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Like a Prayer

Kabbalah goes Hollywood.


In the prayer room they call the "war zone," where the cosmic battle against Satan is fought, several dozen young men are swaying to the rhythms of the morning Jewish service. I'm at the international headquarters of the Kabbalah Centre--the new-age movement that claims to have reached over three million people, including non-Jewish pop stars, such as Madonna, Mick Jagger, and Britney Spears. With its fast-paced prayers and separate seating for men and women, the Centre could be a typical Orthodox synagogue, except for a few oddities--like the fact that some men wear yarmulkes and prayer shawls and phylacteries, while others are bareheaded. Or that some of those wearing phylacteries may not be Jewish. The Centre has transformed Kabbalah--considered by Jews to be the inner sanctum of Jewish devotion and thought--into generic, nondenominational mysticism. It is "the secret" of life, according to the Centre's website, supposedly studied by everyone from Plato to Shakespeare. In an interview last year with "Dateline NBC," Madonna, who has donated some $5 million to the Centre, called herself "a Kabbala-ist [sic]" and noted the similarity between Kabbalah and punk rock. Both, she explained, are forms of "thinking outside the box." 

On the walls of the high-ceilinged, wood-beamed Centre headquarters hang photographs of the graves of famous Kabbalists. There's also a chart of the 72 Hebrew names of God, as defined by Jewish mystics. Devotees wear t-shirts and truckers' caps imprinted with those names; some have clipped plastic sheets from the chart to their prayer books and mentally insert the names into their prayers. The Centre calls Kabbalah "technology for the soul," and that's an apt description of its mechanistic approach. In the traditional Kabbalistic schools that have survived for centuries, the 72 names of God form the basis for arduous meditations and ascetic practices. Here, though, all you need to do is glance at the letters to be infused with their healing and invigorating power. In the Centre's literature, each name is endowed with a quality that can readily be accessed--such as "defusing negative energy and stress," "dumping depression," and "the power of prosperity." You can even call the Centre for a free ten-minute personal consultation with a highly trained 72-names specialist on how to find the name that best suits your needs. The Centre claims that merely scanning the text of the Zohar, the seminal thirteenth-century Kabbalistic commentary on the Bible, offers divine protection. You don't have to understand what you're reading; in fact, you don't even need to know how to read the Hebrew letters to absorb their magical properties. Everyone in the room wears a red thread around the wrist as protection against the evil eye. In the "Kabbalah Café," located in the courtyard, a sign reassures patrons that all coffee and tea is made with kabbalah mountain spring water, blessed by the Centre's leaders. An adjacent gift shop sells scented candles, for relaxation and better sex. 

The Centre sees itself as, literally, the center of the struggle against Satan. By releasing the hidden traditions of Kabbalah to humanity, it claims, it is threatening Satan's power of "chaos," which is responsible for everything from wars and illness to depression. The end of chaos will mean the end of human suffering. And so the creation of the Centre is nothing less than the most momentous event in history. 

Given the cosmic stakes, the atmosphere in the "war zone" is remarkably laid-back. A Centre official presiding over the prayers calls out one of the names of God and urges worshipers to meditate on its healing properties. His cell phone rings and he takes the call. After a leisurely phone conversation, he resumes the prayer, chanting, "The technology of the name is going into the stem cells, stimulating the immune system, reducing cellular blockage, back to the condition of receiving light." Centre devotees close their eyes for about 20 seconds--speed meditation. Then they're on to the next rapid prayer, with some waving their fists in the air for emphasis. I ask a young woman about the meaning of the name on which they've just meditated. "It removes negativity," she explains. Is that what the name means? "It's what it does," she says.

Kabbalah, which means "that which has been received," coalesced in medieval Provence from earlier Jewish mystical schools. It aims to describe the inner workings of the soul and the expanses of the divine worlds. Its preoccupation--partly a response to the Jewish experience of exile--is understanding and ending humanity's exile from God. According to Kabbalah, a shattering at the moment of creation resulted in an imperfect universe, whose divine "sparks" are trapped, or exiled, in material coarseness. The task of Jews is to heal the cosmos by liberating those sparks through religious commandments, which engage and sanctify the material world. Kabbalah believes that a partnership between God and human beings in the salvaging of creation is possible because we are made of the same essence. The discipline takes literally the biblical notion that a human being is created in the image of God, and offers a map of the soul, composed of divine qualities known as sefirot--opposites like mercy and judgment, intuitive wisdom and concrete knowledge--that are shared by God and man. And, because we're made of the same divine stuff, human beings not only can assist God, but also know God--their true selves. 

