Kabbalah began thousands of years ago as a mystical form of Judaism. Now, revamped, rich, popularised, it attracts millions of devotees with a mix of new age paraphernalia and ancient texts. Is it a cult? What is its lure? In a major investigation around the world, Elena Lappin finds out
The city of Safed in northern Israel, high in the mountains above the Sea of Galilee, is a quiet, cobble-stoned town where ultra-orthodox synagogues coexist with offbeat artists’ studios and galleries. Five centuries ago, when eminent Jewish mystics and scholars found refuge here after the Spanish Inquisition, Safed was considered the spiritual centre of the Jewish world. Jewish mysticism, also known as Kabbalah, flourished here in the 16th century, and the Kabbalistic writings of Safed rabbis on the meaning of Torah (Jewish law) remain influential to this day. One of the great Kabbalists of that period was Rabbi Isaac Luria, whose tomb is a revered landmark – visited by Madonna during her recent pilgrimage to holy Kabbalah sites in Israel.
Last July, thousands of devoted Jews travelled to Safed to visit and pray at Rabbi Luria’s grave on the 429th anniversary of his death. But the followers of a contemporary Kabbalist, Rabbi Philip Berg, whose teaching is also based on Lurianic Kabbalah, have chosen to take their celebrations elsewhere: their 10 buses, arriving from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Tiberias and Haifa, bypass Luria’s grave and park near a vast semi-ruin of a 13th-century Mameluke building called the Red Mosque. What looks like a large wedding or bar mitzvah seems to be in progress inside, with 500 mostly secular Israeli men, women and children milling around, eating and drinking; they look ecstatically happy. Around midnight, the excited crowd spills over into a large roofless hall, settling into rows of folding chairs. A hush falls, the moment they have all been waiting for has arrived: under the starlit sky, on a wide video screen above their heads, the darkly bearded face of Rabbi Berg appears, speaking live from Los Angeles, or possibly New York. He is the reason they are here, and also the reason they are not at the grave with the ultra-orthodox believers: “They don’t like us. There could be trouble,” I had been told, a little apologetically, by the woman who signed me up for this “spiritual journey” a few days earlier in the fancy Tel Aviv branch of Berg’s Kabbalah Research Centre, where I had posed as a prospective student.
Rabbi Berg, or the Rav, as he is respectfully called by members of his organisation, is wearing a white robe. His imposing video presence is greeted with awestruck applause, to which he responds, transatlantically, with a magnanimous wave of the hand. Then he begins to speak, in halting Hebrew. He says a few admiring words about the illustrious Rabbi Luria, but then he begins to rant, sometimes shouting, sometimes almost shouting, as he describes a medical miracle. The story goes like this: an anonymous neurosurgeon had removed a man’s brain tumour and returned home after the successful operation, leaving the patient to convalesce. Later that night, he received a phone call from the hospital with the news that the man was about to die, having eaten something that was now making him choke. The doctor, being far away, could not do anything to help – except “scan” (ie, move his fingers along) a passage in the Zohar (Book of Splendour), a sacred book he had just begun to study in his Kabbalah classes. The patient recovered. For emphasis, Berg punctuates his speech by wielding the doctor’s report like a weapon.
I can hear several enraptured couples quietly explaining, or maybe translating, the story to each other. Clearly, the Rav has reaffirmed their faith in Kabbalah, and given them yet another miracle to talk about. Then he raises his hand again in majestic salute and the screen goes blank. We return to the food and drink, and are encouraged to enrich our knowledge of Kabbalah by purchasing a few items from the nicely laid-out stalls.
My eye falls on the famous red string, as worn by Madonna and friends, here attractively presented with an instructional CD. I ask the friendly young volunteer for an explanation of the red string’s protective powers against the so-called “evil eye”. Those powers were guaranteed, he says, by virtue of the fact that the red string is wrapped seven times around Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem, and meditated upon, and tied around your wrist with a special prayer. I pick one up and see the price: 180 shekels, or around £20. I also see a sticker on the sealed package saying “Made in China”.
