vegas Kabbalah Centre. "But we don't have any protection for spiritual or emotional rape. Any of these organizations are emotionally raping you. They pound away at you about the right and the wrong, the good and the evil. Then they say,"Don't you want fulfillment? If you give to this group, then you will be fulfilled.' Ultimately, they're taking away your free will. The whole system is based on them getting as much money out of you as they can under the guise of teaching this very watered-down system of spirituality."

"It's a really cool way of thinking," Chris says, optimistic that, as he combats the demons of the body, an angel is near to caress his aching soul. "I'm planning on doing one of the classes. I'm looking for inner peace because I deal with depression a lot, which I had before the illness, and it's been especially bad since. I just want to feel better about myself and the people around me."

Swaddled in a blanket of soothing spirituality that purports to ward off "The Negativity" of critics, the Kabbalah Centre (at 3824 S. Jones Blvd.) attracts seekers whose craving to bathe in "The Light" and connect to "The Energy" supercedes all, including the anger, resentment and warnings of mainstream Jewish leaders, former followers and cult experts toward the Centre's approach to Kabbalah, commonly called "Jewish mysticism."

As taught by the Centres, Kabbalah promises no less than "the secrets of the universe and the meaning of our lives," sprinkled with such New Age accoutrements as kabbalistic astrology charts, palm/face reading and red wrist strings to keep evil at bay. Its banner has been proudly carried by a parade of now "enlightened" celebrities, among them, Sandra Bernhard, Jeff Goldblum, Roseanne, Elizabeth Taylor, Mick Jagger, Naomi Campbell, Courtney Love and Rosie O'Donnell (in Hollywood, a hit of spirituality is an even higher high than a snoutful of cocaine), led by trend-master Madonna, who several years ago credited the Centre's "creative guidance" on her esoteric Ray of Light album. Madonna also sported Jewish prayer paraphernalia and a tattoo written in Hebrew in her "Die Another Day" video late last year.

"I think the controversy stems from a resistance to Kabbalah and an alternative way to think," says Rabbi Yehudah Grundman, 41, an LA-based Kabbalah Centre lecturer who often visits the Vegas Centre and conducted the recent introductory class. "A lot of the heat coming toward the Centre is from dogmatic, religious people, you know." "We've done it that way for generations, don't say it differently than we have, and if you do, we're going to speak against you.' Traditional approaches are unfortunately owned by those who stand by them, whereas spiritual approaches are never owned. They are presented and inspire people to use them if they wish."

Kabbalah Centres number 23 branches worldwide - 10 in the U.S., including Vegas - plus dozens of "satellites." To detractors, it's the McDonaldization of spirituality, serving happy meals of Wisdom McNuggets.

But the charges are more substantive and unsettling than a rebuke of hidebound religious practices or the franchising of inner peace. As chronicled by publications including Los Angeles Magazine, the London Evening Standard, Israel's Tel Aviv magazine, the New York Post, South Florida's City Link magazine and World Wide Religious News, accusations of cultish behavior haunt the Centres. Among the claims: The Centres psychologically and physically abuse members, employing mind-control to prey on the weak; pressure followers for donations; persuade students to purchase a veritable warehouse of products (including "Kabbalah water," supposedly blessed by the Centre's central figure, Rabbi Philip Berg of LA, and infused with healing powers); bust up relationships and separate families when one spouse questions another's involvement; and threaten those who opt out or speak out.

"I have received complaints expressed to me about the Las Vegas Centre," says Rick Ross, who operates the Ross Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups and Movements, based in Jersey City, New Jersey. His busy website, (with approximately 4,800 hits per day) is a vast database of news articles, research papers, court documents, book excerpts, personal testimonies and related links on numerous groups, including Scientologists, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Unification Church, Falun Gong and white supremacists. "The Jewish community in Las Vegas has expressed concerns, as well as individuals who have been harmed. One couple felt their marriage was almost destroyed by the Kabbalah Centre there, but they managed to get out and keep their marriage together."

