Showbiz lost souls buy into cult

Allan Hall on a magnet for the poor, lost souls of Hollywood

The Scotsman/December 26, 1997
By Allan Hall

Hollywood and its denizens have a new cult. They've all gone ga-ga over an obscure branch of Judaism called "kabbalah". While it sounds like a Cairo street-snack, kabbalah is a magnet for the poor, lost souls of showbiz - a tribe which has never yet met a fad it didn't like.

Jewish converts to the gospel as preached by Rabbi Philip Berg include Roseanne, Elizabeth Taylor, A-list talent manager Sandy Gallin, Hollywood records-and-movies mogul David Geffen, Jeff Goldblum, Barbra Streisand, Laura Dern, Sandra Bernhard and Courtney Love.

Christians joining the flock include that well-known Mother Superior of Perpetual Indulgence Madonna and former Dallas beauty Linda Gray, formerly a devotee of "Channelling" - the practice of speaking with a long-dead warrior called Ramtha for thousands of pounds a time, which now seems to be out of vogue.

Rick Ross, a well-known cult-watcher in America who charts quasi-religious groups for parents who have lost loved ones to groups like the Moonies and Scientology, is worried by the rise of kabbalah.

Kabbalah is defined in the New Standard Jewish Encyclopaedia as "the mystical religious stream in Judaism" that seeks fundamental truths about man, God and creation. It is based on the Zohar Text, a 2,000-year-old tract which supposedly unlocks the Bible "code" and was once the preserve of ultra-orthodox Jews who spent their lives in study.

Critics say what Madonna and the others get is "McKabbalah" - a fast-food version with tasty soundbites without the years of intense study or a bedrock knowledge of Judaism in the first place. That hasn't stopped the material girl from throwing her Hollywood home open for a candlelit kabbalah ball in which intense young things read enlightening pieces from their new gurus while drinking non-alcoholic beverages. She claims it is the "only thing that has ever truly spoken to me".

Ross, who has charted the rise and rise of Rabbi Berg's group, says it is a cult of personality, centred on the rabbi and his wife, Karen. "The methodology is divide and rule," Ross quotes a former kabbalah disciple as saying.

"Karen decides everything. If, for example, she sees that there is too great a love between a couple and this threatens her, she knows how to separate the couple and she always wins."

Phillip Abramowitz of the Task Force on Missionaries and Cults, a project of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, says he has "talked with people who claimed their marriages have ended because of kabbalah pressure." Rabbi Bentzioni Kravitz of the Jews for Judaism group in New York, a body opposed to missionary work among Jews, says: "One woman told me she was convinced by kabbalah members she was possessed by an evil spirit." Rabbi Kravitz urged her to return books and pamphlets to the centre and wash her hands of them. "Then shortly afterwards I was surrounded by kabbalah members who yelled at me and spat on me," he says. "This is not religion."

Rabbi Chaim Solomon, who works at the Kabbalah Learning Centre in Los Angeles, says: "I guess you could say it has hit the market. There is an upsurge in spiritualism because we are entering a new cosmic age and the kabbalah is particularly popular with celebrities because they have realised the age-old truth that money and stardom together do not buy happiness."

Kabbalah has taken off in Israel, London and New York its leader Rabbi Berg assumes the mantle of a persecuted Jew under Nazism when confronted with the more-negative aspects of what he peddles.

"We have heard this stuff before, about breaking up marriages and the like," says Bataya Solomon, a spokeswoman for the group's L.A. base. "I could call up someone now and say Karen told me to hang myself in the bathroom and they would put it on the Internet.

Bataya Solomon, a spokeswoman for the group's LA base, defends it against charges of wrecking marriages. "The stuff they say about us in not true. And "We would never get involved in people's marriages. People sometimes wrongly blame the centre for divorce."

So why does mainstream Judaism pour such scorn on a branch of the diaspora which, after all, is still selling the core product to a spiritually-bereft congregation?

Rabbi Robert Kirschner, of the Los Angeles Jewish Cultural Centre, says: "It is meant for people who want simplistic answers to the world's problems."

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