In his backyard ensconced in a cozy black leather armchair, Rabbi Philip Berg, 68, is presiding over a hushed celebration of the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkoth. As the garden party proceeds, he remembers when he saw the Light. "When you meet your master, it takes but a minute," says Berg, referring to the late, hallowed Kabbalist Yehudah Brandwein, "The Light simply turned on." The enlightenment was passed on by marriage as well: Brandwein's niece became Berg's first wife. Since Berg met Brandwein in 1962, the Brooklyn-born leader of the Kabbalah Learning Center has pursued a single mission: the dissemination of Kabbalah to mankind and, flouting Kabbalistic orthodoxy, to womankind too. He concedes, however, that such lofty aspirations require financial grounding: "I don't know if you can reach 5 billion people with $5 in your pocket." That approach is controversial, leading many to ask whether Berg is prophet or profiteer.
The Rav [Berg] is meditating so intensely," says believer Karen Erickson during the prayers, "because he's doing it for the whole world." Some students attribute near miraculous powers to Berg: a former devotee, who prefers to remain anonymous, admits to having believed the Rav was the channel for God's word. Berg has written the bulk of the works that make up the center's core curriculum. That is a disturbing monopoly to critics who dispute Berg's theology. Berg traces the center's roots to two Israeli rabbis, the late Yehudah Ashlag and Brandwein. But Brandwein's son Avraham denies any connection between the center and Brandwein's legacy, and some scholars characterize Berg's teachings as New Age perversions, a sort of Kabbalah Lite cooked up for Americans on the go.
Berg's Kabbalah is heavier on the pocketbook. Classes are reasonable; as little as $10, but costs escalate with the purchase of the center's books and tapes. For example, its 24 -volume edition of the Zohar, in Aramaic and Hebrew, sells for $345, three times the price of similar compilations, Rabbi Michael Skobac, a consultant for Jews for Judaism, has received complaints of aggressive and unethical door-to-door solicitation by center teachers. In addition, some members report feeling squeezed for cash. "At the center, they say you can only make a difference when you give until it hurts," says a former devotee. Berg firmly denies any coercion at the center, cardiologist Artur Spokojny agrees, pointing out that he happily contributed $20,000 for a Torah scroll. "Giving is never something that I feel I have to do," he says. "If that were the case, I'd be outta there."
But can students beat such a hasty retreat? The Cult Hotline and Clinic in New York City has received a dozen complaints from family members concerned about their relatives' overzealous commitment to the center. Students often spend Jewish holidays with Berg; a few become hevra, volunteers who live and work at center facilities. "My husband took our daughters there," says a Long Island, N.Y., homemaker. "My eight-year-old said, 'When you look into Rabbi Berg's eyes, you see his soul, and he's beautiful,' I ask you, is that normal?" Their marriage fell apart after her husband insisted on spending Rosh Hashana at the center.
Still, during Sukkoth, the students don't seem dysfunctional. Berg has put them up for a spiritual slumber party. Laughter rings out, and the smell of pea soup and fresh-baked challah bread emanates from the kitchen. Says Erickson: "Kabbalah is like the spiritual refrigerator. If you're hungry, go eat."