Has Madonna Joined a Cult?

December 1997
By Rick Ross

"turned to Kabbalah [Centre] when she was pregnant, exhausted from Evita, and looking for an anchor"

It seems the "material girl" in an effort to become more spiritual may have joined a group described as a "quasi-Jewish cult." Recently the pop diva threw a "Kabbalah cocktail party" at her Maverick headquarters. The group is called the "Kabbalah Centre" and it is controlled by Rabbi Philip Berg. Jewish authorities have called his teachings and doctrines "Bergism." Berg's former followers say he has created a "personality cult" with himself and his wife Karen as its "royal couple." The brother of one long-term member of the group's "crew" told the magazine "Tel Aviv" in Israel, "This is a mystical cult in every way, with a guru and brainwashing." There are fourteen Kabbalah Centres. Six branches are within the United States--one in New York, three in California and two in Florida. The eight international centers include--three in Israel, and one in France, Canada, Brazil, Mexico and Chile.

How did Madonna go from a Golden Globe to a "guru"? According to a Berg spokesman "None of these celebrities coming here is our effort. Madonna appeared one day in class." However, Sandra Bernhard, who introduced Roseanne to the center, seems to be an avid believer and has a personal history with Madonna. A long list of "Hollywood types" including Liz Taylor, apparently are seeking "The Light" or "Kabbalah Lite" according to one source (what is Kabbalah? see FAQ Kabbalah). Some celebrities like Madonna, Roseanne and Liz have worn odd red string bracelets signifying their devotion to "Bergism." Even though Taylor has an impressive collection of "white diamonds" she has been photographed waving one wrist adorned only with Berg-wear.

"Feivel Gruberger" aka Philip Berg

Who is Philip Berg? His name was originally "Feivel Gruberger", a former insurance agent he married a niece of the kabbalist Rabbi Brandwein and distributed his books. However, his claim that he continues in the path of the kabbalistic rabbis Ashlag and Brandwein, and that they are the founders of his center-- "arouses the wrath of the authentic heirs of these two rabbis. 'There isn't a shred of truth in his claim,'says Rabbi Ashlag's grandson with anger." Who adds "They [the Kabbalah Centre] are degrading the Zohar (the central work of the Kabbalah). The distance between my grandfather and Berg is as the distance between east and west." "He is far removed from Rabbi Brandwein," says Baruch Horenchik, the late Rabbi [Brandwein's] right-hand man. "He is a zero. The Rabbi [Brandwein] never acknowledged him."

Berg left Brandwein's niece, his first wife and their eight children to marry his second and current spouse Karen. They have two sons, Yehudah and Michael--"the heirs." But according to reports "outside of his own Centre and circle of followers, neither the academic nor the Jewish religious worlds know anything about him except for the anomalies of his centers." And "he is universally condemned by both the orthodox rabbinate and contemporary schools of Jewish mysticism in Israel, the USA and elsewhere, as a charlatan." In one interview Berg admitted that "in fact -he has no academic degree at all."

What Madonna and Liz probably don't know is the seemingly sordid history of abuse and exploitation reported about Philip Berg and his "Kabbalah Centre." Like many celebrities that join questionable groups they have likely been insulated from the harshness that other participants have reported. As one former Berg acolyte says "They told us that they criticize and degrade us for our benefit, that this is a 'Tikun' (correction) which on millionaires does not work. They never get up to wash the dishes, nobody screams at them; they only get smiles."

Life at Berg's centers is not always a "spiritual slumber party" (an impression of one recent report) filled with "laughter" according to some former "hevra"--volunteers who live and work at center facilities. One ex-member says "You are always in a status of worthlessness. You don't sleep right; you are zero spiritually, you don't have a moment to think about what they tell you. Then you transfer to the stage of parroting: you take all the sentences they tell you and tell them to yourself." Some who have left compare their time after leaving the center to "rehabilitation from drugs." So "painful [an] experience that it brought some to thoughts of suicide." One former member claimed going "cold turkey" on "Bergism" is " worse than drugs."

