Centuries old the Kabbalah is often called "Jewish mysticism." Its teachings have often been distorted by mystics and occultists over the centuries. Christian intellectuals during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods once reinterpreted Kabbalah to fit into their own dogma. Today it has been marketed to celebrities and sold to the rich by the so-called "Kabbalah Centre" run by Philip Berg, his wife Karen and their two sons Michael and Yehuda.
But much of what the Berg's Kabbalah Centre teaches was never a part of historical Jewish teachings. Nevertheless celebrities embrace this supposed pop version of Kabbalah reportedly as "a lifeline, an energy booster, an ego-dimmer, a self-improvement tool and a key to unlocking the secrets of the universe."
Middle aged pop diva Madonna, now known to her Kabbalah pals as "Esther," practices it and even scheduled her latest "Reinvention Tour" to allow for Friday nights off, supposedly to honor the Jewish Sabbath. Hebrew words for the names of God were part of her concert backdrop. And a tour T-shirt for sale as a souvenir proclaimed "Kabbalists do it better."
In one of Madonna's latest rock videos she wrapped teffilin, the leather straps used in Jewish prayer, around her arms. Madonna wears the "red string" around her wrist, which signals that she is one of the Berg's faithful followers. The same string is also sold to the general public (at one time through Target stores) as an amulet to purportedly ward off the "evil eye."
Jewish scholars have repeatedly made it clear that trinkets like the red string have no real connection to Kabbalah.
But many celebrities seem to have been smitten by the Kabbalah bug.
Britney Spears wore the red string and had Hebrew letters tattooed on her back. Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Paris Hilton, David Beckham and his wife (former Spice Girl) Victoria wear the bracelet. Mick Jagger and his ex-wife Jerry Hall once did fundraisers for the Bergs. Devoted diehards Roseanne Barr and Sandra Bernhard are long-time members.
However, authentic Kabbalah requires preparation through years of in-depth Torah and Talmud study explained Rabbi Justin Jaron Lewis, director of the Jewish studies program at Queen's University in Canada.
Madonna and other celebrity pretenders have not done this and thus have no meaningful understanding of the complex esoteric text.
Rabbi Reuven Bulka put it this way, "Have you ever built the 17th floor of a building without having a foundation? It's about as ridiculous as it gets. Like a guy studying nuclear physics who can't add one and one."
But Madonna still insists that she is serious about Kabbalah.
"I get a little irritated that people think it's a celebrity bandwagon that I'm jumping on - I'm very serious about it," the former Material Girl said. Madonna has donated millions to the Berg's growing enterprise.
Though it seems like the Kabbalah Centre is more like a chain of stores selling courses, books, tapes and accessories than a genuine religious effort. For sale are such things as the red string $26 (U.S.), which is supposedly "imbued with the energy of protection and you get 10 pieces of string in a package." And the Bergs attempted to trademark "red string" as an exclusive brand. Then there are anti-stress candles ($20 U.S.) and of course the apparently holy "Kabbalah water," that "has been imbued (sic) with Ancient Kabalistic Meditations."
Based in Los Angeles, the burgeoning Berg religious empire now has branches around the globe, including one in Toronto.
But are the Bergs just money hungry marketing business people rather than genuinely religious folks?
"If someone is benefiting from our teaching they should show their appreciation," says Yehuda Berg. He is one of the founder's two sons from his second marriage and seems to feel whatever money his family makes is well deserved.
Is the Kabbalah Centre a "cult"?
"Most people who make those charges have never contacted me. They judge from the outside; the average one has never met me, so I'm not going to be bothered by it. Two thousand years ago there was this guy, Jesus, with sandals and five followers. It was called a cult, now there are a billion people following him."
Authentic Kabbalah study actually begins at 40, requires fluent Hebrew and years of studying the sacred texts that it is said historically date back to Spain in the 13th century.
But the Berg's followers most often can't even read Hebrew. They instead are taught to scan the text, which is described as some new spiritual "formula" that "has finally been revealed to the world."
How does so-called "scanning" work to enlighten its practitioners without them able to read the actual words on the page?
Berg explains, "You pick up the phone and call Tokyo...You're not sure how the phone works, but you use it anyway. We do things all the time without understanding how they work."
Is this some sort of dubious new instant religious enlightenment?
One netizen reportedly gushed on a related Kabbalah Internet blog, "I for one (am) thrilled to have finally found a religion that believes the same things I do...I can't wait to put on my new red string!"
Note: This report was based upon "A red string has stars buzzing," an article written by Leslie Scrivener previously published by the Toronto Star July 19, 2004