If Philip Berg Was a Con Man, He Had Company in Israel

And the local kabbala masters have not only money, but political power, too.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Last Shabbat I attended the morning service at a Reform synagogue near London. As the rabbi, a popular and talented orator well-known in British Jewry, stood up to deliver his drasha, he surprised the congregation by pulling out a copy of The Times from earlier in the week and presenting its obituary section. There on a full page along with the photograph of the deceased, and of the singer Madonna, was the life story of Rabbi Philip Berg, founder of the Kabbalah Centre who passed away three weeks ago in Los Angeles. Our rabbi in a few pithy sentences excoriated Berg for leading a sect and for taking advantage of his followers for his own personal gain, and then devoted the rest of his sermon to the more traditional fare of glowing praise for the bar mitzvah boy in whose honor we had gathered, and his parents.

I’m not sure what astonished me more: That the rabbi felt that even in his small and intimate community in the leafy Home Counties, he has to remain vigilant lest some of his flock become attracted to the mystical, and expensive, comforts of Berg-style kabbala, or that as a prominent leader of a religious stream still regarded by most Orthodox and even a few secular Jews as a perversion of “true” Judaism and, from their perspective, certainly no better than Berg and his acolytes, he would seek to ostracize them himself.

On second thought, however, I fear I was being unfair to the rabbi. He and Reform Judaism don’t need anyone’s kashrut certificate to assert themselves and express an opinion on the legitimacy of other groups. Indeed, as a leader of a community, it is probably his duty to issue a warning. Actually, the more I think about it, Reform Judaism, based as it is on rationality and modernity, along with tradition, is on much safer ground when it comes to criticizing the Kabbalah Centre than most of Jewish Orthodoxy.

The list of objections to the cult that was cultivated by Philip and Karen Berg is long, and in many ways what you choose to object to reflects on your sense of priority. Over the decades he was vilified by the Orthodox for, in their view, perverting the ancient and sacred texts, propagating a version of Judaism that was totally detached from Torah and the observance of mitzvot, and opening up kabbala to women and non-Jews. From the perspective of the progressive streams, the commercialization of belief with $26 holy red strings and the allegations of corruption and brainwashing are of more concern. Without empirically researching this, my impression is that in recent years, the Orthodox have been less bothered with Berg; at least I haven’t seen any of the notices and proclamations against him in the Haredi media that used to appear 15 years ago. It seems that for them he was so far beyond the pale, the goings-on of Ashton Kutcher and Lindsay Lohan so out of their ken, that they may as well have bothered about a tribe of Martians. But the assumption on their part that the Kabbalah Centre has as much to do with Judaism as the Church of Scientology has with Christianity is wrong and self-serving.

Beverly Hills socialites, Negev poor

I’m not equipped in any way to judge the authenticity of any strand of kabbalism, but Philip Berg was not only ordained an Orthodox rabbi, he studied in Israel with the followers of Rabbi Yehuda Leib Ashlag (including his son, Rabbi Baruch Ashlag), probably the most noted modernizer of kabbala and a man who remained a respected figure in ultra-Orthodoxy all his life. While Berg obviously played fast and loose with the knowledge he received, his was an outgrowth of the modern kabbala movement, perhaps most accurately described by the brilliant researcher of Jewish sects, Dr. Tomer Persico, as “neo-kabbala.” If Berg’s sin was to transform the ancient scripts into a money-making machine, how was he different from the mekubbalim, the kabbalistic rabbis, of the Kaduri, Abuhatzeira, Batzri, Ifergan and Pinto clans who have also amassed hundreds of millions of shekels in Israel and abroad? Berg may have fleeced wealthy socialites in Beverly Hills, but the Israeli “sages” have not only made their fortunes from credulous financiers like the now disgraced Nochi Dankner, but mainly from hundreds of thousands of believers from the bottom of the socioeconomic scale, spending their meager funds on amulets, holy water and muttered incantations.

Like any other self-help, New Age guru, Berg could probably have claimed to have brought some calm and sense of purpose to troubled people’s souls, whereas the mekubbalim have only served to perpetuate ignorance and superstition among the masses in Israel. And it’s not just money and countless individuals taken advantage of; in Israel they wield political power. Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri’s amulets and little plastic bottles of holy oil brought countless thousands of votes to Shas, with the reluctant blessing of its spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who personally abhors kabbalism. Secular politicians, including Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres, rushed to pay homage to Kaduri and other such soothsayers.

And lest we make the mistake of thinking this mumbo-jumbo is only the preserve of Mizrahi Jews hailing from Arab lands, we must ask how different to them and Berg are the religious settlers who perverted the gentle, poetic writings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, many of them based on kabbala, and turned them into a supremacist and territorial creed. And what about the Hasidic cults idol-worshipping the dead rabbis of Lubavitch and Breslav, their traditions also deeply rooted in kabbala. The Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, tried 240 years ago to ostracize the early Hasids because he feared the spiritual cult of holy men. He excommunicated them twice, but failed to curb their success. Today the Gaon’s successors, the “Lithuanian” rabbis, cooperate closely with Hasidic leaders within the same Knesset faction. Hasidim and Litvaks are only two more of the Jewish cults and sects that have been with us throughout history and were fighting it out for control over the Temple in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. Orthodox Jews are following today in the footsteps of one of those sects, the Pharisees; another splinter group broke away and evolved into Christianity.

Whether or not Philip Berg’s money-grubbing Kabbalah Centre cult will continue to prosper or disappear, now that he’s gone, is anyone’s guess. The real threat to Judaism however is much closer to home.

Worshippers of kabbala, or Jewish mysticism, at a conference in Tel Aviv. Credit: AP

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