Former members speak of abject obedience and servitude. They say the Bergs decide "everything connected to the lives of the crew, who marries who, who separates, who leaves the country and goes to another branch, and when he is to be transferred even from there. [Berg] is asked whether it is permissible to become pregnant, and Karen [Berg] is asked how to have sexual relations." One former follower admits, "I felt it was a great mitzvah [meritorious act] for me to clean Karen's washrooms. I used to clean her slippers with a toothbrush." Another says "If the Rav [Philip Berg] would have told me to jump off the roof, I would have done it and with great pleasure." Some members have even felt that "To write home means to steal time from sleeping or showering." Stating that they "simply [fell] apart from exhaustion." One member's mother agreed describing her daughter as "always in a state of exhaustion." Summarizing --a once denigrated acolyte claims "Today, with hindsight, I think that I cannot be degraded any more in this world."

In stark contrast to many of their full-time followers the Bergs seem to live a life of comfort. "Both of them eat the best and most expensive things ever. They live like kings" says a one-time member of Berg's "crew." One former "hevra" worked long days for Berg often filling up on cheap pizza--only to "see a van being unloaded with food worth hundreds of dollars for Karen's three dogs." Another account relates how "the Rav [Berg] and Karen more than once took limousines, at the expense of the center, to gamble for their pleasure in Atlantic City. They even told of their experiences when they returned."

It is said that Karen Berg was once "introduced to Barbara Streisand as 'the real Yentl'." But the accounts of her conduct, related by reportedly first-hand witnesses, hardly depict that character. According to one report "Karen never works. Everyone works for her." And "She had plastic surgery, a face-lift and a whole set of teeth installed. Yet someone had a tooth pulled for $120 and was screamed at for wasting the center's money." One former follower relates that "Karen decided that one of the girls, eight month old, needed a correction because she was a Leo. They left her alone on the third floor of one of the buildings in Queens, and the mother they left on the first floor. The girl screamed and cried without food or anything, and no one approached her by edict of the Rav." Oy, does this sound like "Yentl"?

What is Berg's response to the stories of abuse? Berg was not willing to respond to an article published in Israel. But his spokesman said "I don't care what people who left have to say."

Here are some complaints regarding Philip Berg and his "Kabbalah Centre":

  • Canadian rabbi Emanuel Schochet, a rabbinical scholar and authority on Jewish mysticism well-known throughout the world, author and the editor of numerous primary texts--claims the following: Berg has sold "The Zohar" and other writings at mark-ups of over 500% of the fair market-price", and has engaged in "acts of extortion by scaring people with all kinds of evil and curses that will come upon them if they refuse to offer money for the Kabbalah Centre" and also making "ludicrous promises of physical health and wealth if they will purchase their publications."

  • The Toronto Vaad HaRabonim [rabbinical council] and the Queens Vaad HaRabonim
  • "issued statements to the public about avoiding the learning in Kabbalah Centers as well as purchasing books which were on the market."
  • The Chief Rabbi, the Bet Din [Jewish religious court] of Johannesburg, and the Rabbinical Association of South Africa,
  • also "issued decrees of condemnation against the Kabbalah Centre."
  • The Philadelphia Board of Rabbis
  • "complained that Berg's followers [have] been abusive".
  • Rabbi Yitchak Sladowsky, Executive VP of Vaad HaRabonim of Queens
  • : specifically reported that "Parents had complained that children were 'taken in' by Berg and were being estranged from their families."
  • The New York Jewish Community Task Force on Missionaries and Cults, the Canadian Jewish Congress, and the Cult Clinic Hotline of New York
  • have all received complaints and/or cited problems with the "Kabbalah Centre".

So how does Philip Berg respond to such complaints? He condemns rabbis who criticize and censure him and his organization as "jealous; they are simply jealous of how we are teaching people." It seems Berg and his disciples have at times also shown approbations (formal approvals) as evidence that he has the support and respect of some rabbis for himself and the Kabbalah Centre. However, those approbations "merely recommend the publication of a prayer-book [and] make no reference to the 'personality' or work of Berg, his cult, or his activities."

