If the center does not in fact teach kabbala, why would it want to send volumes of the Zohar, one of the basic texts of the kabbala, to the Jewish community of Iran? Rabbi Bar Tzadok finds the flaw in this picture in a procedure called "scanning." The center's students are encouraged to buy copies of the Zohar, an expensive purchase. They are told that just looking at the letters in the books, even without understanding the Aramaic language in which the Zohar is written, will enable the special light of the words to shine on them and fill their lives with good."
Rabbi Bar Tzadok says this is a farce: "Even Rabbi Ashlag said that the words must be spoken in practice, otherwise they have no power. They are contradicting their rabbi! You know what P.T. Barnum said - There's a sucker born every minute."
Much of the criticism that is leveled at The Kabbala Center by Jewish circles revolves around the fact that it allows gentiles and women to investigate the Zohar and the Book of Creation, contrary to ancient tradition. Rabbi Berg assails his critics and says their objections smack of insularity and hatred of women. He describes himself and his organization as pluralists in a sphere that is dominated by backward values. Bar Tzadok denies these allegations. According to the tradition, he explains, a non-Jew who observes the seven Noachian Laws and who is knowledgeable about Judaism may be made privy to the secret doctrine. Even Madonna may be found worthy of studying kabbala, he says, provided she improves her ways significantly and acquires a solid base in Judaism.
"All study of the kabbala must be based on firm foundations of Torah," Bar Tzadok says. "Kabbala is taught also at the Hebrew University [of Jerusalem, and that is legitimate, because it is done in depth. On the other hand, Berg's center provides the very opposite: easiness. As long as people are drawn to the easy way, he will have clients. Rabbi Chaim Vital, in his book "Etz Haim" (Tree of Life), says that everyone who studies kabbala must have a basis in pshat [the literal meaning of the Torah]. Why? Because it is an ancient religion? Because we want only Haredim [ultra-Orthodox Jews] to study it? Nonsense. The kabbala is part of Judaism, and in Judaism we have pardes, the `garden of knowledge,' an acronym standing for the traditional four methods of elucidating the Torah - pshat, literal; remez, allegorical; drash, homiletic; and sohd, esoteric. Pshat is the Torah as it is; remez is logic, what is latent in the words; and drash is what belongs to the heart. Sohd is what belongs to innerness, the true psychology of humankind."
Bar Tzadok illustrates by means of a story: "The Ba'al Shem Tov [founder of the Hasidic movement] relates that he once saw a person teaching kabbala and, having heard what he was saying, instructed him to stop teaching it. The man was amazed, and the Ba'al Shem Tov explained: You are teaching higher worlds, I teach interior worlds, and therefore you are tearing out what has been planted. The whole kabbala is a matter of tikkun [spiritual healing]. Making what right? Humankind. That is, psychology. And if a person is thrust into bad psychology, without understanding the underlying meaning of things, it is liable to cause him harm. That is the reason we hear about people who studied the kabbala and went mad."
The caution against dime-store psychology, which is liable to cause damage, recalls the accusations leveled at organizations that provide group therapy, New Age groups and groups identified as cults. The emotional exposure known as "auditing" in Scientology has been described by professionals as simplistic, reckless and dangerous to emotional stability. It is said to create in the "preclear" (in Scientology, "one who is not yet clear" about himself) a vulnerable state that forces him to develop a growing dependency on the organization. No allegations as serious as that have been hurled at the Kabbala Center to date. Nevertheless, it is interesting to consider the points of resemblance between it and Scientology, which is viewed as an organization that is competing for a similar target audience.
The resemblance is immediately apparent on the Internet sites of the two organizations. "What is Kabbala?" asks the one; while the other asks, "What is Scientology?" (www.scientology.org). This come-on, meant to pique one's curiosity, is apparently intended to encourage an initial financial investment with the aim of satisfying that curiosity. In the meantime, only the vaguest replies are provided. The Kabbala Center maintains that it has the key to a "miraculous source of power - that [can] totally heal and transform your life and genuinely change our world for the good - forever!" The Scientology site contains this utopian vision (quoting the organization's founder, L. Ron Hubbard): "A civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war - and where man is free to rise to greater heights."
Scientology, like the Kabbala Center, claims to be a kind of meta-religious religion, in which members of all faiths are invited to take part. It too enjoys successful marketing by means of Hollywood stars who are among its adherents. John Travolta and Tom Cruise disseminate Hubbard's doctrine of Dianetics. Kabbala adherents include Rosanne Bar and Demi Moore, in addition to Madonna. However, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, who were also affiliated with the Center for a time, are now apparently in a process of leaving.
