Here's the latest in what seems to be shaping up as a category of "Things That Give Me The Creeps":
My new Publishers Weekly arrived yesterday. The front cover, inside front cover, and first three pages are entirely devoted to an extended advertisement for a book called TRUE PROSPERITY: Success Without Side Effects, by Yehuda Berg. It's published by Kabbalah Publishing, which is an arm of the Kabbalah Centre, a self-described "educational organization" that has fifty locations and many celebrity enthusiasts. It's where Madonna got the knotted red string around her wrist. (Yehuda Berg described this in an online interview as "an old technology used to ward off jealousy and negativity from other people." You can see how that might come in handy if you were Madonna.)
The deep-purple grapes on the attractive cover of TRUE PROSPERITY seem designed as a subliminal echo of SECRETS OF THE VINE: Breaking Through to Abundance, the second bestseller by Bruce Wilkinson, author of THE PRAYER OF JABEZ -- books that have been criticized for promoting the message that "greediness is next to Godliness." Unlike the Wilkinson books, which are directed at Christians, the Kabbalah Centre asserts that Kabbalah is for "people of all faiths and no faiths." The message, however, is similar: spirituality is both a technology for acquiring prosperity and the prosperous person's ultimate acquisition, the crowning gem without which all the wealth and luxury in the world won't bring satisfaction. "SUCCESS PLUS!" trumpets the cover of PW. Here's a bit of the cold-blooded ad copy for TRUE PROSPERITY. It's this relentless new "spirituality" of success that gives me the creeps:
Kabbalah is first and foremost a highly practical set of tools and techniques for improving people's lives in the contemporary world. . . . Yehuda Berg describes True Prosperity as a solution-oriented guidebook. Its purpose is meeting the financial needs of the successful young trend setters who are driving the Kabbalah phenomenon. "They're looking for financial success without the emotional and spiritual downside that seems to come with wealth," says the author. True Prosperity focuses on hard core career topics like negotiation, goal setting, and compensation, all of which are an intrinsic part of authentic Kabbalah. [emphasis added]
Oh, really? I just helped my brother, David Gottlieb, edit a book of letters he exchanged with an eminent scholar of Torah, Talmud, and medical ethics (he's an M.D. too), Rabbi Akiva Tatz. Here's Rabbi Tatz in an excerpt from their book, Letters to a Buddhist Jew, forthcoming from Targum Press (scroll down through New Releases):
[S]earch for the masters. They are rare and retiring, but they can be found. . . .
To find mastery in Torah today you have to search for it as you would for treasure; it may be buried deep. You will have to exert yourself; you may have to travel. You will have to seek out that narrow niche where the real Torah is found. If you find it too openly on the street or calling to you from a seductive doorway, look away; if it is selling itself cheaply it is not Torah. Torah must be sought; but when you find it, you will know it. . . .
In this generation, look to those dedicated to Torah learning. These days, they are often to be found in enclaves of poverty, not wealth. In fact, in the modern yeshiva world poverty happens to be more or less the standard; I personally know many families in that world who live on less than you probably waste. A Buddhist monk who lives on the alms that provide him his one daily meal would feel right at home there. . . .
Rabbi Shach, Talmudic and halachic luminary, until his recent passing the Torah leader of this generation, used to sleep without a blanket. He did not own a blanket. A blanket, David. He used his coat; his wife used their only blanket. . . . [T]he only way the students in his yeshiva could get him finally to accept a blanket was when a Swiss student returned home and left his blanket behind ownerless; only when the other students assured Rav Shach that no-one else needed it did the Rosh Yeshiva acquire a blanket. This is not far-fetched; I had the privilege of visiting Rav Shach at his apartment . . . and I can tell you that it was bare.
You may know that the Chafetz Chaim, Torah leader of the pre-war generation, had virtually no possessions. A well-known anecdote tells of the surprise of a wealthy Western European Jew who visited the Chafetz Chaim at his home in Radin; the man expressed his amazement at the spartan emptiness of the home. The Chafetz Chaim asked him: “Where is all your wealth? You do not seem to have much, either.” The visitor replied: “Rabbi, I am only passing through. Where I am going, I have plenty.” The Chafetz Chaim replied: “I am also only passing through...”
But these great Torah minds were rich in another way. Their heads were in another place entirely, and in that place they were drunk with the richness and joy of Torah. . . . They live in the Talmud . . . That is the locus of their consciousness, that is where they live. . . .
To be sure, we need to live in the world, and when we engage the world we need to do that fully and responsibly. But that is not where we live; we live in that other place, on that higher plane.
[You've noticed that Kabbalah is not mentioned in this passage. It is mentioned, sparingly but rivetingly, in Letters to a Buddhist Jew. As Rabbi Reuven Bulka, who "chairs the religious and inter-religious affairs committee for the Canadian Jewish Congress," told Toronto Star writer Leslie Scrivener, "Serious students of Kabbalah don't identify themselves as Kabbalists. Those who do, don't say."]
In stark contrast to many of their full-time followers the Bergs seem to live a life of comfort. "Both of them eat the best and most expensive things ever. They live like kings" says a one-time member of Berg's "crew." One former "hevra" [live-in volunteer] 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." Another account relates how "the Rav [Berg] and Karen more than once took limousines, at the expense of the center, to gamble for their pleasure in Atlantic City. They even told of their experiences when they returned."
Simon Parke of the Independent adds in 2004 that "The Kabbalah Centre is said to be worth at least $23m and its founder, Rabbi Philip Berg, has three homes in Beverly Hills."
