All God's Children, They Got Vings

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Paper on 12 April 2009

The web site flashes images of a fetus, the mysterious face on the surface of Mars, and a ball of fire. Beneath the images, promises of the mysteries lying in wait for all comers:

The Origins of Humanity! Spiritual Energy! Reincarnation! Parallel Universes! Resurrection of the Dead!

No, this is not the Internet site for a new branch of Scientology but an old branch of Judaism, revived most recently (or at least most controversially) by a charismatic rabbi and trickling down (or up, depending on your point of view), with the help of some show-biz celebrities including Rosanne, Barbra Steisand, and Courtney Love, to the hippest and trendiest denizens of America’s most decadent coastal cities.

Remember the Nam Yoho Renge Kyo craze of the late 80’s, which saw out-of-work actors lighting incense and chanting Asian phrases they didn’t understand towards an expensive scroll in a wooden box, in the hopes of winning jobs, money, and romance? Well, the Kabbalah movement of the late 90’s has much the same flavor. Tens of thousands of Jews and non-Jews now stare at pages of (expensive) ancient texts and scan their eyes over the printed Aramaic glyphs, believing that the energy of these symbols will be transmitted off the page and into their lives. They pay to have red string tied around their wrists in order to ward off the evil eye. And, with Madonna wearing one to the VH1 Fashion Awards, they get to do all this in style – or even as style.

At the self-proclaimed center of this cultural phenomenon is an organization calling itself, fittingly, The Kabbalah Learning Center. Established in Jerusalem in the 1920’s as a quiet but distinguished facility for scholarly research, it was taken over after its founder’s death by an ex-insurance salesman, Rabbi Philip Berg, who claimed to have been hand picked for the succession. But the original founder’s descendents argue that Berg has no claim to this lineage, and most of the world’s Rabbis shudder at the thought that people might confuse this trendy and mind-numbingly coercive New Age network with anything remotely Kabbalistic or even Jewish.

Traditional Kabbalah is a quite extensive system of Jewish mysticism that came to the attention of a wide circle of academics and scholars when it was unearthed and explained by Professor Gershom Scholem earlier this century. Most Kabbalists sit around discussing the ancient texts, analyzing numerical or other relationships between names or places, and occasionally meditating on God’s divinity. It’s difficult reading, and entirely un-sexy, but what it lacks in marketability it makes up for in Zen koan-like density.

Berg’s centers provide modern audiences with a colorful and experiential set of Cliff Notes to the basic tenets of Kabbalah. Thanks to Berg’s efforts and the attention of a cadre of movie stars that rivals even the Dalai Lama’s crew, his movement has expanded to over 60 centers worldwide, including a brand new five-story HQ in Manhattan.

“The Rav,” as his devotees affectionately refer to their 70-year-old leader, broke with tradition by deciding that the more mystical Jewish texts and theology should be available to all – not just those who had studied the Torah for several decades as was traditionally mandated. His books, most notably “Kabbalah For the Layman,” seek to explain phenomena ranging from the unified field theory to life after death by deconstructing ancient Hebrew and Aramaic texts for their clues and prophecies. According to his students, the Rav also transmits the essence of Kabbalah by sharing his own divine light with others.

“When you go away on a holiday with The Rav, it’s like a little mini-trip to heaven” explains Karen Erikson of Showroom Seven, a leading fashion agency that hosts what is probably New York’s most fabulous Kabbalah gathering, started by comedienne Sandra Bernhardt. Students attend classes, visit the Queens Centre on Shabbat, and, most inspiringly, go on weekend retreats with the Rav himself. “You come back flying,” says Erikson. “Your feet do not touch the ground.”

At the Showroom Seven gathering, Sandra’s names is invoked as frequently as the Rav’s. One of Sandra’s make-up artists says she came to Kabbalah after seeing the “improvement” in Sandra’s coping strategies. After a single meeting, she was hooked: “I think I took to it so quickly because my soul recognized an aspect that had been missing for me. It was from looking at the Hebrew letters.” For her, the goal of Kabbalah is “breaking your nature, rising above your nature, and sharing.”