But the two organizations share another, deeper, element as well. Both of them are disseminating the contents of esoteric texts that caused laymen who perused them to be threatened with death. Hubbard, the science fiction writer who conceived Scientology, warned that anyone who read a certain classified document without first having undergone all the preparatory courses that his organization offers (for payment, of course) would contract a serious illness and die. In a peculiar way, this recalls the Talmudic tale about the four brilliant sages who entered the pardes, for which three of them paid with their lives or their sanity. Deification of esoteric writings and the treat of divine punishment are two well-known ways to create awe in the minds of believers.
But the Kabbala Center reveals the secrets rather than hiding them. Its students are encouraged to peruse the Zohar without letup, without heeding the prohibitions and warnings that have always been associated with the book. On the face of it, this is a model of openness, worldliness and flexibility. What then prompted the New Jersey-based Rick A. Ross Institute, which studies "destructive cults, controversial groups and movements" (www.culteducation.com), to put out a whole library of material on the subject? True, the institute offers more than 700 articles on Scientology and only 109 about Berg's organization, but the Kabbala Center is today definitely in the sights of one of the leading experts on cults in America. And he has no hesitation in opening fire.
"I may be the first name in the Kabbala Center's hate list," says Rick Ross, smiling against the background of the Statue of Liberty, which is visible through the window of the office in which we met. "My name is way up there, in big black letters."
Ross is responsible for a widely read Internet text that assails the Kabbala Center, "Has Madonna Joined a Cult?" Ross skips obvious comparisons to other groups that are based on ancient religions, The Society for Krishna Consciousness and Christian Science, and zeroes in on Scientology. "Both of them seem to be very focused on money matters, always selling courses and products to their members," he says. "Another parallel is that a particular person is at the center of both organizations: in Scientology it's L. Ron Hubbard; in the Kabbala Center it's the `Rav,' who is known to most people as Philip Berg but whose original name is Feivel Gruberger. Both organizations disseminate the view that their founder is a pipeline to world enlightenment. That is a very specific indicator that one generally finds in organizations that are known as cults. In addition, in each group there is a position of full-time volunteer. In Scientology it's known as the `Sea Organization' and in the center as `hevra' (groups in Hebrew). These are the full-time workers devoted to the organization."
Ross tells about a British family who invited him to their home in order to help in what he calls "deprogramming" their daughter, who had been active within the "hevra" framework at the Kabbala Center in Los Angeles and was asked to return to Britain to assist at the opening of the organization's large branch in London. Back home, Ross says, she was alienated from her family, after not having seen them for two years. Nevertheless, she acceded to their importuning and joined them for a weekend in their rural cottage. There Ross was waiting for them. He introduced himself as an expert who had been invited by the family because of their concern at their daughter's emotional dependence on the organization.
"At first she was surprised, then angry, and then she wanted to run away. Her brother persuaded her to stay for one more hour, during which I showed her documents that in my opinion portray Rabbi Philip Berg as a liar and opportunist. One document is a New York financial disclosure document showing that he, as the president of the Kabbala Center in New York, essentially paid himself $2.5 million for intellectual property rights, for a period of 10 years regarding miscellaneous books and tapes, from the organization's coffers, as royalties for intellectual property. Ross also showed her a document signed by "Dr. Philip Berg." According to Ross, Berg does not have a recognized and accredited Ph.D., unless he received some sort of honorary title which is not known to the cult researcher. Gradually the English girl began to take Ross more seriously, until she finally left the center.
"When she left, all she had were the clothes on her back," Ross says. "She had no savings after two years of work. What she underwent is slavery. And yet at the same time the Berg family was busy building three multi-million dollar mansions. I find that very disturbing."
The fact that the girl left is all the more impressive in the light of what Ross describes as another common denominator between the Kabbala Center and Scientology: the implanting of fear. "The believers in both cases are made afraid of the situation of leaving. In Scientology the fear often is that the organization will do something that will hurt you, especially in the form of making use of material about your past that you divulged during your activity there. In the case of the Kabbala Center the fear is a lot less logical. It is the fear that leaving will generate some supernatural result, because membership in the center supposedly confers on you a supernatural protection that disappears if you leave, and so you are sucked into a kind of spiritual void."
Selling Judaism cheap and selling spirituality dear are serious accusations. What is the response of the Kabbala Center? Andy Behrman, a Los Angeles-based spokesman for the center, agreed to reply to questions by e-mail only. He addressed my questions two days later in a series of brief, laconic replies. The following is the text of the Q&A:
How do you respond to the allegation that the Center chose one aspect of Judaism that is easily marketable, divided it from Judaism at large and is marketing it for gain?
