Michael Laitman
Michael Laitman. Photo by Nir Keidar
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Nir Kafri
An early morning lesson with Laitman. Photo by Nir Kafri
Tomer Appelbaum
The entrance to the Petah Tikva center, at 3 A.M. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum

Monday, last week. 2:15 A.M. A drab industrial building on Jabotinsky Road in Petah Tikva. Between Shahaf washing machine parts and Gaya Rooms for Rent by the Hour lies the modest entrance to the main building of the Kabbalah Laam organization. In less than an hour, the daily lecture by Michael Laitman would begin, and the parking lot was already buzzing. A stream of men of all ages, religious and secular, began to arrive; most swiped a magnetic card at the entrance.

“It opens the door and also transmits a report to the person at the computer as to who arrived when,” a former member of the group will explain later. “Ten minutes after the lesson begins, the guy in charge calls those who didn’t show up. Many of the people are woken by the phone call and come, others give excuses, some don’t answer, and others get yelled at by their wives, because the whole family gets woken up.”

The guard at the door nods in welcome to the arrivals. Day in and day out, 365 days a year, in every season and all kinds of weather, they come. Around 200 men, sometimes more. Two floors of offices and classrooms, rows of faucets and hot water urns for coffee and tea, a large study hall where the lessons are held and broadcast live on TV and online. And there is also a large roof, with an array of fitness equipment, chairs and a smoking area overlooking a typical local, urban landscape.

“Isn’t it hard to get up at this hour every night?” I ask a young man who’s been part of the group for more than a decade.

“You get used to it,” he replies.

“And what happens in the morning, when you have to go to work?” I press him.

“Luckily, I don’t start work until 11,” he says with a smile. “But there are people who just go to bed early − at 9 P.M.”

Women do not show up; they watch the lessons from home. “We come here to study and you have to be able to concentrate,” explains the young man, explaining graphically the kind of distraction a female presence might cause. He himself met his wife through Kabbalah Laam. “If it hadn’t been that way, it would have been hard,” he says. “I’d have to explain it all to her, involve her in it, too.”

Like many of the people here, this young man plans to move closer to this area. It’s 2:45 and he hurries to get a good seat in the main hall. The photographer and I follow. We leave our bags at the entrance to the room like all the other students.

But then Avihu Sofer, a prominent Kabbalah Laam activist, arrives. “Come outside,” he says to us, and escorts us out of the building. This is a kabbala organization − and a sign is hanging at the entrance for the “Arevut Movement,” whose aim, says its website, is “to put the value of mutual responsibility at the center of the public discourse in Israeli society” − and everyone is ostensibly welcome, but not the photographer or me.

“You were not invited here,” Sofer says, and turns to go back inside. Before disappearing, he turns around for a moment and says: “Don’t you have anything better to do at 3 A.M.?”

Kabbalah Laam, founded by Michael Laitman, is dedicated to the teaching and dissemination of kabbala. The organization is run by a nonprofit association called Bnei Baruch, founded in 1997. In the United States, Canada and Germany, there are sister organizations of Bnei Baruch, under the same name. Kabbalah Laam has one major competitor for the hearts of believers: the Kabbalah Center founded by Shraga Berg, whose most famous student is the singer Madonna.

At Kabbalah Laam one also finds some local celebrities, including singer Arkadi Duchin and actor Sasha Damidov. According to the book, “Kabbalah for Beginners” ‏(in Hebrew‏), put out by the Bnei Baruch organization, “the wisdom of kabbala” can provide the answers to questions like “What is my purpose in this world? What does the future hold? And, how can one avoid unnecessary anguish and achieve tranquillity and confidence?”

Kabbala, says the book, “gives a person the ability to ask any question and arrive at the inner, personal experience that will give him the full answer ... There are precise, genuinely scientific explanations here for how to achieve that supreme feeling of boundless pleasure and to gain total control over the course of your life...

Rabbi Michael Laitman, the student and personal aide of Rabbi Baruch Ashlag, is the one who teaches us how to properly understand the texts and, through them, to achieve the goal for which they were created.”