So which is true spirituality? (Keep in mind that the Jewish tradition, unlike both Christianity and Buddhism, doesn't regard poverty per se as radically spiritual. It's generosity to the poor that is a mitzvah, a commandment. It's the way one treats others that is a sign of spiritual development. Rabbi Tatz's and David's book is full of awesome examples.)
The Bergs -- Philip and his sons Yehuda, author of TRUE PROSPERITY, and Michael, author of the forthcoming BECOMING LIKE GOD -- claim in the PW ad to be heirs to "a direct lineage of great Kabbalists . . . Rav Yehuda Brandwein, one of the greatest Kabbalists of the last century . . . Rav Yehuda Ashlag, whose translation of the ancient mystical book . . . The Zohar was a turning point in bringing Kabbalistic teachings to the modern world." In his 1997 online article Has Madonna Joined a Cult?, Rick Ross makes short work of these claims:
Who is Philip Berg? His name was originally "Feivel Gruberger", a former insurance agent he married a niece of the kabbalist Rabbi Brandwein and distributed his books. However, his claim that he continues in the path of the kabbalistic rabbis Ashlag and Brandwein, and that they are the founders of his center-- "arouses the wrath of the authentic heirs of these two rabbis. 'There isn't a shred of truth in his claim,'says Rabbi Ashlag's grandson with anger." Who adds "They [the Kabbalah Centre] are degrading the Zohar (the central work of the Kabbalah). The distance between my grandfather and Berg is as the distance between east and west." "He is far removed from Rabbi Brandwein," says Baruch Horenchik, the late Rabbi [Brandwein's] right-hand man. "He is a zero. The Rabbi [Brandwein] never acknowledged him."
Berg left Brandwein's niece, his first wife and their eight children to marry his second and current spouse Karen. They have two sons, Yehudah and Michael--"the heirs." But according to reports "outside of his own Centre and circle of followers, neither the academic nor the Jewish religious worlds know anything about him except for the anomalies of his centers." And "he is universally condemned by both the orthodox rabbinate and contemporary schools of Jewish mysticism in Israel, the USA and elsewhere, as a charlatan."
Ross goes on to detail cultlike goings-on at the Kabbalah Centre, where, he claimed in 1997 -- quoting people who'd left -- non-celebrity devotees were subjected to abuse, virtual servitude to the wealthy and abjectly revered Bergs, and mind-control techniques much like those described by escapees from Scientology, Krishna Consciousness, Rajneeshism and the Moonies:
One ex-member says "You are always in a status of worthlessness. You don't sleep right; you are zero spiritually, you don't have a moment to think about what they tell you. Then you transfer to the stage of parroting: you take all the sentences they tell you and tell them to yourself." Some who have left compare their time after leaving the center to "rehabilitation from drugs." So "painful [an] experience that it brought some to thoughts of suicide." One former member claimed going "cold turkey" on "Bergism" is " worse than drugs."
Former members speak of abject obedience and servitude. They say the Bergs decide "everything connected to the lives of the crew, who marries who, who separates, who leaves the country and goes to another branch, and when he is to be transferred even from there. [Berg] is asked whether it is permissible to become pregnant, and Karen [Berg] is asked how to have sexual relations." One former follower admits, "I felt it was a great mitzvah [meritorious act] for me to clean Karen's washrooms. I used to clean her slippers with a toothbrush."
Celebrity devotees, on the other hand -- including Roseanne Barr, Elizabeth Taylor, David Beckham and Posh Spice, Winona Ryder, Paris Hilton, Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher and Britney Spears, according to a 2004 Enquirer article -- are "treated royally," in exchange for lavish financial contributions and, of course, their PR power: priceless. (Mick Jagger's ex Jerry Hall balked at being expected to pressure wealthy friends to donate a tenth of their income.)
One of the more amusing allegations on Ross's website is that Karen Berg -- "once 'introduced to Barbara Streisand as "the real Yentl,"'" and soon to publish GOD WEARS LIPSTICK, another product of the fantastically prolific Kabbalah Publishing book factory ("twenty new titles in less than a year") -- has had extensive cosmetic surgery. "God Gets Facelifts"?
Moral of the story: if something gives you the creeps, there's a good chance there are creeps involved.
UPDATE: Read Yossi Klein Halevi's 2004 exposé of the Kabbalah Centre at Jewish World Review (originally from The New Republic). "The Centre doesn't merely trivialize Kabbalah; it inverts its intention. . . . Where Kabbalah's goal is to transcend this world, the Centre's goal is to master it . . . and ensure total human control over creation." The ultimate, oh so Hollywood goal (are you ready?): Physical immortality! Now that beats facelifts!
And here's the last word on the red string.
UPDATE II, 1/17/05: Not only can Kabbalah deathproof you, according to these hucksters -- it could even have Nazi-proofed you:
[O]ne of the [Kabbalah Centre's] leaders reportedly blamed Jews for their fate in the holocaust. The six million who were killed at the hands of the Nazis died because they weren’t practicing Kabbalah, Rabbi Eliyahu Yardeni, a Kabbalah Centre teacher told a BBC investigator in a report schedule to air on Thursday.
“Just to tell you another thing about the six million Jews that were killed in the Holocaust. The question was that the Light was blocked. They didn’t use Kabbalah,” Rabbi Yardeni told the BBC reporter."
Yardeni is allegedly "very close" with Madonna.