Some two hundred years ago, just as Jewish emancipation was moving into high gear, Judaic scholars developed a new concept called “mainstream Judaism.” (Classical Hebrew has no way to express such a notion.) The “mainstream” was created in order to exclude anything that modern westernizing Jews might find embarrassing in Judaism. This meant, first and foremost, the entire mystical tradition.
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Now, two centuries later, Jews are scrambling to reclaim this lost part of our legacy. Many factors come together to create this resurgence of interest in kabbala and Hasidism. The general Western quest for exoteric spiritual truths, the effect of the Gershom Scholem-led academic effort to make the sources accessible, and the unique character of Jewish history in the past 70 years have all played a role. Few people doubt any more that great power and profundity are to be found within these texts and traditions; the 19th-century notion that the kabbalists were mere obscurantists, “rebels against the light” of reason, has been mostly set aside.
The question is not whether, but how, to reclaim this part of our heritage. What is the best of the kabbala’s teaching, and what might well be left behind? How do we retool a religious language conceived in the Middle Ages to inspire the religious lives of contemporary seekers?
Philip Berg, founder of the Kabbalah Centers, who died last week in Los Angeles, had a clear answer to those questions. It turns out, Berg discovered, that modern Western people, living in a seemingly skeptical and enlightened age, are just as frightened and insecure as our ancestors were back in the ghettos and mellahs of centuries ago. They will tie red threads around their wrists, drink specially blessed bottles of “kabbala water,” and buy sets of books they cannot read, all as talismans against the evil eye.
This most popular level of kabbala, verging close to magic, he also discovered, could be a great commercial success. Wrapped up in a garment of self-empowerment and personal growth teachings of the sort one can find in airport bookstores, and combined with a dose of enthusiastic new-age piety, it could be a source of endless seminars, retreats, and programs that people would pay hefty fees to attend.
Berg, an ordained Orthodox rabbi, was indeed a student of kabbala in a serious way. He came out of the school of Yehudah Leib Ashlag (1886-1955), a Polish Jew who settled in Jerusalem in the 1920s and revived what was left of the old, mostly Sephardic, kabbalistic heritage. He had some interesting ideas, including a tendency toward communism in his social views. His essential teaching is that we humans need to return energy to its single divine source, to become givers rather than receivers in the cosmic economy. It was this radiating of divine energy that kabbala was to help one achieve. But Ashlag dived headlong into the endlessly complex morass of latter-day kabbalistic symbolism, where the great ideas tended to get lost in the myriad details of the system.
Berg, a second-generation disciple of this school, saw a way to turn it into a self-help teaching. The more superstitious pieces, never much to Ashlag’s liking, were picked up from other kabbalists. Berg, with the help of his wife and sons, engaged in a tremendously successful marketing campaign and brought this heady brew to the attention of Hollywood personalities, among many others, capturing headlines that expanded their market ever farther. He scandalized Orthodox kabbalistic circles by opening his teachings to both women and gentiles, unheard of in their world. Critics assumed, however, that this bit of “liberalism” was mostly a commercial decision. His movement, perhaps getting beyond his own intent, even saw its form of kabbala as transcending Judaism altogether, becoming a religion of its own.
As the movement expanded and the commercial stakes grew higher, there were accusations of cultish behavior and mind control coming from former disciples who had left Berg’s circle. At the same time, there were others who claimed to have been helped by his teachings, to have found real religious community within the centers’ precincts, and to have attained great spiritual growth. Some said that Judaism was first made attractive to them through Berg’s approach and they then had moved on toward a deeper and more learned connection to the tradition. None of these claims can be ignored; religious movements are always complex in the effects they have on different personalities and people coming to them with different sets of needs.
In recent years, with Berg crippled by a stroke, the centers have also faced charges on the fiscal front and in general seem to have seen better days. Most of the Hollywood personalities have come and gone. In retrospect, it would be fair to say that while the Berg enterprise surely increased the fame of kabbala, and may have been beneficial to some seekers, it did not enhance the reputation of Jewish mysticism among the world’s spiritual traditions. Kabbala does indeed contain great wisdom and a proper popularization of its teachings could have much to say to our world. We denizens of the “first world” especially need to be taught that there are some worlds above us, and learn how to become givers rather than just receivers or consumers. Religion has no more urgent task. But the job still needs to be done, and without the commercialization and hucksterism that too often made it appear seamy rather than profound.
Arthur Green serves as rector of the Rabbinical School and professor of Jewish philosophy and religion at Hebrew College in Newton, Mass.