The Centre is hardly the first California-based faith to combine self-help techniques, a smattering of postmodern physics, and Star Wars spirituality (the "emperor of evil" versus the "light force"). But, unlike, say, Scientology, the Centre has co-opted one of the world's great mystical traditions. It draws on just enough authentic Kabbalah to make the deception credible to the credulous. Concepts like the evil eye and blessed water do exist in Jewish mysticism, but they are Kabbalah's least spiritual and intellectual elements. And that's precisely why the Centre is promoting them as Kabbalah's essence. In fact, the Centre doesn't merely trivialize Kabbalah; it inverts its intention. In traditional Kabbalistic meditation on the names of God, the goal is to transcend the separated self and experience oneness. "It's about annihilating the ego, not reinforcing it," notes Pinchas Giller, professor of Kabbalah at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. 

In the Centre's world, though, the spiritual quest isn't about God, but the seeker. The Centre does teach the need to give to others--and Madonna, for one, credits it with making her a better person. Accompanying the Centre's candles for better sex is a divine name and a prayer "to purify my desires so that I share love and energy with my partner, putting his or her needs ahead of my own." But, as the Centre's own literature makes clear, the motive for such altruism is selfishness. "We are a species of receivers, as in, 'What's in it for me?'" writes Yehuda Berg, one of the Centre's directors. "And that's OK. That was the Creator's intent." The Centre's students have absorbed the message. "Kabbalah teaches us how to respect the human dignity of another," says a disciple I met there. "But it has nothing to do with being a good person. It's about not hurting myself. Not because God told me to be nice to others, but because my life becomes better. There's no motivation to be good for its own sake." 

Where Kabbalah's goal is to transcend this world, the Centre's goal is to master it. According to the Centre, all illness is self-induced, the result of our failure to draw "the light." Accessing the light through the divine names will eliminate "chaos" and ensure total human control over creation. The Centre goes even further, claiming that meditating on the Hebrew letters--which Jewish mysticism calls the building blocks of creation--can actually alter one's DNA structure to regenerate cells, heal illness, and induce longevity. "The Centre doesn't speak about God, but about 'the light,' which is an impersonal force," says a professor of religious studies researching the group. "If you link into the right name, you get the right result. The Centre turns God into our remote-control panel." 

Along with divine names, blessed water is also said to offer mastery over illness. One Los Angeles rabbi recalls, "A dying man I was counseling began studying with the Kabbalah Centre. One day, a truck arrived at his home with forty cases of blessed water. His teacher told him that, if he filled his swimming pool with the Kabbalah water and immersed in it, he'd be cured." 

Though the Centre insists it promotes free will and freedom of thought, some accuse it of abusing its spiritual authority and even of destroying families. "They tell their people that family isn't important, that the Centre is your new family," notes one woman, who says her husband became deeply involved with the Centre and eventually divorced her. Much of the resentment of former devotees focuses on the Centre's first couple, Philip and Karen Berg, who founded the organization in the early '70s and still direct it. Detractors accuse the Bergs of living lavishly, exploiting young volunteers as personal servants, and turning Kabbalah into big business. Indeed, the Centre has some 50 branches around the world, which peddle its products, including works by Berg and his sons, Yehuda and Michael. Berg, whom devotees reverently call "The Rav," is a former Brooklyn insurance agent and ordained Orthodox rabbi who changed his name from Feivel Gruberger. Though Berg calls himself the chosen heir of the late Israeli Kabbalist Yehuda Brandwein, Brandwein's circle denies Berg's claim. Other mainstream rabbis denounce Berg for claiming the Jews could have survived the Holocaust by studying Kabbalah. 

On a recent Saturday afternoon in the Los Angeles headquarters, the Bergs presided over a "third meal," the Sabbath celebration cherished by Kabbalists as the spiritual high point of the week. Hundreds of followers filled the room. Almost all the men wore white--white yarmulkes, white shirts and pants, even white shoes. Berg, a big, bearded man in his mid-seventies, wore a white robe; Karen wore an Orthodox-style kerchief. One man knelt before The Rav, kissed his hand, and asked that he tie a red string around his wrist and bless him. 

Madonna and her husband, film director Guy Ritchie, sat near the Bergs. She wore a truckers' cap low over her eyes and hunched down in uncharacteristic humility, as if to say, "Here I'm just a seeker, like the rest of you." When the devotees finished eating, they recited the Hebrew grace after meals--what Orthodox Jews call "bentching." For those who didn't know Hebrew, transliterated texts were provided. Madonna dutifully recited the prayers, while a young woman sat beside her, tracing her finger over the lines. The devotees sang the traditional melody, even pounding the table for emphasis like religious Jews. Then, abruptly, they paused. Someone called out one of the divine names; after a brief silence, they pounded the tables again. 