Berg also likes to litigate. Rather than settle a matter within the Jewish judicial system used by many religious Jews Berg seems to prefer "the principle of 'libel chill,' [and often] scares detractors who will speak out openly against him with expensive libel and slander suits. That is why rabbinical condemnations of him and his Centre are usually couched in very careful and often veiled wordings."

Recently Berg's spokesman at the party held at Madonna's Maverick headquarters was quoted echoing his mentor's previously stated response to criticism saying--"There are some Hollywood people around so everybody is talking and jealous." Apparently some of Madonna's "Kabbalah party" guests were critical too. It was reported that amongst the "powerful men" (Hollywood types) gathered in the back (it seems their "wives, girlfriends and clients" may be involved in "Bergism") one whispered "This is the guy who's been f--king up your lives."

"F--king up your lives"? How could a 68-year-old rabbi, who according to one account, has "eyes" through which "you [can] see his soul and [it's] beautiful"--"f--k up your [life]"? Well, it seems according to reports "Young men [have been] prevented from getting married so that they would remain slaves, and this is only the beginning." One former member says that a "practice of the Kabbalah Centre; when a married couple disagrees about association with the Kabbalah Centre, especially when this involves immense financial commitments, the one in favor of Berg is usually advised to divorce the disagreeing spouse because 'the marriage is spiritually unsuitable.'"

Do isolation and unreasonable fear play a role in Berg's control over his followers? It has been said that " The separation from family, the changing of names, all this is part of the [Kabbalah Centre] system." This seems to be most evident through the accounts of former full-time members. One former teacher once associated with Berg says "In true Kabbalah, kelipot are within a person, the elements he battles within himself. This is an internal labor. Berg throws [transfers] these to the outside, and his world is pictured as a place with horrendous evil forces attacking people. Anyone who interferes with him, even other people - especially the religious people - are kelipot. If parents object, one is to be ecstatic - because this is a kelipah (evil shell) which one must fight."

What does the Kabbalah Centre and Philip Berg believe? It seems according to the detailed analysis by respected rabbinical sources that the beliefs of Berg and his followers differ greatly from the practices of normative Judaism and the actual Kabbalah. Specifically there is no historical belief within Judaism regarding reincarnation or many of the "New Age" beliefs seemingly embraced by the Kabbalah Centre. It seems "Bergism" is a somewhat eccentric, idiosyncratic composite of its leaders beliefs, preferences and often singular interpretations of Jewish writings. In fact repeated reports advise that " Berg has written the bulk of the works that make up the [Kabbalah Centre] core curriculum."

It has been said that "Berg reduces the Torah and Jewish tradition into a manual of black magic and astrology to manipulate heavenly forces or energies to attain personal gratification or to avoid personal misfortune." This evaluation seems to be supported by a recent report, which sates that Berg's teachings are "embedded in a religiosity that verges on the magical. Students learn that just running their eyes over the Zohar's original Aramaic can ensure good luck, and they chat blithely about which of its 24 volumes they carried around that day, despite being unable to read a word." Another report states Berg's followers are "told that mere scanning of the books would help them in their quest for spiritual fulfillment." The Canadian press reported some students are "told to simply scan the Zohar for its healing properties." A former teacher who once worked with Berg sums up the contradiction between the Kabbalah and "Bergism" saying "This is a very far cry from true Kabbalah. Kabbalah works on the balancing and unifying of logic and emotion."

"Berg believes in his own powers; he thinks that he is a spiritual superman, and people become very dependent upon things that he is supposedly responsible for" says a former associate. A recent report quotes a student believer saying "The Rav [Berg] is meditating so intensely, because he's doing it for the whole world." There are "ceremonies at the center, revealed only to the closest among them," which one neighbor in Queens supposedly labeled "mumbo jumbo." This is a reference to what appear to be odd rituals that seem to center on the "powers" of Berg. Some examples are reported by former members such as the following:

  • "On Passover,
  • ["hevra" Berg's full-time followers] dance around a bucket of water seven times, and they do a splitting of the Red Sea on it, with the Rav [Philip Berg] standing there and reading appropriate texts."
  • "On [Sukkoth-the Jewish harvest festival],
  • on the day of Hoshana Rabba, there is the most mystical of all ceremonies - the checking of the shadow. Hundreds of people stand in the full moon light a white bed sheet spread on the ground, and the Rav standing next to it. Each one in turn stands between the Rav and the bed sheet with legs and fingers widespread, and by the light of the moon, the Rav sees your soul inside the shadow and finds if it has an illness or shortcoming. To each one he gives advice along the lines of 'work on yourself.'"