On the long bus ride back to Tel Aviv, a teacher from the Kabbalah centre talks about how, many years ago, “only a small group of people went on these pilgrimages, and then slowly more and more, and now we have 10 buses, and all over the world there are thousands and thousands, in fact millions of people brought together by the Rav and his wife Karen, to whom we owe our connection to the Light. The Rav and Karen will be in Israel in September, for the new year. We will all connect with them here. We’ll have amazing energy!” Those who are not asleep smile and nod in agreement. They feel safe and protected – from illness, from danger and, in this country, from war and terrorism – by the power of their red strings, their Zohars, and especially by “being one soul with the Rav and Karen”. In fact, the rabbi, his wife and their two sons, Rabbis Michael and Yehuda Berg, are far away, and haven’t visited Israel in a long time. A few years ago, the Rav said to a friend: “No point in visiting those graves. The tzaddikim [holy men] are no longer there.”
Thirty years ago, however, when Philip Berg first settled in Israel, arriving from New York under his original name Feivel Shraga Gruberger, regular outings to such holy graves were a part of his initiation into the world of Kabbalah. He had come to it relatively late in life, having worked as an insurance agent in New York in his late 20s and 30s.
Versions of his biography, as presented on dustjackets of his books and on his organisation’s website (kabbalah.com), have varied over the years. In a book he wrote and self-published in 1983, entitled The Kabbalah Connection, Berg is described as “an ordained rabbi who holds a doctorate in comparative religion”. When travelling to Israel in 1962, he met his Kabbalistic master, Rabbi Yehuda Zvi Brandwein, then dean of the Research Centre of Kabbalah. Berg undertook research at the centre, wrote books and, following the death of his master in 1969, “assumed the position of dean of the centre”. Berg then moved to Israel with his wife Karen in 1971, “where they began to feel deep stirrings for the majority of Jews alienated from their roots. They then opened the doors of the centre to all seekers of self-identity, establishing centres in all major cities throughout Israel.”
On the dustjacket of a book published in 2000, Immortality: The Inevitability Of Eternal Life, there is no reference to “Jews alienated from their roots”. Instead it says, “Along with his wife, Karen, Rav Berg opened the doors of the KC [as their organisation is now known] in 1971 to all persons interested in achieving self-improvement through spiritual realisation”, and details his early life, his education and his “dedicated study of the doctrines of Rav Yehuda Ashlag, the first contemporary Kabbalist and founder of the KC”. Under Berg’s leadership, it says, the KC has provided instruction to more than 3.4 million students in 39 centres across the world, including sites in 17 US states.
The change in tone and terminology reveals the transformation the Bergs’ enterprise had undergone in that 17-year period. In 1983, he was “Dr Philip Berg with a doctorate in comparative religion. In 2000, he is “Kabbalist Rav Berg”: he has dropped the title of doctor in favour of the honorific “The Rav”, which, even in personal discourse, is a way of referring to himself in the third person. In 2000, he no longer even speaks about Jewish religion. An entire chapter in Immortality is dedicated to the story of how Karen proposed, to the initially sceptical Rav, the idea of opening the doors of Kabbalah to “every man, woman and child”. In breach of the rules of his traditionally orthodox upbringing, he is ultimately convinced of the wisdom of her inspiration, and decides: “My mission is to spread and disseminate this knowledge to every human being, in whatever language, in whatever country.” Another difference between the two books is that the copyright of the latter is owned by Kabbalah Centre International, which has now become a wealthy, international non-profit organisation, its biggest centre being in Los Angeles. As its tax returns indicate, Berg sold a 10-year copyright to his books to his own organisation for more than $2.5m – thus, as head of the KC, literally writing himself a cheque.