As I got up to leave, the person sitting next to me whispered, "Don't turn around, but right behind you is Demi Moore."

On the recent Jewish holiday of Purim, hundreds of Los Angeles's glamorous and would-be glamorous gather at the Centre's headquarters for a reading of the Megillah, the biblical story of the rescue of Jews in ancient Persia from their archenemy, Haman, a royal adviser. One Purim theme is God's hidden role in guiding the Jewish people, so, on the holiday, Jews often dress in costume. At the Centre, the young, hip, interreligious crowd dresses, Purim-style, as angels and witches and pirates. Madonna comes as a lady of the Middle Ages. With its celebration of the fluidity of identity, Purim is a good time to experience the Centre, where Jews can pretend to be non-Jews, and non-Jews can pretend to be Jews, and everyone can pretend to be Kabbalists. 

Admission to the Megillah reading and the party afterward is $82 per person. (It's $72, representing the 72 names of God, with a $10 charge for buying your ticket at the gate.) Inside the strobe-lit hall, people beat drums, and a disc jockey plays hits from the 1980s. I'm spotted as a newcomer by one of the volunteers spread around the hall for precisely that purpose. "Welcome to our joy," he says to me, squeezing my arm. 

Among the volunteers are two young women wearing black and red paint streaked across their symbolically clad bodies. Both are aspiring actresses; neither is Jewish. "Some of my friends say this is a cult, but I like calling it ancient wisdom," says Dana, one of the aspiring actresses. She tells me she grew up near a Hasidic community in New York and resented the Hasidim's exclusivism. "But here I'm in the middle of an opposite Jewish experience. This place helped me feel better about my relations with Jews, big time." 

Much of the crowd is Israeli expatriates--Hebrew is the second language at the Los Angeles headquarters. For expatriates, the Centre is Jewish enough to be comfortably familiar but non-Jewish enough to allow them to maintain distance from the American Jewish community, which many of them despise with an old, Israeli snobbery. Indeed, the Jewish community's wariness toward the Centre--the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles pointedly omits it from its website listing of local Jewish organizations--only enhances its appeal for some Israelis. "My parents are worried that I'll become Orthodox because of my involvement with the Centre," an Israeli former kibbutznik tells me. "But this has nothing to do with Judaism." 

The Rav appears, wearing a crown as his Purim costume. The crowd cheers and whoops, a parody of reverence. In a rambling, folksy style, Berg says, "This day didn't begin with victory of [Persian Jews] Mordechai and Esther over Haman. This day had already been conceived at the time of creation. This joy that we'll experience tonight will be there in time of need, when depression brings us to a helpless state of mind. Amazing. It's not to celebrate a onetime experience of Israelites taking on an entire empire and coming out victims--that came and gone. The power that brought about this incident has continued." 

Turning to the Centre's work, The Rav says, "There is a transformation. I'm taking this old tradition, and by virtue of adopting this tradition to have such a rhythm to what this generation is generating--to find that Kabbalah is so closely in affinity is truly remarkable. The entire world out there will be receiving the effects, the contentment, that we will all be experiencing this evening. Due to a quantum effect, we're reaching into every part of the planet. Tonight, we have no fear of Satan--we're going into his territory." 

A group of children appears and begins singing Kabbalah songs. They are students at the Kabbalah Children's Academy--part of a nationwide network of Centre schools. "At first I was afraid/I was petrified," they sing, to the tune of "I Will Survive." "I was living life alone/with no Zohar in sight/Weren't we the ones who brought/all this chaos to our lives/come on, let's convert it/Let's knock this darkness to light." 

Men and women are requested to sit on opposite sides of the room, and then the Megillah--the Book of Esther--is recited. Typically, it is a traditional reading, but with a twist. Instead of responding to Haman's name with noisemakers and jeering, which Jews do symbolically to erase Haman's memory, the crowd meditates on a divine name, becoming silent when Haman's name is read and contemplating the "roots of chaos." 

After the reading, hundreds of celebrants gather for a buffet. People hug and call out to friends across the room. There are advertising executives and hairdressers and filmmakers and realtors. How many Los Angeles synagogues could boast such successful outreach among young Jews? Of course, the Centre has been helped by glamour: Britney Spears was recently photographed on the cover of Entertainment Weekly wearing a red Kabbalah thread and in Us Weekly reading a Kabbalah book while lounging near a pool in Florida. Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, Courtney Love, and Roseanne have all been involved with the Centre; after Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall divorced, each reportedly sought the Centre's guidance. 