And though local rabbis carefully couch their words, alleging the Kabbalah Centre's fondness for filing lawsuits to intimidate opponents by "libel chill," their outrage at what they consider its pop-minded bastardization of a sacred text, one traditionally denied even to most practicing Jews, is evident.

"Kabbalah is solely reserved for Jews - that's No. 1," says Rabbi Felipe Goodman of Temple Beth Sholom about the Centre's come-one, come-all policy that admits Chris and other non-Jews as practitioners. (In 2000, Goodman invited Ross to address his congregation, but avoids calling the Kabbalah Centre a cult and declines to address that aspect.)

"And you cannot run before you can walk. You take a little baby, the first thing the baby does, he takes some steps. And then one day he might run a marathon," says Goodman, who, in the familiar rhythms of the clergy, uses multiple metaphors. "In Judaism, you cannot jump into a sea of knowledge without knowing what it is you are swimming in. The mystical tradition in Judaism is a very serious thing. There are no shortcuts. How can you study the Zohar [the Kabbalah's central text] if you never in your life have opened the pages of the Talmud [the encyclopedic writings and transcribed oral history interpreting the Torah, or Five Books of Moses]? It's not responsible teaching."

To Kabbalah or Not to Kabbalah

Translated as "to receive," Kabbalah dates back to the 13th century, when the Zohar, based on the writings of second-century scholar Simeon bar Yochai, was revealed. It is regarded as a highly advanced treatise that "unlocks the Bible code" and deciphers hidden meanings embedded in the arrangement of letters and words in the Torah. And with its mystical, even fantastical descriptions of angels, chariots, ancient alphabets, golems (monsters) and biblical figures, its interpretations have been left to learned "kabbalists," its teachings considered far too complex for nonscholars to fathom.

"With Kabbalah, you're starting to ask, 'Why? What is the power?'" says Daniel Friedman, Temple Beth Sholom's cantor (the synagogue official who sings or chants liturgical music and leads the congregation in prayer). "It's the receiving of the light, the energy of God. So, if you're going to get that close, it's like Icarus," Friedman says, settling on a Greek mythological metaphor. "You have to be careful how close you fly because your wings might burn off. You learn that every single thing you do has an effect. But if you're not grounded, you can have indecision about turning right when you come out of your house, because if you turn left, it has a different effect. It can paralyze you. In the wrong hands, the study of this stuff can make you go crazy."

Rabbi Yitzchak Wyne of Young Israel of Las Vegas prefers a gastronomic metaphor. "The Torah compares Kabbalah to wine," Wyne says, "and Torah to bread. If a person eats bread first and then they have wine, they're fine. But if a person drinks wine before they eat bread, they become drunk. That's the problem with the Kabbalah Centre."

By the dictates of traditional Judaism, Kabbalah could only be studied by a man over age 40, with a wife and children, who is long-steeped in intense Judaic study. "If you look back to when people died then, most people would have been dead by the age of 40," notes Rabbi Sanford Akselrad of Congregation Ner Tamid. "Look at the life expectancy in 1900, which was 48. So by 40, 41, you're near the end of your life, you've lived a good life, you've probably had grandchildren by then, and so you had life's wisdom and the whole basis of mainstream Judaism, the teachings of the Torah and the Talmud, to use with your study of Kabbalah."

As exclusionary as it sounds, though, traditional Judaism does dip "judiciously" into Kabbalah. Wyne notes that "every bit of Torah that is not explicitly written into the Five Books of Moses for the prophets, in black and white, is on some level Kabbalah. & Every Torah-based group will have elements of Kabbalah in it." Akselrad cites a kabbalistic concept known in Hebrew as Tikkun Olam, or "the repair of the world."

"The reform movement, which I'm a part of, has taken that notion that the world is broken and used it as a rallying cry to repair the world through social action and social justice," Akselrad says. "We've made it part of our main program."

Yet to the Centre's Rabbi Grundman, such kabbalistic parceling amounts to slow-drip torture for the spiritually starved. "All the religions have their spectrum of dogma, in which questions would sooner or later be addressed by the eldest and most knowledgeable of the people, as that's the way it's done, and that's the poison of spirituality," he says. "One day, I may decide it's no longer valuable to me because it wasn't shown to me. If you are suddenly aware of how it adds to you, everything that is ritual takes on a 10-dimensional, present-day meaning."