Though his followers call him “rabbi,” they acknowledge that Laitman never underwent ordination and that the title is mostly an honorific. The Kabbalah Laam website explains that in 1991, after the death of his mentor, Rabbi Ashlag ‏(known as the Rabash‏), “Rabbi Dr. Michael Laitman” − a professor of ontology, with a Ph.D. in philosophy and kabbala and a master’s of science in bio-cybernetics − founded Bnei Baruch, naming it after his teacher, “whose side he never left in the final 12 years of his life, from 1979-1991. Dr. Laitman was Ashlag’s prime student, personal assistant and is recognized as the successor of Rabash’s teaching method.”

Ashlag was the eldest son of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag ‏(aka Ba’al Hasulam‏), author of “Hasulam” ‏(“The Ladder”‏), a commentary on the Book of Zohar. According to the website, Kabbalah Laam bases its lessons and activities on the teachings of these two great spiritual leaders. In 1995, with the aim of sharing the wisdom of kabbala with all, Laitman founded his organization.

Bnei Baruch was established mainly by immigrants from the former Soviet Union, but in recent years its activity has expanded to other sectors of Israeli society. Shai Ben-Tal, a doctoral student in Jewish philosophy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has been researching it for several years.

“According to Bnei Baruch, kabbala is the natural heir of science,” he explains. “Traditional science has reached the end of the road, and the time has come for a new scientific method to take its place on the stage of history and lead humanity to the final stage in its progress.”

Tomer Persico, an expert on new religious movements in Israel who has been monitoring the organization’s activity for some years and writing about it on his site ‏(tomerpersico.com‏), estimates that it currently has 50,000 local followers.

“Bnei Baruch,” he says, “is the most successful new religious movement in Israel. They present a popular adaptation of the kabbala of Rabbi Ashlag, which stresses the community ethos on the one hand and the internal transformative process on the other, as ways of getting closer to the godliness they identify with the universe itself. In addition, they are motivated by a totalitarian messianic vision that envisions, in the not-too-distant future, a government of kabbalists who cannot be challenged.”

Many followers get up to listen to the daily lesson by Laitman at the Petah Tikva center between 3:10-6 A.M., which is also broadcast live on the Internet and on Channel 66, launched by his organization.

In the broadcasts, Laitman, with a trim beard, wearing a starched white shirt and black jacket, a thick book open before him, lectures to and answers questions from the all-male audience. He doesn’t seem to exude much charisma.

Furthermore, to anyone unfamiliar with this discourse, some of it is liable to sound rather impenetrable. For example: “What is absence?” asked a student at the lesson on February 8.

“It’s a lack of connection,” replies Laitman. “It’s me searching for what you’re lacking and you searching for what I’m lacking, so we’re connected. Solely in this way. A connection means I am connected to what you’re lacking and you are connected to what I am lacking. Each one is connected to the heart of the other. I know from the start that you want a connection with the Creator. That is: What is a Creator? The power of love. You want to arrive at the connection to love. Love is called the whole connection, the full connection. Such a full connection that there is a real mutual connection between the two of them. You know there is a ‘mutation’ in the connection in sparkplugs, that exactly fit each other. As if they make one whole, as if they’re one. What one is missing matches what the other is missing. Male on this side, female on the other side. There is this kind of absence and that kind of absence, and they connect and complement one another.”

Answering every question

Avihu Sofer, who has been with Laitman from the start, is one of Kabbalah Laam’s most prominent activists and spokesmen. When we meet the day before the visit to the movement’s center, he is friendly and articulate. Like other people at the organization, he repeats his messages; there is no hint of doubt. These people clearly feel the need to spread what they refer to as “the wisdom of kabbala.”

Sofer says that at first there were just a few dozen students, but now Laitman has approximately two million followers around the world ‏(the number of people registered on the Kabbalah Laam website‏). He says there are hundreds of thousands in the United States and Europe, fewer in South America, and about 50,000-80,000 in Israel, which is the organization’s “spiritual center.” He says there are also students in the Palestinian Authority, Turkey, Iran and even some Ukrainian neo-Nazis who saw the light after they came across the group’s website .