A fuller version of his life would reveal that Feivel Shraga Gruberger was born on August 20 1929 in Brooklyn, New York (or 1927 as some documents have it). He was the son of Max Gruberger, a presser, and Ester (nee Reis). The Gruberger family had come from Nadvorna in Galizia, which was then a part of Austria and is now Ukraine. Feivel lived and studied in Williamsburg, and graduated in 1951 from Yeshiva (Jewish religious seminary) Torah VaDaat, and was ordained a rabbi. He is remembered by a fellow student, Rabbi Yitzhak Kerzner of Toronto, as “dedicated to his studies” and very outgoing. An old teacher has a clear memory of him as a “fantasist, with an ambitious ego”, who was also a bright scholar. During all his years as a religious student, Berg never studied Kabbalah, which was not a part of a mainstream orthodox curriculum. On the other hand, his high school was unusual for including secular scientific subjects. This may be the source of Berg’s infatuation with science; he has filled his version of Kabbalah with scientific terminology (quantum physics, nanotechnology, electrons, atoms, cosmology), to the embarrassment of those around him. “He never knew what he was talking about, and I cringed and begged him to stop,” says an old acquaintance.
He hasn’t: he now uses “science” to explain the potency of the Kabbalah water sold by the KC (?3.95 for a 1.5 litre bottle). This water (two bottles of which have been tested by the Guardian and have been found by a lab to be completely ordinary when reasonably fresh, and to contain some bacteria and fungi when a year old) was declared by Berg to have miraculous antiradiation properties; large quantities, he said, had been emptied into a lake in Chernobyl to clear the area of contamination. At shabbat services, participants were told to chant the word “Chernobyl” to show their faith in this mission. It is now sold as a “cure” for cancer, ageing and other conditions. The water is said to come from a spring in Canada, and its miraculous properties are supposed to be due to a special meditation performed by the Rav.
The centre takes these claims extremely seriously. On its website, a Kabbalah member named Billy opens a discussion entitled, “The science of Kabbalistic healing: The cure for cancer and the end of disease”. When asked for advice about “a grandfather in end-stage cancer”, Billy replies: “Kabbalah water and Zohar volume 20 and 21 are the most effective ways to begin a healing treatment. I would suggest 2-3 bottles a day. I have seen cancer go into remission, and I have seen it disappear in many people who have used this initial approach.” He also claims: “Researchers at Jefferson University in Philadelphia in rheumatology reported that patients after consumption of Kabbalah water had increased range in motion as well as reduced pain.” But when I asked Dr Sergio A Jimenez of the university’s rheumatology department to confirm this claim, he replied: “The physician who apparently was working with this left several years ago. I do not believe there is any publication that shows that anyone at JU participated in or performed these studies.”
The water is a major source of income for the KC. For example, in one US city, many members have told me that they were pressed to buy large quantities, some of which was out of date, at $1,000 a pallet. I asked the KC to comment on these claims but they declined to respond.
In 1953, Berg, 24, decided to leave the religious world and turn to business (although he remained an orthodox Jew). He became a life insurance agent for New York Life. He married Rivkah Brandwein in 1953 and they had eight children. One died in early infancy, and a daughter died of leukaemia in the 1970s. A close friend at the time, Morrie Yochai, remembers Berg coming to his office to read a part from a religious book to help his daughter get better, and indeed she did go into remission for a while. Berg met Karen when she worked as a secretary in his business. By his own account, they have known each other since 1959, though they became involved only years later, and married in July 1971. She had two daughters from a previous marriage. Their sons Yehuda and Michael were born in Israel, in 1972 and 1973.
Berg’s first wife was descended from a great rabbinic dynasty, with famous roots in eastern Europe. His wedding to Karen caused a scandal; he had left his ex-wife to raise a large family on her own, which she managed by doing babysitting and other jobs.
Berg’s interest in Kabbalah was awakened in Israel in 1962 when he met his first wife’s uncle, Rabbi Brandwein, who had been a student of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag (at whose graveside Madonna was much photographed during her recent trip). Their original connection had to do with the dissemination of religious books, but Berg soon became interested in studying Kabbalah. He made several trips to Israel and, at one point, lived with Brandwein on and off for up to six months. The rabbi was dean of Yeshiva Kol Yehuda, and Berg claims to have been appointed his successor after his death in 1969, under the terms of a letter he received in 1967.
