Pop Goes Kabbalah

Time Magazine/November 24, 1997
by Van Biema

If it were a Fashion event, you might call it fabulous. Tonight's audience at Showroom Seven, a grand wholesale-retail space in midtown Manhattan, is peppered with actors, musicians, some designers for DKNY and others at home among racks of classy outfits destined for sale at Barney's or Berdorf Goodman. Even the speaker looks swank, in perfectly coordinated suit and tie and black velvet yarmulke. But Rabbi Abraham Hardoon is not here to talk pret-a -porter; he is discoursing on the ancient esoteric Jewish tradition of Kabbalah.

Hardoon's topic-tonight and every Thursday, to packed classes-is how to align oneself with "the Light," the never-ending mystical emanation of the Unknowable God, Ein Sof. That he addresses this publicly at all is remarkable, since Kabbalah was a tightly guarded secret for centuries. The extent of change in that status, however, is revealed in a boast: "Someone came to me and asked, "Is it true that Madonna studies Kabbalah?" Hardoon says. He allows a Billy Crystal-esque pause. "Oh, you heard about that?" Laughter.

Yes, we've heard. Madonna threw a Kabbalah cocktail party. Roseanne compares Kabbalah-favorably-to quantum physics. Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand and actress Sandra Bernhard study it. And Hardoon's Kabbalah Learning Center, the controversial organization that attracts many of the stars, is just the largest and most flamboyant of hundreds of courses in Kabbalah and related Jewish mysticism.

The empire of Kabbalah Learning center leader Rabbi Philip Berg claims to serve 10,000 students through programs in eight countries. Berg offers a profitable self-help program featuring a regimen of personal "corrections"; devotees like Hollywood producer Sandy Gallin admit its basics are similar to those offered by Deepak Chopra or Marianne Williamson. Yet the center seems simultaneously 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. Sandra Bernhard, who introduced Roseanne to the center, argues that there is integrity to Berg's fundamentalist entrepreneurialism. "The basic principle is that you're here for a deeper reason than meets the eye," she says. "You're here to get past desire for oneself alone, to eradicate pain and suffering. I think everybody's trying to achieve that." She adds that she was raised Conservative and Bat Mitzvahed.

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