LA-style Kabbalah opens locally

Boston Globe/January 31, 2002
By Alex Beam

Several rabbis have received inquiries from congregants about the newly opened Kabbalah Centre in Newton. ''My preliminary research into this organization raises some serious concerns and I share them with you,'' writes the leader of an Orthodox congregation. ''The adage 'Caveat Emptor - Let the Buyer Beware!' holds as true here as anywhere.'' Says Rabbi Moshe Waldoks of the Temple Beth Zion in Brookline: ''You feel bad that they are preying upon the ignorant. The most we can do is warn people that they should be a bit more circumspect.''

Kabbalah, sometimes spelled Cabala, ''denotes the developed forms of Jewish mysticism and theosophy from A.D. 1200, and, in a less technical sense, the entire range of the esoteric doctrine of Judaism from the beginning of the Christian era,'' according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. The Newton operation is one of 10 American outposts of the Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Learning Centre that dates from the mid-1980s and has been described as ''Judaism for celebrities.'' Stars such as Madonna, Barbra Streisand, and Elizabeth Taylor have made appearances at LA Kabbalah events. The Material Girl thanked the Centre in the liner notes of her 1998 album ''Ray of Light.''

The Los Angeles center claims ancestry from a Kabbalah Centre founded in Jerusalem in 1922. The LA leader is Rabbi Philip Berg, a former insurance broker who is described even by his critics as a charismatic preacher. The doctrine, which is summarized on the organization's Web site,, centers on the restorative powers of the ancient Hebrew mystical texts, and on special water and other materials for sale on the Internet and at the local centers.

The Newton storefront sells ''rejuvenating spring water,'' and a $26 length of red string that protects you from the Evil Eye. They also offer a ''Divine Sex'' videotape, and there are courses in ''Kabbalah Karma'': ''In 10 classes, you will learn the purposes of life, the source of all suffering, and a strategy for personal fulfillment.'' Lesson seven speaks of ''Secret codes to change your physical and metaphysical DNA.'' The cost: $220.

The national organization has some very serious detractors. ''I describe it as a Jewish destructive cult,'' says Steven Hassan, who runs the Web site that catalogs activities of religious cults and cult-like organizations. Hassan recently counseled a young woman who was seeking to break her ties with the Kabbalah organization after three years. ''She was asked to work long hours for little pay and told that if she left the group she would bring horrible things upon herself. And she was discouraged from being with her friends and family who were critical of the organization.''

''I can name thousands of people who will say we have enriched their lives, as compared with one unnamed person who says she had trouble breaking away,'' says Billy Phillips, a spokesman for the LA center. ''We're not a cult. The first thing we teach in our classes is: `Do not believe a word we tell you.' We say question everything. Our purpose is to remove pain from people's lives.'' Phillips explains that many rabbis criticize the Kabbalah Centre because it seeks to liberate people from the shackles of organized religion. ''We teach `No rabbis, no priests, no shamans, and no aerobics instructors,''' he says. ''Moses was not given a religion, he was given the universal laws of life.''

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