“The wisdom of kabbalah is ancient, 3,500 years old for certain,” says Sofer. “One day, Abraham discovered his Creator ... [and had] a need to discover some kind of spiritual reality beyond ... Then he began a kind of quest for the self. This process continues and at some stage a certain wisdom develops that gathers people around the idea of ‘Love they neighbor as thyself.’ The understanding is that only through proper relationships with people can we achieve the revelation of the power that we call ‘the Creator.’ The Creator in kabbala wisdom is not God sitting on some cloud, but a spiritual power, a spiritual trait that we call the trait of influence, the trait of giving.

“All of us human beings have within us the power through a common process that we build together, to rise above our personal egoism, which is continually pushing us to focus just on our own pleasure. How do we do this? By means of a very orderly and organized learning process that has been led by the kabbalists for years ... Now egoism has reached such a level where either we’ll destroy ourselves together − and we see that the world is advancing toward this quite well − or we find a way to rise above the personal egoism in each of us and to build proper relations here. This is what every student of the ‘wisdom of kabbala’ aspires to.”

Says Gilad Shadmon, another prominent student of Laitman’s and a long-time member of the organization: “I see that the spreading of the ‘wisdom of kabbala’ does good wherever we reach and encourages the values of love for one’s fellow man. We see that the study of the wisdom of kabbala opens people up and makes them very sensitive, especially in terms of interpersonal relations. The fact that our activity has been growing and expanding from year to year shows that the world today needs this. In a world in which everyone is butting heads and searching for one another, we believe that the good will come and that we will know how to cooperate and to achieve a feeling of security for every person in the society in which he lives.”

Prof. Moshe Idel of the Hebrew University, a senior scholar at the Hartman Institute and an Israel Prize laureate in Jewish philosophy, is not impressed. “I don’t know what he’s doing and I’m not sure anyone really understands it,” he says in regard to Laitman. “In academia, there are assumed to be many types of kabbala. Kabbala has a history, and there are disagreements and debates, while for him it is one clear, unified thing. We are trying very hard to understand and he already has.”

How close is their description of kabbala to what you know of it?

Idel: “Minimally close. Historically, I do not accept that it is related to Abraham and all of those stories. It’s a much later phenomenon. Of course, you can find in the kabbala discussions of proper relationships, but there are other things that are much more important and don’t appear here [in the teachings of Laitman]at all, such as the emphasis on the uniqueness of the Jewish people, and on the imperative to be fruitful and multiply.”

What is the difference between the various organizations that teach kabbala?

“Each of these organizations presumes that there is just one kabbala and that it is the master of it. Kabbala varies among the organizations, but they share the belief that there is one clear doctrine and that it can be imparted to people.”

What do you think of these movements that attract hundreds of thousands of believers?

“I’m not sure that these people are believers. People stay there for a time and then go on their way. People by nature are searching for meaning. Once upon a time they went to yoga, and now they go to this ‘supermarket.’”

They say that if we don’t use the wisdom of kabbala, we’re lost.

“You think it will help? If that’s what it depends on, then I’m not too optimistic.”

To repair the world

Many organizations would be happy to be where Bnei Baruch is sitting financially. According to its most recent financial report, for 2010, it recorded a net profit of NIS 2.5 million. The year before, it was NIS 1.1 million. Income for 2010 stood at NIS 21 million ‏(a significant increase over 2009’s total of NIS 13.5 million‏). A large part of this sum, nearly NIS 10 million, came from donations, and the rest from other sources: more than NIS 6.5 million from income from conferences in Israel and abroad, about NIS 1.7 million from the sale of books and tapes, and about NIS 1.5 million from the facilities the organization runs, in which it offers lessons and courses for payment.

Expenses also jumped in 2010: NIS 6.7 million was spent on overhead, compared to NIS 3.4 million the year before. The cost of the various events produced by Bnei Baruch came to NIS 3.9 million, while the printing of books and the broadcast of lessons on the Kabbalah Laam channel cost the foundation NIS 3.7 million. But income far outpaced expenses, leaving NIS 2.5 million in the organization’s coffers.