Thus began Berg’s new life as publisher and distributor of Kabbalah books, and as the head of a Kabbalah Research Centre, which he combined with the name of Yeshiva Kol Yehuda. Under Berg’s deanship, this yeshiva had no premises of its own but a PO box in the old city in Jerusalem. Berg published books to which he did not always own the copyright, among them several titles by Rabbi Ashlag, including his famous translation of the 22 volumes of the Zohar from Aramaic into Hebrew. (Ashlag’s descendants are very upset about Berg’s unauthorised printing of this translation, but have not taken any legal action.) The letter from Brandwein, I found, was simply a form letter confirming Berg’s ordination from his US yeshiva, without mention of Berg becoming a legal successor.
Nevertheless, he quickly began to attract followers, as his open, undogmatic approach drew a circle of dedicated students, some of whom quickly became teachers. He and Karen lived in near-poverty in Jerusalem, in a flat supplied by the Israeli absorption ministry (they had officially immigrated in September 1971). In 1973, they abruptly left the country, returning a few years later, at which point they changed their name from Gruberger to Berg. They moved to Tel Aviv, and as their following grew, so did their ambition. During another stay in the US, Berg’s students in Israel began to study with Rabbi Baruch Ashlag, the son of the great Kabbalist. “This made us realise how little real Kabbalah Berg knew, and how commercial he had become,” says one of the students, Jordan Lightman (not his real name). Ten of his teachers left in 1984, disillusioned with the “less than spiritual” direction the Bergs were now taking. Israel was becoming too small for their plans; they made their final move back to the US in 1984.
Nadine and her husband Sebastian (not their real names) attended one of the Bergs’ first organised Jewish new year weekends in the early 1980s, at a hotel in the Catskills, near New York. “It had cost us a lot of money, but it was a decrepit, rundown place. There were many derelicts among the guests, lost souls, people who didn’t seem to belong anywhere. The food was horrible, it was complete chaos, the room numbers got all mixed up … Karen and the Rav were an odd couple: he had a straggly beard, didn’t seem to care about his appearance. She, on the other hand, was attractive, thin, blond hair, very well kept, in a classic business suit. People were frantically buying all their merchandise – T-shirts, baseball caps.”
Today, such mass events take place in luxury hotels, attract thousands of Kabbalah devotees and cost thousands of dollars. Lucie (not her real name), a former Kabbalah student from Miami, paid $2,000 to attend Passover with the Rav and Karen in LA, but it became the trigger for her final disillusionment: “There were masses of people, you can’t hear a thing, and your spiritual leader is having a conversation with Demi Moore for hours. For me, that was the beginning of the end.”
The KC is a highly successful enterprise. As I could see at every centre I visited – in New York, LA, Miami, Tel Aviv, London – their services and classes are packed. A month before the event in Safed, I saw Berg at the KC in New York, at his Shabbat services. As he spoke, he sounded less tentative in his native Brooklyn English, but no less angry. He liked to end most sentences with an aggressive/defensive question mark: “The angel of death I should be afraid of?” His sermon lasted a long time. A little boy eventually fell asleep under his pulpit. Otherwise, Berg was by far the most subdued member of his congregation. While others chanted, screamed, jumped, swayed, howled and punched the air, shouting various catchwords (one was “Immortality!”), the Rav seemed almost out of place in the tumult. Yet his presence infused the service with a special energy. When they weren’t chanting, the men, all dressed in white, hugged each other. The women were more subdued but no less ecstatic. The mood seemed to alternate between a drug-like high and affectionate warmth. I could see how one could become hooked on the experience. Madonna, along with her children and Guy Ritchie, was also at this service, and while no one stood up for her, there was an undeniable buzz in the room because of her presence. She chatted to one of the Bergs’ daughters-in-law, but also scanned the prayers in her book with someone’s help.
