Marcus Weston is a thin, good-looking Londoner who in his casual attire and unobtrusive kippah could pass for typical Pico-Robertson Modern Orthodox guy. On this cool Tuesday night in December, he offers his audience a reassuring smile.
"Kabbalah is very easy," he says, "I keep saying that."
Weston is an instructor at Los Angeles' Kabbalah Centre on Robertson Boulevard, where he teaches what he calls "the most ancient and secretive of traditions." Tonight he's making a pitch to about 40 of us gathered at the center, famous for its bevy of celebrity devotees from Mick Jagger to Madonna. The pitch is $270 for a series of 10 classes, billed on the group's Web site as offering "total fulfillment in life" plus "control over the physical laws of nature."
Less interesting than the Hollywood angle is the tantalizing notion that kabbalah can be put to use by anybody who walks in off the street, Jew or non-Jew. Or so the Kabbalah Centre insists. Why do I doubt it? The center contends that its teachings arise from the Zohar, acknowledged by all Judaic scholars as the touchstone of Jewish mysticism, the principle text of kabbalah. Indeed, after Weston's introductory lecture I notice that the whole time he had open before him on a lectern a volume of the Zohar, in the original Aramaic. He doesn't cite from it but the center teaches that merely having the text in your presence "creates an impenetrable shield of spiritual protection" - whether you can read and understand it or not.
However, I've been reading the first two volumes of Daniel C. Matt's impressive new English translation of the Zohar, and finding in those parts of it that are comprehensible no trace of the self-help uplift message I'm hearing from Weston.
Can authentic kabbalah be so easy to access? Taking the form of a commentary on the Torah by the second-century Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai and his students, the Zohar is poetically dense, with language that shrouds its already obscure subject matter in still more in obscurity.
Matt's translation, the first of its kind, is an academic event of high importance. His footnotes alone are priceless scholarship. But they add to the impression that this is not a topic for the general public. Pointing out parallel passages in the Talmud and Midrash, the notes are not rich in applications to our daily lives. Here's how the text itself typically reads, from the Zohar's opening discussion of the first verse in Genesis describing the creation of the world:
"A spark of impenetrable darkness flashed within the concealed of the concealed, from the head of infinity - a cluster of vapor forming in formlessness, thrust in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all. As a cord surveyed, it yielded radiant colors. Deep within the spark gushed a flow, splaying colors below, concealed within the concealed of the mystery of Ein Sof."
Yet the appearance of Matt's Zohar, published by Stanford University Press, could reverberate in the world of pop culture, where Barnes & Noble shelves are packed with books supposedly expounding Jewish mysticism. Unintentionally, Matt may have succeeded in giving the lie to the notion that kabbalah is for all.
In a phone interview from his home in Berkeley, where he works full time on the succeeding volumes of his translation, Matt tried to make the case that nonspecialists can indeed get something out of the Zohar. He cited the book's value as a Torah commentary, with its "hyperliteral or otherwise very radical rereadings of the biblical text."
Yes, very interesting to all you comp-lit professors out there. But radical hyperliteralism is a long way from what Weston has on over at the Kabbalah Centre.
Kabbalah teaches you how to "take control" of your very existence, says Weston, who wears a kabbalistic red string on his wrist. The seven-year veteran of mystical studies asks the group of curious visitors, "What is the real goal of our lives?"
The class appears to have been drawn disproportionately from that most vulnerable of societal groups, 40ish single women. Raising their hands, they start volunteering the things they want most. He writes their answers on a whiteboard: "Ultimate Happiness. Prosperity. Power. Knowledge. Peace. Solitude. Intimacy. Love. Health." A woman in the front wearing a tight red sweater looks up and says, "Sex." Weston, who looks about 30, writes, "Procreation."
Asked why he's offering kabbalistic secrets to the public notwithstanding the centuries-old Jewish tradition of keeping zoharic teachings quiet, he gestures to the list on the whiteboard: "Why shouldn't everyone have these things?"
Do the Zohar and its contents really have much to do with what the center teaches? A respected Orthodox kabbalistic rabbi in Toronto, Immanuel Schochet, once dismissed the center and its guru founder, Philip Berg, as "fakers and charlatans." The center sued him for $4.5 million, but the suit remains unresolved and dormant. Berg, who changed his name from Feivel Gruberger, was a Brooklyn insurance agent before turning kabbalistic teacher and author. His most recent book is the "Essential Zohar."