The Centre's beginner's book, The Power of Kabbala, excerpted by Grundman in his lectures, notes that "Kabbalah can tell us many things: How and why the world began; why we keep reverting back to our old negative habits; why we avoid activities we know are beneficial to our lives; how to instill meaning and spiritual power into every waking moment." Then a caveat:

"These are impressive statements, but don't believe them. Not one word. Not for one second. The very idea of belief implies a residue of doubt, but knowing leaves no trace of skepticism. It means certainty. In your heart, in your soul. So please test each lesson in this book. Apply these principles to your life. Breathe the lessons and see if the 'air' gets cleaner." But such pop packaging and microwavable oneness with God, mainstream leaders say, mock the Kabbalah. Its major mocker, therefore, is its controversial worldwide guru, and Grundman's self-described "teacher," Rabbi Philip Berg.

The Guru's Tale

Kabbalah Cantre students are encouraged to drink Kabbalah water for its spiritual properties.

Berg is the galvanizing figure, a near-deity to his disciples, demonic to his detractors, who operates the spiritual empire out of the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre, one of the movement's nerve centers, along with those in New York and London. And it is from Berg's practices that the Vegas Centre takes its cues.

"Berg is not generally accepted among either the organized Jewish community or the reputable and credible scholars of the Kabbalah," says Ross, a chief nemesis of Berg's. "It has essentially become a family business with his wife, Karen, and his sons [Michael and Yehudah]. It has become very high-profile, but its roots are very shallow. Berg's claims about his scholarship and status among Kabbalah experts have been repeatedly refuted by people in Israel and around the world."

Born in 1929, Berg, real name: Feivel Gruberger, is a former insurance salesman. Introduced to the original Kabbalah Learning Centre in Israel (created in 1922), Berg married the niece of its respected founder, Rabbi Brandwein, and distributed his books, claiming, when Brandwein died in 1969, that the Centre's directorship was passed onto him. He still maintains that he continues in the path of Brandwein and fellow kabbalist Rabbi Ashlag, both of whose heirs emphatically reject any Berg connection to their fathers' accepted kabbalistic teachings. "There isn't a shred of truth in his claim," Ashlag's grandson angrily told Tel Aviv magazine, which also quoted an ex-associate of Brandwein's, Baruch Horenchik, as saying Berg "is a zero. The rabbi never acknowledged him." And in a Los Angeles Magazine story, one of Israel's top kabbalists, Rabbi Itzhak Kaduri, declared: "Whomever is supporting Mr. Berg financially or otherwise, or any of his affiliated organizations, is endangering his soul." Berg left his first wife and eight children to marry Karen, a completely secular woman. They lectured in Israel until the new family replanted their organization in the United States in 1981.

"The rabbinical credentials of the people who run these Centres bear scrutiny," Ross tells the Weekly. "It appears Rabbi Berg has an orthodox ordination that is legitimate. To what extent he has used his status in turn to ordain, by himself, other rabbis, without them going through a recognized process in an accredited seminary, is a real question."

Berg does not grant interviews, but the Centres have returned Ross' fire by attacking the credibility of the 50-year-old cult watchdog over a criminal incident when he was 20. Ross was convicted for his participation in a jewelry embezzlement operation in Arizona. "I regret the mistakes of my youth," Ross says. "Everything was returned, the police did not oppose probation, and it was completed in 1979. I did what should be done by people who make mistakes like that." Ross, who is Jewish, has since counseled "at-risk" Jewish youth, worked in a rehabilitation program in the Arizona penal system and was a consultant to the federal government during the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas. He was spurred to investigate extremist organizations after his grandmother was harassed by a religious group in a Phoenix nursing home.

The Bad, the Worse and the Ugly

Rabbi Yehudah Grundman, who works with Phillip Berg in LA, lectures at the local Kabbalah Centre.

