Kabbalah secrets on the Main Line

Behind an Ardmore storefront, the esoteric Jewish mystical discipline is taught to all. But allegations of trivialization and shunning have clouded the pursuit of divine light.

The Philadelphia Inquirer/July 31, 2003
By William F. Steinmetz

The Zohar, the central book of Kabbalah Centre teachings, is held by Gary Wilson of Mount Airy, who says he was shunned by the Ardmore center. He is practicing "scanning," gazing at the Hebrew letters instead of reading them to feel their force.

Some say the secret to happiness can be found on a side street in Ardmore, in a little shop beneath a green-striped awning.

It houses one of 50 worldwide branches of the Kabbalah Centre, a growing organization that has popularized - critics would say trivialized - the ancient Jewish mystical discipline of kabbalah.

Based in Los Angeles, its followers have included Mick Jagger, Rosie O'Donnell, Liz Taylor and Demi Moore, who was singing its praises on the set of Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle.

Kabbalah is "very punk rock," Madonna says. "It teaches you that you are responsible for everything."

The Kabbalah Centre has risen on the promise to teach anyone - sage or neophyte, Jew or gentile - "how the spiritual and physical laws of the universe work" so that "you will achieve greater harmony and balance, and ultimately gain more control over what happens to you."

But the group and its teachings have been rejected by many mainstream Jewish authorities, who consider its brand of kabbalah (kuh-BAH-luh) a New Age commercializing of an advanced and closely guarded body of knowledge.

Further, some critics accuse the national group of conducting high-pressure solicitations, ostracizing members who fall out of favor, and even undermining relationships.

The Kabbalah Centre broadly denies the accusations. "We are persecuted verbally, usually by people who haven't come to us trying to understand what we're about," Rabbi Yehuda Berg, one of its leaders, said in a phone interview.

The organization, which says it has 25,000 students in its regular weekly classes in the United States, is only one locus of a wider "kabbalah craze" of the last decade. All sorts of synagogues and self-help circles have dabbled in the esoteric discipline - though not with the intensive use of numerology, astrology and meditation that the Kabbalah Centre (www.kabbalah.com) teaches.

The Ardmore branch is a house of worship with a rabbi and daily prayer services, but it is not your father's synagogue.

The front door opens into a store selling incense, oils, amulets, astrology charts, spiritual guidebooks and videos, and bottles of specially blessed "Kabbalah water." (Berg told MSNBC.com that the "dynamic 'living' water" was charged "with positive energy... so that it has healing powers.")

Most of its books were written by Rabbi Philip Berg, known as "Rav," the Kabbalah Centre founder, and his sons, Rabbis Yehuda and Michael. Its main text is the Zohar, which was compiled by a Spanish mystic centuries ago and is said to decode the Torah's "blueprint of creation." The Kabbalah Centre's 23-volume English translation sells for $415.

In his latest book, The 72 Names of God: Technology for the Soul, Yehuda Berg says that those names, "like the words of the Bible... are the property of no ethnic group or religious identity. They can and should be used by everyone to confront the accelerating chaos and negativity that confronts our world."

Such universalism flies in the face of kabbalah tradition. Because the Zohar was believed to contain powerful but easily misunderstood knowledge, Jewish traditionalists say, the custom was to restrict study to married fathers at least 40 years old who are pious and learned in Torah.

"I don't know of anyone saying it's for all humanity," said Joel Hecker, a professor of Jewish mysticism at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote. Traditionalists "probably would be loath" to open the kabbalah to non-Jews, he said.

The Kabbalah Centre reflects the spiritual-but-not-religious aesthetic of many seekers.

"Here, we learn what to know, not what to believe," the Ardmore center's director, Rabbi Moshe Dahan, told a recent class of newcomers. "Religion is a set of beliefs. Here, it is what you know."

Dahan, 38, is an Israeli native who was ordained by the Rav and assigned to Philadelphia. About 5,000 people have studied at the branch since it opened in 1997, the center says.

Dahan let a reporter sit in on the newcomers' class. After that, he declined requests for an interview through a spokeswoman.

In a classroom above the store, Dahan told 19 women and four men that souls were created to receive divine light and that ego obscured the light.

Capturing and channeling divine energy - and staving off "spiritual chaos" - are key to the Kabbalah Centre approach.

One technique is to gaze upon or "scan" the Zohar's Hebrew letters, even if you don't know what you're reading. The center calls the Zohar "a powerful tool for protection from physical illness and danger in all forms."