Despite the nice profits made by this nonprofit group, the sums received by Bnei Baruch in the form of what it calls “grants and donations” was quite modest: Just NIS 23,000 in 2010 and NIS 50,000 in 2009. Fundraising abroad was on a smaller scale: The American branch of Bnei Baruch ‏(where Michael Laitman’s son Uri Laitman is one of the directors‏) raised $470,000 in 2011, a decrease of $200,000 from the previous year. The Canadian branch, of which the younger Laitman is also a member, raised $145,000 in 2010.

Donors to the Israeli organization are divided into two main groups. The first are affluent people with ties to the movement’s activity in Israel or abroad, who contribute sums of as much as hundred of thousands of shekels a year ‏(in 2010, Leonid Makaron, a millionaire from Russia, made the largest single donation, of a half-million shekels‏). The second group consists of smaller donors, including local activists, who are asked to contribute maaser − a tithe amounting to one-tenth of their salary as a donation. The Kabbalah Laam website explains: “Maaser is a physical means to bond with other souls. Even if you don’t give it any serious thought or special intention, it still works! A person’s soul is said to comprise 10 parts called eser sefirot [10 attributes through which God manifests himself]. In his spiritual work a person ‘draws light’ with which he can correct nine parts of his soul ‏(the first nine sefirot‏), and through them feel the Upper Abundance. However, in the tenth part of his soul, sefirat malchut [kingship], a person cannot receive the Abundance, until he reaches gmar tikkun [literally, the end of correction, repair] − the final stage in which all the other souls are corrected. This is why kabbalists set the terms for paying maa0ser from the very beginning of the wisdom of kabbala.

“If we wish to be in congruence with the bestowal of the Upper Force upon us, we must decide that from the Abundance we receive in this world we will use only nine-tenths for personal ‏(physical‏) needs, and allocate one-tenth for the benefit of humanity, for the correction of the world.”

‘What are you afraid of?’

Kabbalah Laam comprises various committees, dealing with social, absorption-related, financial matters and so on. The main core − called “the inner group” or “the community” by insiders − is estimated to number 300-400 people. These are the people who come every day, in the middle of the night, to the Petah Tikva center to hear Laitman’s talks. Most live as close by as possible, in Petah Tikva. They are also the ones who keep up the “project” of disseminating the group’s kabbala doctrine. Those who work for this project receive a relatively low salary of a few thousand shekels a month.

Last year, a major lawsuit was submitted in Tel Aviv District Court against Bnei Baruch and several members of the organization. The plaintiffs, Ronen and Sigal Dabach, who claimed they were members for more than seven years and belonged to the inner sanctum, asked the court to order the organization to pay them NIS 5 million in damages for alleged copyright violations.

Ronen Dabach described how he established a band called Hador Ha’aharon ‏(The Last Generation‏) to help spread Bnei Baruch’s ideas. He claimed that several band members and the movement pushed him away and stole his copyright.

Beyond the copyright issues, the complaint also gives an unflattering picture of Bnei Baruch’s activity: “In this episode, [the organization] acted in a violent, aggressive and extortionist manner,” say the plaintiffs, adding that members of Bnei Baruch “are completely subject to the group’s authority and decisions, and live in a kind of bubble that is almost completely cut off from the familiar lifestyle of the ordinary citizen ... Bnei Baruch has codes of behavior and rules that do not go hand in hand with the laws of the State of Israel.”

The Dabachs charge that the group’s officials serve as a spiritual authority for the followers, who respond to their influence and decisions “in a nearly blind manner.” The couple’s case is currently being heard in Tel Aviv District Court.

Similar things were said by others who have left Bnei Baruch. Na’ama ‏(not her real name‏) and her husband were part of the inner group in the last decade. “This place left us with a very bitter taste,” she says. “Everything is ‘the rabbi said, the rabbi said.’ There’s fear and we were unable to make even the smallest decisions.”

Na’ama says her husband immigrated to Israel after meeting her at a Bnei Baruch seminar abroad. In Israel he became part of the inner circle, where he was exposed to things that made him uncomfortable. For one thing, she says, “he wanted there to be more transparency in the organization.” The response was not long in coming, she adds. “They just ostracized him. We lived in the same place [as other organization members − U.B.], and they stopped saying hello to him in the street.” The couple subsequently left the group, and Na’ama says, “It took a long time for our wounds to heal.”