These are among the alleged incidents relayed to Ross by ex-members and documented on his website, all emphatically denied by the Centre:

"Exploitation of the chevra, or full-time workers, who often reside together in Centre homes or apartments. Ross reports that the Bergs "decide everything connected to the lives of the crew, who marries who, who separates, who leaves the country. Berg is asked whether it is permissible to become pregnant, and Karen is asked how to have sexual relations. ... One former follower admits, 'I felt it was a great mitzvah [meritorious act] to clean Karen's washrooms. I used to clean her slippers with a toothbrush.' ... One former chevra worked long days for Berg, often filling up on cheap pizza, only to see 'a van being unloaded with food worth hundreds of dollars for Karen's three dogs.' ... Berg and Karen took limousines at the Centre's expense to gamble in Atlantic City. & According to one report, Karen had 'plastic surgery, a face-lift and a whole set of teeth installed. Yet someone had a tooth pulled for $120 and was screamed at for wasting the Centre's money.'"

"Canadian Jewish scholar and mysticism expert Rabbi Emanuel Schochet claims Berg sells the Zohar and other writings at "mark-ups of over 500 percent of the fair market price" and "engaged in acts of extortion."

"Kabbalah Centres have been criticized by the Toronto Vaad HaRabonim (rabbinical council), Chief Rabbi of the Bet Din (Jewish Religious Court) of Johannesburg, South Africa, and the Philadelphia Board of Rabbis, and investigated by the New York Jewish Community Task Force on Missionaries and Cults, the Canadian Jewish Congress, the Cult Clinic Hotline of New York, and the Los Angeles Task Force on Cults and Missionaries, which titled its report "The Cabal of the Kabbalah Centre Exposed."

"As reported by the World Wide Religious News, Los Angeles Rabbi Abraham Union planned to distribute criticisms of the Centre until a severed sheep's head was left at his doorstep. No evidence was found to connect the incident to the Centre, which denied any involvement. But Union tempered his criticisms.

"The Centre outraged many by claiming Jews died in the Holocaust because they failed to read the Zohar.

Charges and Counter-Charges in Vegas

"I thought it was too good to be true," says Rachel Stone, a four-year student at the Vegas Kabbalah Centre who is now a chevra and lives in a house the Centre provides. "I'm a naysayer. I made my teachers in high school tell me why I had to learn something, so I decided to take this class to prove it wrong." Instead, she says, the equation reversed. "The basic 10-week course is something I think everyone should take. It teaches you the laws of the cosmos, the rules of life. We wouldn't go on a basketball court without knowing how to play, but we're thrown into this world without knowing certain things," she says, scoffing at criticism hurled at the Centre. "The controversy I've heard has been from people who've never come into the Centre. Nothing they say rings true to my experience."

Rabbi Akselrad has never been to the Centre, but one of his Ner Tamid congregants has. "He was sold a large stack of Zohar in Hebrew, and it probably cost more than $2,000. [On, a 22-volume set sells for $491.] The person doesn't read Hebrew, but they were told, 'You don't have to. Rub your hands across the letters on the page and you will feel God's presence and the power of the words,'" Akselrad says. "That's not only misleading, that's like selling snake oil."

Armed with such concerns, Jewish federations around the U.S. have largely rejected their local Kabbalah Centres, but a source close to the Vegas situation, who requested anonymity, claims that "Las Vegas is the only Jewish federation to give them the time of day." However, the source adds, the federation decided to "drop them and move on, they were really flushed about it." Three phone calls seeking comment from Meyer Bodoff, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas (of which this reporter is a member), went unreturned.

Arrangements for the Weekly's visit to the introductory lecture were channeled through the New York Centre, no one at the Vegas Centre was "authorized" to deal with the press. (Mosher Omer, the Vegas Centre's chief rabbi, was "unavailable.") Addressing about a dozen listeners, Rabbi Grundman, a charismatic speaker who deftly utilizes dramatic inflections, sudden pauses and disarming humor, peppers his speech with references to "activating our receptors," "generating potential," "unlocking our potential for love," "tapping into more of our potential to perceive and receive" and "perceiving more than the eye allows to see, the ears allow to hear."