Jody Myers is a religious-studies professor at the University of California in Northridge who is researching the center's teachings. She said people were taught that Hebrew has a primordial force, its letters serving "as building blocks of creation which are there to fix the world." In scanning, "you're not reading for understanding but so it penetrates your soul."

In The 72 Names of God, Berg says, "God never answers prayers. It is people who answer their own prayers by knowing how to connect and utilize the divine energy of the Creator and the God-like force in their own souls."

Hecker, the professor of mysticism, said scanning and meditating on God's names had precedents in classic kabbalah. Still, he found the Kabbalah Centre's self-empowerment approach "utilitarian" and troubling.

"There were many checks and balances in the [classic kabbalah] system to prevent one from thinking you could manipulate divine energies to do your bidding," Hecker said.

Marsha Tantaros, 60, a retired mortgage banker from Media, has studied at the Ardmore center for two years. It has taught her that "if my life isn't working, you need to bring the energy in and then share it."

Tantaros, a nondenominational Christian, recently turned to the 72 names of God for insight into her bad feelings toward an acquaintance. Meditating on the name corresponding with judgmentalism, "I was able to be detached and get an 'aha' moment, and release [the feelings]. I really feel the letters are alive."

Scanning is a regular practice for Susan Ward, 49, a physician who runs a small holistic-health center in Exton called the Consciousness Institute. Ward, raised Presbyterian, said she had studied on and off three years at the Ardmore center, where she took a course on "increasing prosperity."

"I'd just started my business and wanted to expand," Ward said. The center taught her to see her work as "an energy exchange." The advice was to raise her prices and to keep the quality high by providing "enthusiasm and caring."

Scanning was a routine for years for Gary Wilson of Mount Airy. Wilson, 52, an insurance broker and a Reform Jew by birth, said he was a "loyal foot soldier" at the Ardmore center.

But he said Dahan had an autocratic style - "his word was the rule" - that grew oppressive. Nearly two years ago, in a remark overheard by a Kabbalah Centre worker, Wilson said the center "has too much justice and not enough mercy."

According to Wilson, Dahan denounced the statement as "evil speech" and began a campaign of shunning. Wilson said he was no longer called to read from the Torah, his tithes were rejected, and his apology attempts were spurned.

"I'd watched this type of shunning happen to other people, half a dozen to a dozen," Wilson said. He could have appealed to the Bergs, he said, but he left instead: "I decided if it is run like this, it wasn't healthy for me spiritually, emotionally or mentally."

Rick Ross heads the Ross Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups and Movements, in Jersey City, N.J., one of a number of watchdog groups that have cataloged complaints about the Kabbalah Centre.

Among the complaints, Ross said, is that some staffers have even advised students to leave a spouse or partner who resists the teachings, counseling that the person is "a negative spiritual influence."

Rabbi Michael Skobac of Jews for Judaism, which monitors missionary groups and cults, said he had received complaints of "high-pressure fund-raising tactics" in which people were told "good things only come to them if money goes to the center."

Rabbi Shraga Sherman, head of Lubavitch of the Main Line, an Orthodox Jewish group, said two men had come to him for kabbalah study after leaving the Ardmore center. One had felt harassed to attend daily worship, he said, while the other had felt pressured to give money "beyond what he was capable of contributing."

The criticisms were perplexing to Ward, who said she had neither seen shunnings at Ardmore nor been pressured to give money. "I've only made one small donation, and it was unsolicited," she said, adding that Dahan "is a sweet, caring rabbi."

Yehuda Berg, speaking from Los Angeles, said complaints about staffers resulted in their being retrained or relieved of duty. Problems, he said, "have happened mainly from inexperience."

Berg denied that the centers encouraged breakups if one partner balked at kabbalah study. "If everything else is OK in the relationship, we would urge them not to study. That is clear to the staff," he said.

In a follow-up e-mail, Berg denied accusations of pressure tactics and ostracisms.

"The Kabbalah Centre participates in no such behavior," he stated. "We are an organization that encourages self-empowerment and growth and respects each student's choice to discontinue their participation in classes if they so choose. The incidents you refer to are unfamiliar to us."

Berg is Madonna's longtime teacher. In the interview, he cited her as an example of "what we are about."

"People who know her say she's a better person, and they and she attribute it to this. She's been dealing with her own problems and issues. It's transforming her, step by step.

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