Is Philip Berg engaging in the process of "Thought Reform" resulting in undue influence? It seems that he encourages his followers to rely on him through what has been called "mumbo jumbo." One former member relates a strange story about how "When the Rav's Cadillac was broken into, we were all blamed for lack of unity and love." Within the realm of "Thought Reform" this could be called "Mystical Manipulation". That is--personal manipulation that seeks to provoke a pattern of behavior and assumes a near mystical quality. This can possibly be seen through members conforming in a "unity" that supposedly will mystically protect property (e.g. Berg's car). Again an ex-member might be describing another aspect of "Ideological Totalism" advising "This is a Cult's methodology. The Rav dismisses everything around him so that he becomes the sole authority, in order to prevent people from thinking." This seems to correlate to another criteria of "Thought Reform" or what critics of Berg have called his "brainwashing." That is the "Dispensing of Existence". The dismissing of "everything around him" --suggesting a "we-they" mentality.

There are eight characteristics or criteria established by Robert Jay Lifton, author of the book "Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism." In Chapter 22 of his book Lifton outlines the basic factors inherent within a thought reform program. Two of those characteristics--"Mystical Manipulation" and the "Dispensing of Existence" have been discussed. The others are:

  • "Milieu Control"
  • --control of an environment--frequently through isolation and control of information and association. This may apply to the "hevra" or full-time "crew" members working directly for Berg at his centers. But through hyper-activity many others may find their environment largely controlled by a group through constant activities, study and largely associating only with other group members.
  • "Demand for Purity" --
  • essentially "black and white thinking"--a harsh line drawn between what the group labels "absolutely good" (typically itself and its beliefs) and the outside world, which is often considered in negative terms. The isolation from and negative perceptions about those outside the influence of Berg and his teachings, reported by his former followers--may illustrate how this factor applies to the Kabbalah Centre.
  • "Cult of Confession"
  • --total disclosure--a "purging milieu" regarding purity that exploits vulnerabilities and promotes submission. If members of Berg's tight-knit communities constantly open up to their teachers in what amounts to total disclosure this could be manipulated to exploit them.
  • "Sacred Science" --
  • the group's dogma, most often the leader's interpretation of text, history or world events which cannot be questioned. Those basic assumptions are "sacred" and beyond individual reason or critical analysis. In the Kabbalah Centre the ideas, concepts, beliefs and interpretations of text which come from Berg seem to be beyond question.
  • "Loading the Language"
  • --characterized by a vocabulary of words and phrases within the group that promotes thought stopping and dispenses with critical analysis through "thought terminating cliches". This could be seen in the Berg group through terms such as "kelipot", "tikun" ("corrections") or how Berg influences his followers to respond to phrases like "the Light."
  • "Doctrine Over Person"
  • --subjecting oneself to a constant cataloguing of feelings, thoughts and actions that rigidly shape the subject to the group's mold to the exclusion of individual personality, manner, expression and potential--typically cloning the leader. Again, within the Kabbalah Centre this may account for the term "corrections." Is Philip Berg making people over in his own image?

What about the money? According to one report "the great fortune of the rabbi [Berg], which totals, according to his wife's admission to members of the Center, more than twenty million dollars [reported 1994]. Most of the money was collected in the last ten years." The members largely "collected" that money and as one former Berg fund-raiser says "There [was] fundraising in the streets, with special receipt-books, for the center's [Yeshivahs-religous schools of study] in Israel, in Jerusalem and Sefad. There's no one who didn't make others donate. Needless to say that no such [Yeshiva] exist[ed]. The center [did] not have a single Yeshiva in Israel." Selling books is a major source of revenue. One critic pointed out that "each Zohar, sold for $340 in the USA, hardly costs the center a penny, because from the moment of printing it is already subsidized by those who sponsor letters or chapters."