"I am Israeli," declares Mika Perry, 46, a Centre student of three months. "There is scariness around Kabbalah there, in fact, more in Israel. We know all about the secrets, but we never go and purchase the knowledge. You expect the Israeli people to go and grab it, but people just don't believe in it. It's ignorance, in a way. I came all the way from Israel to feel proud to be Jewish. Why did I have to come all the way across the planet to feel connected? But you cannot ignore the energy. YOU CANNOT."

Adds 31-year-old adherent Lisa Menegatos, an ex-television journalist: "I feel more of a calmness, but also more of a struggle in that there's so much to learn. You realize, 'Wow, this is why this keeps happening to me. I have an issue here.' Self-examination is never an easy process."

Yet a former student at both the Vegas Centre and Berg's LA headquarters, who also asked to remain anonymous, citing past threats, has a more cynical slant. "Most of the text, if not all of it, is written by Philip Berg. They use the Zohar, but all the interpretations are from this one man, and now his children are writing text," says the ex-member, who still resides in Las Vegas. "I found that everything filtered back to Berg and his wife, and I couldn't figure out how they accounted for all the money that came in. It was always, buy the candles, buy the water, buy the Zohar for exorbitant prices." After he left the Centre "deprogrammed" by his parents, wife and a rabbi of long acquaintance, and suggested that other potential students conduct research first rather than rely on his word, the man claims he was "emotionally threatened" by a representative of the local Centre.

"He said I would be going into a pit, that there would be golems (monsters unleashed in a spiritual realm). He asked where I lived, where my family was, where my kids were. Not that he'd do anything, but just enough to say, 'You'd better think about this.'"

The Rebuttals

Questioned about the most frequent accusations leveled against the Centres, Grundman shrugs and smiles the smile of a man who can recite his responses while comatose.

"It's a cult: "Cults take away free will from people. A person coming here realizes the focus is to empower people to think for themselves, to question."

"Those who leave are threatened: "Absolutely not true. In any public-type organization, there are the disenchanted. We attribute it to an unhappiness Motorola would experience with their clientele. Someone vents that you are the reason for their failure. For the minute number of critics versus the number of people who encourage us to continue, it's ridiculous."

"Relationships are destroyed: "We are very careful to step back and have people work out their challenges. We never say someone who opposes Kabbalah has to be distanced from. We encourage that a person has to do all that is possible to make a relationship work. Everyone who comes into our lives is teaching us something about ourselves, so we always support the ongoing lesson versus the quick fix."

"It's a money-making scheme: "A not-for-profit does not mean a profit is not made. It's a place using everything in its resources to expand, then puts it back into the teaching to make more of it available to others. There is nothing an individual needs to purchase in later stages that is not displayed in earlier stages. A lot of people are resentful of something successful. We're not going to apologize for success."

Twinkle, Twinkle, Trendy Stars

Celebrity fawning? Grundman declares it a tradeoff. "It's a trend, and that's the way people perceive celebrities," he says. "But we're so confident that there is valuable spiritual information here that they'll have to address, 'Why did I join and was it for the right reason?' Although it's a wonderful forum to get the word out, it pales versus what we can deliver to the average person, which will ultimately be the testimony we're looking for, not the hit-and-run."

Ross is less sanguine. "The chevra are at the bottom of the food chain, often treated quite harshly, while celebrities are treated preferentially," Ross says. "If they would open their eyes wide, they would say, 'Who are these chevra? Why are they taking care of me? What's their lot in life? What do they go home to?' But so often celebrities are rather narcissistic and self-obsessed, and they really don't care. They look at the chevra as they do waiters and maids. I question the so-called spiritual evolution of people like Madonna, who must have read these horror stories and readily available documentation, and they just turn a deaf ear and a blind eye because they're getting what they want out of it."

As both sides of the Great Kabbalah Debate heatedly argue over the teachings of inner peace, no indisputable insight seems ready to reveal itself, no universal answer imminent. The heavens remain silent.

So we flail about, religiously and spiritually, hoping somehow to see The Light and feel The Energy through whatever means soothe our searching souls.

We want to know The Truth.

But the truth, it seems, is that we'll never know.

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