About a thousand "Kabbalah believers" from countries such as the Netherlands, Cameroon, Venezuela and Colombia gathered in Jerusalem this week in an attempt to "connect" to the spirit of the late Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag (1885-1954) who is considered the founder of the so-called Kabbalah movement, which, as opposed to traditional Jewish practice, teaches esoterics to the masses.
At the center of the gathering was the man who is considered to be Rabbi Ashlag's successor, Rabbi Michael Berg, spiritual leader and co-director of the Kabbalah Center and the author of several books about the Kabbalah.
At 39 years old, Berg is considered to be the "best friend" of celebrities such as Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher and Madonna. While today he stands at the front of the Kabbalah for the masses movement, it was his father, Shraga Berg, who started it all. Shraga Berg was a hareidi-religous insurance agent who left his wife and eight children, met a woman named Karen and married her. Together they were sure they would change the world.
"He took upon himself that the most important goal in life is to spread this wisdom in the world," Berg told Israel's Channel 2 in an interview on Tuesday.
As they grew up, Michael Berg and his brother, Yehuda, were constantly travelling between Israel and the U.S. Berg started writing at age 18 and one of his major works was an English translation of the Zohar. He took center stage only in 2004 when his father suffered a stroke.
"Everything having to do with being around a lot of people is totally something I do not want to do," he admitted in the interview, "but in order to know why you came to this world, you have to see what your nature is and do the opposite. We came into this world to change nature."
The main reason for Berg's visit to Israel is to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of the eldest of his three children, David. "Besides the thousand people who came to the bar mitzvah, thousands around the world watched it, so he felt like a celebrity," he told Channel 2.
The first "Kabbalah Center" was opened on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, and since then it has opened branches in places such as Brazil, Moscow, London, and the United States. There are currently 50 branches scattered across the world. It is a business which generates millions of dollars annually, but Berg admitted the money does not interest him as much.
"We collect money to continue our work," he said. "But anyone who wants to study Kabbalah and does not have the money, we have scholarships and funds that help him study. "The money we make goes solely to the Kabbalah Center."
Of Madonna, a well-known Kabbalah follower, Berg said, "Before she started learning Kabbalah, she felt that her life was not complete. She is someone who sees her goal in life as making the world a better place."
"As long as there is a strong desire within us to do only for ourselves, we won't achieve the purpose for which our soul came into this world," Berg told his followers during the conference. "My goal is to lower the ego and the pride."
Kabbalah is the esoteric branch of Judaic study, a mystic way of trying to get close to G-d and interpreting the universe and the Tanakh. Traditionally, it is only approached by those Torah scholars who are familiar with the entire range of Judaic studies and only once they are mature, that is above the age of forty. In Orthodox Judaism, it was far from a popular or populistic subject, but has become one in recent years due to vigorous advertising.
The expression "Kabbalah Center" is anathema to mainstream, accepted Orthodox rabbis. For example, Rabbi Zalman Melamed of the Beit El yeshiva, when asked on his website about a man who became newly religious through Rabbi Shraga Berg, replied, "It is desirable to link yourself to an acceptable religious framework. Berg's way is not the way that we have accepted for generations. No need to go into details but if your friend really wants to go to back to Judaism, he had better come back through the path of Torah and be guided by Torah scholars."
Israel's former Chief Sephardic Rabbi, Rav Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, warned to "keep away from any of [Berg's] activities and not purchase any of books and thereby prevent blasphemy."