In 1988 the group filed a "'Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax' submitted to the Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, covering the fiscal year July 1, 1988 to June 30, 1989, signed by Berg himself on January 14, 1990, Berg's so-called "Research Centre of Kabbalah" of New York, NY, declare[d]:"

  • "Gross Sales (minus returns and allowances) of inventory (i.e., "Cost of goods sold")
  • valued at $241,744, for the amount of $2, 824, 449"
  • "A Gross profit of $2,582,705 This means a gross profit of 1168%" [sic]
  • "'Collecting contributions' of another $648,048. "
  • "A net worth of $9,675,448, Line 75 of that 'Return'"
  • "Berg's outfit in New York had a net gain of $6,164,550 from the beginning of the fiscal year"
  • "The net assets of his New York branch in 1990, according to IRS-returns, are close to 10 million dollars"

Members at times were exhausted and it may have become difficult to keep the pace of Berg's fund-raising activities. In one situation a former fund-raiser says "I really got sick. They sent me alone to Israel with a high fever of 40 degrees Celsius. Only when I sat on my suitcase at the airport did I understand that when I did not bring them money, I was useless." Another former member laments that he felt "cheated" and that it was a personal "trauma," when he "left [the group] broken, with an immense lack of confidence." For him "the road back [to recovery was] almost impossible."

Back to Madonna--how could she have become involved in such a controversial group? This is certainly one of the most "frequently asked questions" when people consider "cult" involvement. If in fact the Berg group "is a mystical cult in every way, with a guru and brainwashing" --why didn't she see that? But why should Madonna be any different than say Tom Cruise or John Travolta who both are members of the so-called "Cult of Greed" commonly known as the "Church of Scientology". Ironically, Madonna was once rather dismissive about that group and its popularity amongst celebrities in Hollywood.

It is doubtful that most celebrities (or for that matter non-celebrities) that become involved in "cults" know all the details and history of many of the groups they join. Perhaps carefully looking for "warning signs" might prove meaningful. How can anyone be so vulnerable to the techniques of persuasion often employed by unsafe groups? It seems many people who join questionable organizations are frequently recruited at a particularly vulnerable point. Madonna said she started studying at the Kabbalah Centre "when she was pregnant, exhausted from Evita, and looking for an anchor." Likewise, Elizabeth Taylor and Roseanne have had difficult times recently--this included serious surgery for Liz and acrimonious divorces for both celebrities.

Another well-known student of Philip Berg's Kabbalah Centre Sandy Gallin, (who manages Dolly Parton, Mariah Carey and other stars) seems to have jumped from one group to another-- citing both est and Lifespring as stops along his spiritual odyssey. These groups have both been scrutinized for their practices. Recruitment in groups like these often passes from friend-to-friend. Friends approach offering to "share" their new found "Light" or experience--with the sincere belief that they are doing a "mitzvah"(good deed). However, as can be seen from the stories that surround Berg's Kabbalah Centre--that experience may be damaging.

Let's hope Madonna returns to her more pragmatic self. She has long been considered a strong woman and is widely known for her sharp business acumen--hopefully soon she will get back "into the groove."


"God and Man in Hollywood"
Vanity Fair Magazine December 1997
By Kim Masters

"Pop Goes Kabbalah"
Time Magazine November 24, 1997
By Van Biema

"What Profits Kabbalah?"
Time Magazine November 24, 1997
By Nadya Labi

"The Truth About the Kabbalah Centre"
Published by Task Force on Cults and Missionaries-- Los Angeles, CA 1995

"The Cabal of the Kabbalah Centre Exposed"
Tel Aviv an Israeli Magazine September 1994
By Aynat Fishbein

Copyright © 1997 Rick Ross.

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