I was given transcripts of several of Berg’s sermons. In January 2004, he said: “I refuse to recognise this as a synagogue, but refer to it as a War Room … within this War Room, we are going to defeat the enemy, and that is Satan.” He then talks about sharing, which, in KC parlance, is a way of asking for donations: “Why would we not want to share? I’ve heard people say, ‘I’ve worked so hard all my life and now I have to give it away?’ You want to be God? To become God you’ve got to act like God, and then you are in total control. And what is the character of the Lightforce of God? The idea of sharing.” Former member Joanna (not her real name) said: “We were always told that giving charity outside doesn’t count, you only ‘connect to the Light’ when you give to KC. We were never to talk about God, only about the Light and being one soul with the Rav and Karen.”
The personality cult around the Bergs evolved gradually. Everyone credits Karen with being the creative business brain behind the original success of the KC. As profits from the massive sales and donations increased and the organisation expanded, it relied more and more on volunteers, so-called “chevre” (friends in Hebrew). This trend began in the 1980s with the use of young people going door to door selling Zohars and other books. They lived in shared lodgings in Tel Aviv, were paid almost nothing and spent entire days on their feet. Later, the pattern was reproduced in New York, Paris and other centres.
Young former KC members claim that they became separated from their families, in thrall to “the Light”. They undertook jobs like cleaning and cooking for the Rav and Karen, though they were discouraged from spending any money on food for themselves. Vera (not her real name), a middle-aged woman who left her husband and sons in Israel to cook for the Rav in New York, enjoyed the experience at first. “My family were suffering without me, but I was in a trance. To be allowed to cook for the Rav – what an honour!” Today, every KC has a sophisticated volunteer force. They are paid $35 a month in cash, as expenses, and, as a non-profit organisation, the KC is not required to pay taxes on their labour. The centre has in the past argued that the devotional work done by KC followers is not so different from other religions where young people devote a year to missionary work and lead very ascetic lives.
A new development is so-called “student support” – people paid a commission (20%-25%) to phone every person on a list of automatically dialled numbers and sell Zohars. Shlomo (not his real name), who tried this for a few weeks, left in disgust: “The manager verbally abused anyone who didn’t sell enough Zohars that day,” he says. “We were supposed to follow a script, a sales pitch, which went something like this: ‘You don’t want to buy a set of Zohars? OK, so you don’t want to be healed? And your family? You don’t care about them? Don’t come to me when something awful happens to you, just because you weren’t smart enough to protect yourself.’ It was awful. And as a sales technique, it didn’t really work!”
David Alexander (not his real name), a long-time member in London, describes the KC as “life stealers”. I spoke to a whole group of former KC members in a large US city, all of whom told similar stories. Their charismatic and initially much admired teacher would focus on each student’s personal situation – illness, drug problem, seriously ill child, dying partner or dead parent – and then raise the question of donations. The amounts range from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands, and in some cases (especially among wealthy celebrities and business people), millions.
Dreams are one point of entry: Donna (not her real name), a struggling single mother who was in great distress, says she confided to her teacher a dream about her grandfather, who had just passed away. “He said: ‘I have to meditate on this.’ The next day, he called me and said it meant I had to give $20,000 to the centre. I did. I trusted him.” Often, those who later come to feel they were exploited blame themselves. “No one told us to do it. No one forced us. We gave them the power they had over us,” says Lucie. According to David Alexander, the KC “controls people by exploiting their fears and their loneliness. They look for our most vulnerable points.” A large group of former KC members have formed a support group, and hope to help others across the world (their website is kabbalahsupportgroup.com).
One of Karen’s new projects is the Spirituality For Kids programme. Madonna is on the board of SFK, and donates the proceeds of her children’s books to it. Karen told me that in this free programme, “We talk about the opponent, which is the dark side, and then we call the angel the other side, and we explain to them how we know when the opponent is there.” As every KC member knows, the “opponent” is the Bergs’ name for Satan. And the programme is not free, as Karen claims: a glossy leaflet I have publicises both the activities and the prices ($180 for four weeks).