Of course all this breaking, rising, and sharing costs money. Although classes are only ten dollars a pop, the audio tapes, books, paraphernalia, and retreats do add up. (I wasn’t asked to pay for anything except the class I attended, but my phone number was written down on three separate occasions.) The Zohar – the multi-volume Aramaic text on which most of Kabbalah is based and an essentially mandatory purchase for all students – costs about $350 to buy from the Centre, yet lists for only a third of that at any regular bookstore. But what else are devotees to do when the text itself emanates divine light, and the Rav’s center only sells one edition?

The Kabbalah Centre may sound pretty much like any other New Age self-help group that has come and gone over these bizarre millennium-ending decades, but unlike EST, The Course in Miracles, or most of today’s fashionable spiritual pyramid schemes, this one is run by descendants of the folks who built the original pyramids back in Egypt. In other words, where going through spiritual hoops are concerned, the Jews got game.

Historically speaking, the Jewish religion began as human beings evolved from the hunter-gatherer stage to a tent and farming society. Judaism was characterized by the elimination of ritual human sacrifice and idol worship from one’s life. It marked a break from tribal pantheism to the worship of a more unknowable and abstract single god, along with the adoption of a set of textual laws governing ethics and action. The Torah can be seen as the first great argument for a less barbaric way of life.

But interwoven into the stories and laws of these ancient texts were many reminders of what the Jews had left behind – back in the Garden of Eden and before. Kabbalists have been busy for centuries mining the Torah and other sacred writings for their hidden references to existence before the “big bang”, the reasons why a perfect God bothered to create matter, evil, or pain.

So why, after the Sufis, Buddhists, Native Americans, Hindus, and Siddha Yogis have all staked their turf in the Spiritual Renaissance, should the pop-Kabbalist movement stand a chance of gaining a reasonable market share so late in the game? Because the Jews have a trump card: Western respectability.

It’s a lot easier for a cynical New Yorker to accept spiritual explanations for the Unified Field Theory from a 70-year-old wearing a yarmulke than a bald-headed yogi in a robe. With an odd mix of conservative integrity and outlandish prophecy, the pop-Kabbalists mine stories out of the daily paper for confirmation of the Zohar and Berg’s many predictions. They give trendy New Agers a way to hang onto their astrology and tarot cards while doing something that satisfies the superego as much as the need for an immediate, god-confirming rush.

At the Showroom Seven class I attended, a friendly, and yarmulke-capped 40-something teacher from the Kabbalah Center named Abe Hardoon sat amidst racks of pink sheath dresses, speaking in what I could only assume was an at-least-partially affected Yiddish accent. He held up the Science section of the New York Times with the headline “Immortality of a Sort Beckons to Biologists” and then proceeded to use the report on genetic engineering as a springboard to a tale about how The Rav once considered resurrecting a young man who had been killed in an accent (we didn’t find out if he succeeded), and from there to a discussion about how achieve immortality in this lifetime. On the back cover of the Science section from which he read was a full-page ad for J&R Computer World – yet another Jewish business that has discovered the key to eternal life: location location location!

But at least the appliance and electronics store is giving its customers something tangible for their money. The Kabbalah Learning Centre solicits so many donations from students, and under such extreme emotional and spiritual pressure, that it has come to the attention of several cult networks. Many ex-students report being told that if they donated tens of thousands of dollars, they would literally be bathed in light, and “chaos” – which takes the form of disease, poverty, or general unhappiness – would be eradicated.