Noam ‏(not his real name‏), in his early twenties, was a member of the inner group for two and a half years, until 18 months ago. Among that circle, he says, “there is a sense of community, a lot of discussion and a desire to solve all kinds of things. I think it’s the only place that offers a genuine solution to what’s happening in the world.” But in the same breath, he goes on to say, “I can agree with opponents of the organization who say that it creates some kind of doubt and fear.”

What do you mean?

Noam: “They deal with things that a lot of people try to run away from in their day-to-day lives: confronting the self, confronting a certain truth. Not everyone is cut out for it, and I wasn’t. I came out with a lot of hard feelings.”

Do people get to situations where they’re emotionally unstable?

“I came out of there in a mental crisis, but I think it has to do with the way I relate to things. Each person sees things his own way and takes them differently.”

Other evidence of this fear could be seen in the answers given to a question distributed to members two weeks ago: “What is most important to you in life?! What do you fear most?!” Many wrote about losing the connection with the group: “For me the group is the only life-raft! My big fear is losing the connection with it and to thereby lose the opportunity of a connection with the Creator,” wrote one respondent.

“I’m most afraid of being cut off from the group, of being thrown off the path and losing the sense of importance of the mission. I’m also very afraid that I’m not succeeding in giving my all to thinking about society at every moment, and thus am preventing the group from reaching the goal,” another woman wrote.

Making mistakes

In 2006, members of the inner community received an email from a member of Kabbalah Laam ‏(who is not part of the administration‏) who still sends out frequent updates on activities. This one came with an attachment entitled “Regulations for members of Bnei Baruch,” listing various rules of behavior. But no one was asked to sign the document and it was not presented to them as an official document of the organization.

The document is also mentioned in Ben-Tal’s research; Bnei Baruch people say Ben-Tal has done the most serious study of the group. The following rules appear: “The view of the group ranks supreme; once the group has made a decision, it is better to be mistaken together with the group than to be right alone; it is incumbent upon each person to defend the group and himself from other ‘spiritual’ movements and their like, and if someone deviates from the group’s path, he must inform the members immediately and the members must help him return to the path; a member who sees another member violating the group’s rules, the rules of mutual responsibility, is obliged to report this to the group committee or court. If he does not do so, he is a party to the violation, and if the group finds out about this, he shall be treated in accordance with the group’s rules;

“One is not to participate in or accept any other ‘spiritual’ direction; one is not to read any material other than that which is accepted in the group; one is not to listen to another rabbi; monthly maaser payments and all other obligatory payments ‏(maintenance costs, food, etc.‏) must be paid on time! If there is a financial problem, one must contact the social aid department; to be married; to participate in the members’ meetings; to participate in all group events, and activities and joint meals; to take part in Shabbat and holiday activities; To read the article by cell phone at 1:45 P.M.; to go to bed no later than 9:30 P.M.; to read a section [of kabbala] at bedtime; to be careful not to offend the rabbi, the group and the path of the Ba’al Hasulam and Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag; not to leave the study hall during the lesson with the sole exception of the need to use the restroom; those sitting at the central table and in front of the cameras are not to leave at all;

“When the rabbi begins to speak, to cease all other talk and to listen; singing begins and ends only at the signal from the rabbi or the member responsible for this; no foreign literature is to be brought into the Bnei Baruch center except for dissemination purposes; no forms of media that are unedited and uncensored ‏(video, audio, texts, etc‏.) to outside parties ...”

Former members of Kabbalah Laam with whom Haaretz spoke confirmed that they received this document by email, and said it did reflect in general the way things worked in the organization at the time. Contacted two weeks ago, representatives from Kabbalah Laam wished to make clear that the organization has no official, binding regulations and that they are not responsible for materials disseminated by other parties of their own accord.

Harmful to children

Members of Bnei Baruch receive an email almost daily from the organization, from someone called “BB Pnimi.” These messages show what sort of terminology the movement uses and offer a glimpse of what goes on inside. An email sent two weeks ago, for example, warns: “Spiritual emergency! Dear member! Sage of the generation! We are in a time of emergency! Members of the weekly spiritual committee. We tried and tried to think of how we are as a society. We cannot escape the feeling that we are truly ‏(!‏) in a time of emergency demanding unification among us!!”