Behrman: "Kabbala teaches the practical aspects of Judaism and people are forced to make more effort."
What about the claim that Rabbi Ashlag himself said that the words of the Zohar have no power unless spoken aloud. If this is so, wouldn't that mean that "scanning" as a practice contradicts Rabbi Ashlag's teachings?
"Please refer to the Kavanot [mental intentions] for this answer. Also, scanning has existed for thousands of years. Not all names are read aloud (i.e. [sic] the names of angels)."
Isn't a deep understanding of "pshat" needed before one comes to study the kabbala? Aren't you offering a way that is too easy, as the quotation from Rabbi Chaim Vital about "selling easiness" indicates?
"Rabbi Chaim Vital was a student of Rav Ashlag. This couldn't be true."
The researcher of cults Rick Ross is especially concerned by the attitude toward the members of the "hevras." How do you respond to claims that members of the hevras are being manipulated into inadequately paid labor?
"The hevra is compensated approximately $3,200 for housing, living expenses and other incidentals. And by the way, only one out of four people who wants to be a hevra is accepted."
How do you regard comparisons between your organization and Scientology?
"Scientology is 50 years old. Kabbala is 4,000 years old. And we don't know what Scientology teaches."
"What can be done to ward off rumors that present the Kabbala Center as a cult? What is being done?
"Two thousand five hundred people showed up for the High Holy Days in Israel without a leader, Rav Berg. People in cults depend on the cult, people at Kabbala [Center] take responsibility for their lives."
What do you say to the allegation that the kabbala water you sell is produced by a Canadian spring water company? What is kabbala water and how is it unique?
"Kabbala water receives a meditation that changes the energy of it."
What about contentions that Rabbi Berg signed documents as "Dr." even though he is in fact not a doctor?
"Rav Berg does in fact have a doctorate."
Behrman was also asked in what field Rabbi Berg has a doctorate and which institution awarded it, but these questions, as well as a question asking for more elaboration on the way in which the "hevras" receive $3,200 a month, so far remained unanswered.
There is no hint of the tension surrounding the kabbala wars in the introductory lecture at the Center's Newton branch. Next to a sign advertising a series of courses under the heading "Spirituality for Children," a delicate incense stick is burning itself out and all is infused with a tranquil, twilight atmosphere. Avner Madar, the director, is speaking to an audience consisting of three young Israeli women who are here out of cautious curiosity, an elderly couple who were asked to come by their daughter's friends, who joined the organization, and this writer. Madar's delivery is fluent and he respects his listeners. Their questions are answered patiently and articulately.
Nevertheless, I am disappointed. I had wanted to bring my wife a souvenir, a small red bracelet against the evil eye. But then I discovered that it costs $26. For a smaller amount, you can buy a smaller bit of red string, as part of a greeting card with the inscription, "I love you, but not everyone does." To instill fear against the evil eye and then take money to help me ward it off? Not likely. But contrary to malicious rumors, Kabbala Water turned out to be pretty cheap, at only $2.65 a liter. A bargain.
The introductory lecture is free. Madar does not conceal tha extreme New Age character of the organization. He makes it clear that the kabbala is not a "philosophy" and that becoming acquainted with it demands belief in the absolute meaning of the universe. That he has found such "absolute meaning" and that it is today the guiding force of his life goes without saying. But the center and Rabbi Berg, whose explicit name is not mentioned, are the exclusive means to achieve contact with that "absolute meaning." Some will view this as a legitimate belief system, others will find in it confirmation of all of Ross's objections.
The pshat that is precious to the heart of Rabbi Bar Tzadok is here scoffed at, perhaps in order to attract an audience, most of whom are plainly secular Israelis. "The regular story is all right," Madar says in reference to the Torah. "This one married that woman, then he married her sister, people kill each other, it's like a soap opera. So people ask themselves, why should I go and listen to those stories over and over?"
I quoted Rabbi Vital to Madar and received in response an ad absurdum interpretation of the Torah portion of the week and the creation story.
For the first time, I understand clearly the center's target audience: it's me. For many years I wandered in darkness, and now I have at last entered the gates of an organization that opens sealed doors for us, those who are skeptical of but curious about religion, the secular types who believe they have a soul. The center embraces us as we are, without our having to change our exterior appearance in the slightest, and also imbues us with the ability to touch the lofty, and along with it the right we have been deprived of until now - the right to follow in the footsteps of an innocent belief, assume the yoke of sacred bonds and take the opportunity to become enslaved.