Undeterred by questions in the Jewish community about Berg's teachings - for instance, about whether just running your eyes over the Zohar is "hugely beneficial," a notion that critics call nonsense - "the Rav's" eager disciples fan out after the class for an aggressive sell. Including a puppyish kid named Sammy who says he's just out of high school, they encourage me to take the full 10-session course. Sammy cheerfully admits neither he nor Weston can understand the Zohar still open on the lectern. Later, the young woman who greeted me at the door and wrote out my nametag will call me at my home in Seattle to push the class.
Down a hallway at the center, a busy gift shop hawks $26 red strings to tie on your left wrist for protection against malign spiritual forces. (The strings are not unique to the center - you can buy them cheap from one of the old ladies who prowl the steps leading down to Jerusalem's Western Wall.) The shop also has half-liter bottles of kabbalah water for $1.75, "imbued ... with special meditations to help activate the powers of cleansing."
I buy some kabbalah water. It tastes of warm plastic. Between swigs, I run into Nika Erastov, 28, who sat next to me during Weston's half-hour intro. About the center's approach, she is of two minds: "It kind of sucks you in, in a nice sort of way. Maybe it's all the empty promises."
Matt also has mixed feelings about the Kabbalah Centre. While deploring accounts of people being fleeced, urged to buy $415 Zohar sets in order to ward off dangers, he puts the center in the historical context of Jewish mysticism.
"You have to admit that there are phenomena like this in earlier stages. It's not unheard of."
He points out the long-established popularity of amulets, said to give the same protections that the Kabbalah Centre claims for its strings and Zohars.
It's not the price of the Zohar set that's troubling. A standard Aramaic/Hebrew edition costs around $345. Matt's Zohar, when its projected 12 volumes are completed, will run about $540. Rather, what rankles is that most of the people buying it from the Kabbalah Centre can't make head or tails of it, or put it to any real use at all.
Professor Pinchas Giller at the University of Judaism serves on Matt's academic advisory committee. He too puts the Kabbalah Centre in context, pointing out that it's not as if the enterprise was invented by Berg out of thin air.
"It began about 70 years ago in Jerusalem. Their 'mission to the gentiles' goes back as early as the writings of the founder, Yehudah Ashlag. So they have a long history and have generally been true to themselves." Berg claims he received his mission in 1969 from Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein, Ashlag's successor as head of the original Kabbalah Learning Centre in Israel - a claim Brandwein's family denies.
"Unfortunately," Giller allows, "their present business model has been adapted from Scientology," which is also known for its hard sell.
The pushiness notwithstanding, whether the center possesses any authenticity comes down to whether you think "Rav Berg" is in possession of the key to unlocking the Zohar. After all, the Talmud itself in translation reads like a work of little relevance to real lives. Yet in the hands of a worthy teacher, its secrets are revealed, and turn out to be profoundly relevant. The classic text of Jewish mysticism too has its secrets, not necessarily evident from Daniel Matt's translation.
So is the Kabbalah Centre a bogus rip-off or a legitimate extension of the kabbalistic tradition?
The question may hinge on your attitude toward the Torah's commandments. The original kabbalists took it for granted that their disciples would be fully observant Jews, since "every mitzvah became an event of cosmic importance, an act which had a bearing upon the dynamics of the universe," as the modern scholar Gershom Scholem wrote in his classic "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism." One of the most important mystics in 16th-century Safed, Israel, in its kabbalistic heyday was Rabbi Yosef Karo, who wrote the Shulchan Aruch, still the standard authoritative work on Jewish law for traditional Jews.
Berg's perspective is different. On the center's Web site, I look up the Jewish holy days. Under "Sukkot," there's nothing about what Karo would say is the central religious responsibility for the festival week, namely dwelling in temporary booths. Instead, Berg advises that "during this week, our thoughts have the power to cleanse the waters of the earth, and to balance its presence in the land! This means that we can control the outbreak of floods as well as eliminate droughts and it is our responsibility to do so."
Perhaps Shimon ben Yohai, the Zohar's guiding spirit, deserves the last word. In the Zohar's own introduction, he warns against listening to an "ignorant" kabbalist, "who is unaccustomed to the mysteries of Torah and innovates words he does not fully understand." The disgust evident in Shimon's words is palpable. "A disciple unqualified to teach who teaches. May the compassionate one save us!"