Cult Guru and his "rich puppets"

As Madonna pens children's book on Kabbalah, is the sect exploiting her devotion to it?

The Daily Express/September 14, 2003
By Marshall Julius

Having set up shop around the world The Kabbalah Centre has now set its sights on Britain. Applauded and promoted by wealthy celebrities, it ensnares New Age fanatics in search of quick-fix solutions, trading impossible promises for exorbitant fees.

Denounced as a dangerous cult by America's Task Force on Missionaries and Cults (a divisions of the Jewish Community Relations Council) the centre is charged with unethical conduct and fraud, manipulation and violent intimidation, cult-like exploitation, hard-sell tactics and profit margins of up to 500 percent from merchandising text books and holy water.

Whom do we have to thank for the Kabbalah Centre getting its hooks into the UK? Madonna. Just turned 45 she has become a pawn in the plans of the most notorious cult leader since Sun Myung Moon, Philip Berg.

In fact Madonna recently laid out three million pounds on a Grade II listed building just off London's Oxford Street to serve as the centre's main base of operations in this country. Tomorrow Puffin publishes her first children's book The English Roses, which she claims was inspired by the movement.

For those of you with no awareness of the Kabbalah, it is a body of knowledge that is said to hold the mysteries of the universe. An ancient text, it analyses the nature of divinity, the creation, the origin and fate of the soul, and the role of human beings in the world. It also contains meditative, devotional, mystical and magical practices that were only ever intended for pious, learned Jewish married males over the age of 40.

The Kabbalah Centre claims to make the knowledge available for all, Jewish or otherwise, presenting a simplified version of the texts which they say don't even have to be read to improve one's lot in life. Simply by staring blankly at the pages by day and tucking the book beneath your pillow at night is enough they maintain to guarantee some sort of spiritual fulfillment.

"What they've done all over the world says Rabbi Barry Marcus, 54, a leading figure at London's Central Synagogue, "is hone in on people's needs, desires and vulnerabilities and offer them a quick fix. Because Kabbalah is associated with Jewish mysticism it is attractive to a lot of people today who are searching for answers."

"What the Kabbalah Centre does is comparable to taking a small child who can't yet add or subtract and try to teach them quantum physics. It's a preposterous notion. The idea that someone could understand Kabbalah in two seconds by scanning a book is ridiculous."

Ridiculous but profitable. According to the centre's website their brochures and their disciples, studying Kabbalah "brings life-changing benefits on all levels: Cures for any illness, domestic harmony, wealth, career success, relief from emotional problems, spiritual enlightenment, answers to all life's questions, supernatural powers, divination of the future, elimination of war and hatred."

It's a pitch that for some is impossible to resist. "The Kabbalah Centre uses the same techniques as all the major cults," explains Rabbi Marcus. "The get their followers to sign away their possessions or make huge donations. Members often end up living in sparse conditions in the centres themselves, and those who managed to escape the centre's influence have complained of exhausting degrading treatment.

"People are pushed into giving up their careers, their families and their lives, causing untold harm and hardship. And why? For profit."

Rabbi Michael Skobac, of Jews for Judaism, an American cult-busting organization worried about the influence of the Kabbalah Centre, says he has received complaints of "high-pressure fund-raising tactics" in which new recruits were told "good things will come to them only if money goes to the centre."

"They generally prey on people who have money," says Rabbi Marcus. "Enlisting high-profile celebrities like Madonna and Mick Jagger earns them a fortune and raises their profile worldwide. Some people will join up just to go to a Kabbalah class with Madonna.

The Material Girl herself says: "The philosophy of the Kabbalah is that there is no fragmentation; we are all one."

"This is really important to me because it obviously defines almost everything I am. And it is a struggle for me because I live in a world and work in a world this about popularity and who's better-looking and who's not, who's richer and who's not, who's at the top of the list and who's at the bottom of the list."

"I have a responsibility to bring people together and to help people realise there is no such thing as fragmentation."

Other celebrities linked to the cult include Roseanne, Naomi Campbell, Jerry Hall, Caprice, Liz Taylor and Sandra Bernhard, who is believed to have introduced Madonna to the centre in the mid-nineties. "I think Kabbalah is very punk rock," added Madonna; who says the centre's teachings inspired her to write the Ray of Light album.

"It teaches you that you are responsible for everything. We don't realise there is a bigger system at work. Everything comes to you is for a reason and I think that's pretty revolutionary."

Rabbi Marcus says: "Madonna might have knowledge of music, but I don't think she's in any position to judge what or what isn't genuine Kabbalah. She may be a good and well-meaning person but if she wants to understand Judaism she's looking in the wrong place." For years now Madonna has worn a simple red string bracelet signifying her devotion to Philip Berg and his Kabbalah Institute, but those in the know suggest she should pick her mentors more wisely. Berg's real name is Feivel Gruberger; a former insurance agent who now promotes himself as "the greatest Kabbalist in the world," yet outside his own centre and circle of followers he has been deemed a charlatan.

"He's made millions hoodwinking people," claims Rabbi Marcus. "He has misled people about his credentials. He claims to have a doctorate, insists he studied the Kabbalah in Jerusalem, but none of this is true. If someone is a genuine Kabbalist, I promise you, most people wouldn't even know his name."

"Berg has set himself up as a guru but all he's interested in is making money. He presents his own simplified take on the Kabbalah and claims it's authentic Judaism, which is a lie. He's commercialising and devaluing Jewish leaning. What he does is distasteful."

For 20 years the Kabbalah Centre has risen in influence and spread throughout the world promising enlightenment but many of its followers are left disappointed. The question of how to rid Britain of Berg, his centres and celebrity puppets remains unanswered, therefore, but it is one we cannot afford to ignore.

Philip Berg and other representative of the Kabbalah Centre refused to make any comment.

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