At the release party last month for the latest Kabbalah Centre tome, “The 72 Names of God: Technology for the Soul,” the talk was not of Jewish mystical practices, but of Madonna. Madonna, Madonna!
The Material Mom lent her unparalleled star power to the affair, during which the media hordes waited hours behind velvet ropes for a glimpse, however brief, of Mrs. Guy Ritchie. Onlookers amassed on the sidewalk, while the steerage class of invitees — a not-quite-boldfaced glut of fashionistas, hipsters and socialites — were given strict orders:“Stay off the carpet.”
Such is the way of New York nightlife, a constant tug of war between the “it” list and the wanna-have-its. But kabbala is “a system to find peace and fulfillment,” said Rabbi Yehuda Berg, author of “The 72 Names.” Can a place so obsessed with hype and celebrity tout a path to inner peace? Is this a paradox, or is there spirituality hidden beneath the red carpet?
“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Berg, a member of the modern-day kabbalistic dynasty spearheaded by his father, Philip Berg, better known by devotees as “Kabbalist Rav Berg.” “We want to gradually increase awareness, draw more people. We don’t want to be a spike that disappears.”
Had Madge not lent her luster to the party, “no one would have cared,” Berg admitted. “But somebody shouldn’t care just because she’s Madonna.”
According to materials provided by the center, the Kabbalah Centre was founded in Jerusalem by Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag in 1922. Berg assumed the helm in 1969 and found success through a series of celebrity endorsements when his Los Angeles center opened in the 1980s. Today there are 50 Kabbalah Centres around the world. The center prides itself on revealing and democratizing the ancient teachings of the Zohar, the kabbalist text once regarded so sacred that only the most erudite men over the age of 40 could be permitted a look inside.
A large tenet of the Kabbalah Centre’s doctrine is ego. “Ego is one of the biggest weapons that is used to take us down,” said Berg. “It’s self-destructive. It’s a problem on all levels — even regular people can have big ego problems.”
Perhaps actress Sandra Bernhard, the first to arrive at the April 24 New Museum bash, summed it up best. “I’m trying to be conscious of the way I treat people,” said the nine-year kabbala devotee, sporting a super-sized sequined Star of David on a denim jacket. “You know, the people on the street, taxi drivers.”
Yet masters at the center have even found a way to market this be-nice-to-the-little-people ideology. “God Lives in a Material World,” screams a press release from the center, announcing an exclusive deal with the designer label Sharagano, creating a clothing line “using once highly guarded sacred symbols that the Kabbalah Centre is making public.”
First in the line of T-shirts and tank tops — and, later, journals and candles — is the symbol “Lamed Aleph Vav,” one of the names of God, meaning “destroy your ego,” the same image tattooed on Madonna’s arm in her “Die Another Day” video!
If it all sounds ironic, it is. Over the years, more than a few eyebrows have been raised at the center’s knack for commercialism, hawking $350 translations of the Zohar, $26 lengths of red string, worn around the wrist to ward off evil, and, most infamously, hawking kabbala water, featuring “a highly organized structure, crystalline formations and a fractal design,” at $2.50 for a 1-liter bottle.
More disturbingly, the Kabbalah Centre has repeatedly dodged accusations of being a cult. Its fundraising practices have aroused repeated suspicion and, in 1997, a Los Angeles rabbi who intended to circulate a letter against the group received a lamb’s head on his doorstep. No formal connection to the center was ever made. In 1998, the Forward reported the story of Jacqueline and Nace Goldman, a Los Angeles-based couple who joined the center, donating about $500 each month. Their marriage floundered; Nace stopped working and moved in with a group of center followers.
Jacqueline told the Forward that her husband had been told, “Terrible things befall people who leave the Kabbalah Centre.”
To charges of cult-like behavior, “Anyone who says that hasn’t attended anything here,” said Berg, speaking to the Forward on a recent visit to Manhattan’s Kabbalah Centre outpost — a gorgeous, $4 million townhouse on the East Side. Large and doughy, Berg’s demeanor screams sports nut rather than spiritual guru. On his desk sat a copy of Madonna’s latest album, “American Life,” and a “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” video, rented for his children from Blockbuster.
“The first thing we do is promote questions. For internal understanding, you have to ask questions. Cults don’t promote that.”
As he talked, his cell phone rang, to the tune of “Hava Nagila.” “It’s from ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’” he quickly explained. “Do you ever watch that show?”
While the kabbala is traditionally permitted to only the most knowledgeable of men, at the Kabbalah Centre everyone is welcome; young and old, Jews and gentiles, the learned and, well, not.
A typical student, Berg explained, is somewhere between the ages of 35 and 55. “They’ve gone through the life process, or they’re in the middle, and they’re seeking more,” he said.
The Forward attended an “informal discussion” at the center, a free class led by Michael Moskowitz, an architect by trade and a teacher at the center. The four attendees were in their late 20s or early 30s; one woman wore a prominent cross around her neck, another, a large Star of David. Everyone wore the red string around his or her wrist. Decision-making using a “kabbalistic headset,” as Moskowitz put it, was the theme; God, astrology and the goal of “revealing more light” were all discussed.
“The 72 Names of God” is aimed at this young, curious crowd. “The goal is to have someone ask these questions when they’re 20, 25 — they’ll be that much better when they’re 35,” Berg said. “It’s aimed at the MTV generation. They’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, cool book — and it also teaches me something.’”
The cover of the book is a flashy silver and neon orange. In addition to a graphic-heavy, two-page meditation on each of the 72 Names (representing kabbalistic tenets such as “happiness,” “freedom” and “sexual energy”), the book also offers a meditation from the great kabbalistic sage Eminem: “Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted — one moment — would you capture it or just let it slip?”
“Each time we behave with ego, we block out the Light just a little more,” Berg writes in the introduction. “Human existence grows just a little bit darker.”
And yet, at the launch of “The 72 Names of God,” much ado was made about who was wearing what, who arrived with whom, just how much plastic surgery Jade Barrymore has had and exactly how many nights in a row Johnson & Johnson heiress Casey Johnson has made the scene. Despite the glare of the flashbulbs, “72 Names” appeared a dark, dim prospect, indeed.
This story "Where Celebrity Meets the Mystical World" was written by Lisa Keys.