For a generation that grew up learning to demand its MTV, this consumer-friendly brand of Judaism offers an immediate fix. In addition to ecstatic experiences that rival those achieved on LSD, students believe they are getting rid of the confusing and debilitating thoughts and energies trapped within them. “Why do we study Kabbalah?” offers Erikson. “To get chaos out of our lives. We’ve got a good percentage of gay people, fashion people. Our lives are filled with chaos and terror. And Kabbalah is to eliminate those things.” This might also explain why the cult has proved so popular with movie stars and other wealthy victims of the instant celebrity that our hypermediated popular culture bestows. Surely what the Lord giveth, he can just as easily – and arbitrarily – take away. This version of Kabbalah offers Rosanne and Courtney a rationale for how they achieved God’s favor, and how to prevent chaos from altering the status quo.

Brooklyn Rabbi Meir Fund, a leading Kabbalah scholar who teaches his own classes at temples and universities in New York, is delighted that people are finding new reasons to explore Judaism, but guarded about any approach that involves money or superstition. “Any time you bring money into Kabbalah, you have permanently driven the spirit out of it.”

Fund is particularly suspect of organizations – he was careful not to implicate the Centre – that use the word “Kabbalah” as a rationale for profit or brainwashing. “I’m not aware of any reason in the world why people in the name of Kabbalah should be asked to spend hundreds of dollars on books that are worth a fraction of that amount. I’m not aware of any practice in Kabbalah that has people – as you describe – passing their fingers over words they don’t understand.”

Hardoon doesn’t deny his sect’s somewhat sensationalist bias. “Look in the bible. They did mass circumcision. They wiped the doorposts with blood. Yes we chant, we scream. We scan the text with our eyes. There are ways of awakening the spiritual within us. We’re open about it, and we tell people where it’s at.”

Many more traditional Rabbis are concerned that by masquerading as a branch of Judaism, this cult will lull its victims into a state of false security where they can be more easily programmed into submission. But – like Scientology’s critics – these same rabbis are worried for their own safety, and hesitant to criticize Berg in public. The Centre sued Toronto Rabbi Immanuel Schochet for 4.5 million dollars when he called Berg’s people “fakers.” Los Angeles Rabbi Avrohom Union once considered issuing a letter stating that he did not endorse the Kabbalah cult, but a goat’s head hanging in a grocery bag over his doorknob convinced him otherwise.

When I told him about this now-famous incident, Hardoon countered with the fact that several young women selling the Kabbalah Centre’s books were themselves assaulted by a group of Lubavich boys. “Does that make me think less of their Rabbi? No.”

The real shame here is that, from what I can tell, genuine Kabbalah study does offer a tremendous opportunity for Jews and others to discover what this religion has to offer those looking for some answers to life’s great mysteries. “It seems to me there’s much more to be gained from studying words you do understand than dancing with your fingers over words that you don’t,” explains Fund, whose classes I’ve decided to attend on a regular basis.

But how are we to tell the difference between a genuinely enriching Kabbalah class and a dangerous cult? Hardoon acts as if the question is immaterial. “We are a cult, okay? I don’t even know what a cult is. There’s so many cults out there – we’re a good cult, though. Of course we ask people for money. We ask them to volunteer. But we don’t force people to stay at the center. They are free to come and go.”

Fund offers a simple test: “First of all, wherever you are, you’re already moving in the right direction. What’s important is if you are made to feel by the teacher or the spirit of the place that the truth only lies within the four walls of where you are, then you know that this is not for you. If it is an experience that opens you to make you want to go beyond where you are, then you’re on your way.”

Alas, not even the Jews have a quick fix for the perils of modernity – and teachers who claim to offer one, whether they wear yarmulkes or not, are most likely charlatans. As another Kabbalah teacher and rabbi (who requested to remain nameless) explained after listening to my tapes of the Showroom Seven class, “It seems to be nothing more than some kind of trendy imitation of what people might want to hear. It’s short on what we would call Kabbalah.”

Hardoon believes such condemnations are at the heart of the world’s current spiritual crisis. “All Rabbi Berg has ever taught people is that, in the end, there’s no need for Rabbis. Rabbis are supposed to be teachers – not people who control people for the sake of religion. According to the Zohar, in our generation the rabbis will be responsible for the spiritual decline of the people. They are responsible for the shape that the world is in.”

The only question is, which rabbis are “they?