Three weeks ago, community members received a letter concerning Laitman’s trip to a conference in Ukraine, which attests to the very close relationship between him and his followers: “The teacher traveled there deliberately not to pressure the students in a material way, because so far they see the materialism and do not yet see the inner world,” the letter began, quoting Laitman himself.

“And when the teacher is physically far away, they must strive to act as if there is no distance, and this can only happen by likening the spiritual form, for then the nearness is spiritual. And he feels that he hasn’t gone away from them, for he certainly has nothing to do with distance and time, since he is connected with them of himself, just as the Creator is connected with all of us, but not us with Him. And therefore, the group has its work to do here.”

Besides such updates and instructions, BB Pnimi also reports on troubling incidents. “A letter to the community from the spiritual directorate” − that was the heading of an email sent out a few months ago. It revealed that a group of six women affiliated with the movement had created their own group with strict rules, some of which they also applied to their children.

“For some time now, a number of women who were members of the community have decided not to respect the rules of behavior expected from members of the community and the group,” it said. “These women [the names are listed − U.B.] have created for themselves and their children a separate and closed group within the society, using propaganda with the aim of establishing their group and its rules of behavior. Some of the women have also made it a custom to wake their young children every night to watch the morning lessons ...

“Obviously this is unacceptable, non-normative behavior that is harmful both to the children and to the group’s image. Such behavior should be denounced and uprooted. Therefore, a decision has been made to ban the continued participation of these women and their children in the community’s activities, without exception. This applies both to physically coming to the center, participating in classes, meals, conferences, trips and so on. A message to this effect was already sent and received by the women ... It is important to note that there is no restriction on the continued activity of their husbands within the group’s framework.”

Haaretz managed to contact two of the women cited in the letter. One said she was not familiar with the matter and requested that we “write nice things.” The second declined to comment and hung up.

Responses from Bnei Baruch

Regarding the rabbinic title of Rabbi Laitman: Rabbi Laitman is not an ordained rabbi. He does not engage in running religious services of any type. The title “rabbi” connoting a great and important person in the field of the wisdom of kabbala was given to him by his students who view him this way. This matter is explained on the Kabbalah Laam website in the section entitled “About Rabbi Laitman” and is cited in other public statements made by the association.

Regarding the increase in Bnei Baruch’s profit: This is not profit. We are a nonprofit organization and therefore this is surplus income beyond expenses for that calendar period. At the end of 2011, the surplus decreased again to less than a million, and is used for ongoing activity. Please note that the organization’s funds are used solely for the sake of its goals. Such a surplus is very low in relation to the organization’s regular activity − it makes the activity possible and does not continue to accumulate. The association’s use of the funds and its bookkeeping is continually overseen by the organization’s accountant, an internal auditor, a financial director, an oversight committee, the board and the registrar of nonprofit organizations. In addition, the organization has been given confirmation of proper administration by the registrar of nonprofit organizations.

Regarding the “regulations document” sent to organization members: Bnei Baruch has a set of regulations that appears and is published by the registrar of nonprofit organizations. This is the only set of regulations to which it is bound. Throughout the 17 years of its existence, there have been many initiatives on the part of students to put together a range of additional regulations. Not one of these initiatives was ever adopted by Bnei Baruch as an official or unofficial version, and they were all rejected by its administration.

Regarding the Dabachs’ lawsuit: This is a legal proceeding that is currently pending in court and a detailed defense brief was submitted rebuffing each and every claim, and the untruthful assertions of the Dabach family. Ronen Dabach is someone who has made a habit of making false statements and inciting against the organization because he and his family were banned from its various study frameworks due to violent and outrageous behavior on his part, for which a court restraining order was also requested and issued. The organization is currently preparing a libel claim against various publications and statements made by the Dabach couple.

Regarding the group of women who were expelled: Bnei Baruch invites every person to come and study. In very rare cases when we are unable to alter a person’s behavior, situations may arise in which the person is expelled from the study framework. In light of the fact that the information in our possession was no more than rumor, we did not feel it was our role to contact the welfare authorities.