New Take on Ancient Jewish Spiritual Teachings Has Drawn Celebrities — and Criticism
Jun. 17, 2005 – Most people don’t have a clue what the spiritual movement Kabbalah is, though they may be aware it has something to do with a parade of stars — from Madonna to Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher to Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan and Paris Hilton — wearing red strings on their wrists.
Kabbalah has become a multimillion-dollar empire with more than 40 branches all over the world. But is the Kabbalah of the stars the same Kabbalah that Jewish men in Israel have been quietly studying for centuries?
In cryptic and mystical terms, Kabbalah explores the nature of God and the universe. Rabbis have traditionally believed the philosophy behind it is so complicated that it could only be taught to ultra-religious Jewish men over 40 who had spent their lives studying Judaism.
In 1971, with virtually no money, Karen Berg and her husband Philip Berg — the spiritual leader known to followers as the Rav — opened their first Kabbalah Centre, turning traditional Jewish wisdom upside down by offering Kabbalah study to women and non-Jews. The Bergs had a simple but radical idea: Kabbalah wasn’t just for elite Jewish scholars but was something that could be simplified and taught to everyone.
“It wasn’t until we started really bringing it to the people that they actually had access to this knowledge,” Karen Berg told Elizabeth Vargas in an exclusive interview to air on “20/20” tonight at 10 p.m. ET.
Their movement picked up momentum quickly, Berg said. “It was almost like Jesus … talks on the Mount and brought people. And they believed in what he said. And they brought more people … God forbid, I’m not saying that we’re messiah consciousness. I’m only saying that we built in the same fashion.”
However the Bergs built their movement, many followers say Kabbalah has changed their lives. And the adherents aren’t just celebrities.
Don Ellis, a former FBI agent who now practices law and runs a bodyguard service, was raised a Southern Baptist in Texas. He says Kabbalah gave him the spiritual answers he’d been searching for. “I studied a number of different religions, spiritualities, searching for something. And then one day, I saw a CD set called ‘Power of Kabbalah.’ That’s all it took for me was that one series. I haven’t looked back since,” he told Vargas.
There are no Kabbalah Centres near Ellis’ home, so he stays connected by listening to their tapes. He said Kabbalah has created spiritual and financial miracles for him.
The Bergs have brought this ancient wisdom out of the dark ages and mass-marketed it, inventing their own must-have accessories like red strings and Kabbalah water, which they aggressively sell and claim will protect followers from “negative energy.” At services and classes, they teach that Kabbalah is not a religion but a “technology for the soul” that plugs anyone into what they call the “Light” or God — a God that has 72 names, which if meditated on, will make your dreams come true.
But rabbis like Yitzchok Adlerstein, a professor of law and ethics at Loyola University in Los Angeles, question some of the practices of the Kabbalah newcomers — like Britney Spears, who tattooed one of God’s 72 names in Hebrew on her neck.
“Using one of the names of God on her neck is going to bring enough prosperity to Britney as my tattooing Britney’s name to my neck. I guarantee you,” Adlerstein told “20/20.”
“What the Bergs are offering is not remotely Kabbalah,” he added.
The Bergs insist their writings are a direct interpretation of the Zohar, an ancient text, dense and complex, that contains a mystical discussion of what God is.
“We go directly to the source, directly to the Zohar. We don’t teach anything that’s ours. We don’t claim to be teachers. We don’t even care if anyone respects us or not. Our job is to bring content to people, content that wasn’t there before. Nothing we do comes from our brain,” said Yehuda Berg, one of the couple’s sons, who runs the Kabbalah Centres with his mother and brother Michael Berg.
Indeed, the Kabbalah Centres’ approach to the Zohar is a far cry from the rigorous intellectual pursuit of Jewish scholars. The Bergs teach that merely to have the Zohar in your possession offers one protective powers, a claim scholars say is ridiculous.
Ellis has spent thousands of dollars buying complete sets of the Zohar for his home, office and family. “That’s the telephone line to God. All you have to do is plug it in and you’re connected,” said Ellis, who admits he doesn’t know what the ancient Hebrew and Aramaic text he’s reading means. “I have no idea what it says. But anyway, that doesn’t matter. This is powerful stuff,” he said.
Karen Berg said the message of the Kabbalah text transcends language barriers “because your brain, your subconscious has a way to pick up what — they’re almost like a scanner in a supermarket. You know it’s just a code, a bar code. And yet they can manage to take the material they need from it.”
Adlerstein says this is nonsense. “The notion that you can mumble a couple of words or find the right mantra, or by focusing on letters with your fingers, is the antithesis of what Kabbalah is,” he said.
No Strings Attached — to Ancient Text
The Bergs’ Kabbalah promises to make you rich, find your mate, improve your sex life, even get you pregnant. They say so in their books, in which they call themselves the world’s foremost authorities on Kabbalah. But critics say they’re reducing the ancient tradition to “Kabbalah Lite.”
But what’s wrong with making an obscure and complicated philosophy accessible to the masses?
Adlerstein says the Bergs’ centers aren’t truly communicating the message of Kabbalah. “Sure, you can take astrophysics and reduce it to ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,’ and maybe people understand that, but it’s not astrophysics,” he said.
Moreover, Adlerstein says the signature red strings, which the Bergs sell along with texts for $26, have no origin in traditional Kabbalah study. The Bergs say the strings protect followers from negative forces. But Adlerstein said, “To sell it for 26 bucks and attribute all kinds of magical properties to it, again, the idea of reducing Kabbalah to a kind of magical formula, or technology, is repugnant to me,” he said.
But the rabbi’s criticism doesn’t bother Kabbalists like Madonna. “There’s a lot of rabbinical organizations who are saying, you know, this is blasphemy — they’re not part of us and they’re right, we’re not,” she said.
But the Bergs have stirred up a controversy that goes beyond interpretation of ancient spiritual texts. With millions in product sales, coupled with the Kabbalah Centres’ vast real estate holdings, there is the question of where does the money go?
Some critics say the Bergs pressure their Kabbalist followers to purchase expensive tour packages and that their Spirituality for Kids foundation, which has received millions of dollars from Madonna, has given loans to a private construction company for real estate deals in Los Angeles.
Some also ask why Karen Berg’s tax return says she and her family have taken a vow of poverty when their lifestyle is hardly humble. Karen reportedly drives a Mercedes. And she, Michael and Yehuda Berg and their families live side by side in million-dollar homes in Beverly Hills.
Karen Berg likens their arrangement to that of Roman Catholic priests. “Last time I checked, the Vatican looked like a very nice place for people to live for someone who’s taken a vow of poverty,” she told Vargas.
– Watch Elizabeth Vargas’ full report on “20/20” tonight at 10 p.m. ET / 9 Central.
June 17, 2005