Still, there's a mystery here. Why have so many apparently intelligent, successful people fallen for magical trinkets like blessed candles and red strings? Is there some promise of redemption that those of us who've tried to understand this phenomenon have missed, some distortion greater than simply turning Kabbalistic wisdom into grist for supermarket tabloids?

I get the beginning of an answer at an evening prayer service in the "war zone." The Rav leads his disciples in the Kaddish prayer, shouting its words as if in a rage. Then he interrupts the conventional service and begins chanting "Chernobyl" and other names I can't identify. A devotee explains, straight-faced, that these are all names of nuclear power plants: The Rav is trying to heal the problem of nuclear waste, which the Centre's devotees believe is spreading aids. "Whooo!" calls out Berg and his followers, waving their hands as if to send the healing vibrations onward. Pointing up toward heaven and then down to Earth, they shout the word "immortality" in several languages. Why immortality? I ask another devotee. "Because each person is potentially a messiah," he replies. "Immortality isn't just in heaven. It's possible right here on Earth." 

Physical immortality? Was the Centre promising its people the end of death, the ultimate chaos? Did the Centre believe that we could literally become gods in these bodies? Could that explain its obsession with prolonging the life span, the eerie meditations on stem cells, the focus on the names of God as transformative agents for one's DNA, the blessed water that produces a "higher molecular order ... necessary for eternal cell regeneration"? According to Berg's book Immortality, yes. Published in 2000, it is not one of his better-known works--he has authored over a dozen--but it is surely his most revealing. Written in short chapters, some no more than a page long, the book is a rambling attempt to link Kabbalah and science in an argument that physical immortality is not only possible, but also imminent. Repeating a pattern that appears throughout his ideology, Berg begins with a legitimate Kabbalistic idea--that the fall from Eden created the illusion that the consciousness of human beings is separate from that of God, displacing our Edenic experience of the oneness of existence. Satan, continues Berg, can only control human beings who are imprisoned in that illusion of fragmentation. And so the way to defeat Satan is by restoring our unified consciousness. But, then, Berg makes an extraordinary leap, applying Kabbalah's teaching about consciousness and the soul to the organs of the body. Illness, he insists, can only be implanted by Satan in an organ that is "differentiated," like a heart or a lung. But, by meditating on the names of God, we can transform our differentiated cells into undifferentiated stem cells. In so doing, we outwit Satan, rejuvenate the body, and transform our cells into eternal receptacles for "the light force." "Satan has no affinity for an undifferentiated state, and, therefore, he cannot bond with the cell," he writes. 

This is no mere speculation. In prayer and study retreats around the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people, Berg and his followers stage preliminary forays into immortality. No one who has participated, he writes, has died in the four months following a retreat. 

I checked back with a former Kabbalah Centre insider I'd interviewed and asked whether immortality is really the Centre's ultimate goal. "They don't tell everyone who walks through the door that it's really about immortality," she replied. "But, subtly, the more you get into it, the more they reveal their real agenda." Another Centre participant told me that her teacher had hinted that The Rav was working on achieving immortality, but she hadn't assumed he meant it literally. 

So I asked Berg's son Yehuda how the Centre can promise immortality of the body, when Kabbalah speaks only of the immortality of the soul. "The Zohar talks about how Moses didn't die," he replied. "Or Elijah, who went up with his body. If that is possible, then everything is possible. Things are changeable: That's the basic attitude of the Centre. Not to accept things as is." 

But Kabbalah speaks of bodies of light, not eternal bodies of flesh. Why would we want to hold on to these bodies forever? "We would live in the physical body with the consciousness of the soul," Yehuda told me. "We're transforming the physical body from a receiving nature to a giving nature. The most difficult part is transforming the body into soul consciousness and to become God in our receiving vessel. We're born with a DNA that's all together, the first cell at the time of conception, and then things start getting fragmented. So you try to go to that place where everything is one, and you inject a name there." 

In the "Dateline" interview, Madonna's teacher at the Centre, Eitan Yardeni, noted that many people who come there to study "get just one percent of Kabbalah, which improved their life one percent." But, he added, "I can tell you that, with no shame, Madonna is under the category ... of the people that gets it." But what exactly does she get? Has the "material girl" been spiritually transformed, or has she merely graduated to materialist spirituality? For what, after all, is more likely to entice a sex symbol confronting middle age than the promise of eternal youth?

Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor to The New Republic and a senior fellow of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.

By Yossi Klein Halevi