Bnei Baruch

Massimo Introvigne

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BNEI BARUCH TIMELINE

 1884 (September 24 ):  Yehuda Alevy Ashlag was born in Warsaw, Poland.

1907 (January 22):  Baruch Ashlag, son of Y.A. Ashlag, was born in Warsaw, Poland.

1921:  Y.A. Ashlag moved to Palestine with his family.

1946 (August 31):  Michael Laitman was born in Vitebsk, Belarus.

1954 (October 7):  Y.A. Ashlag died in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur day.

1974:  Laitman emigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union.

1979 (August 2):  Laitman became a disciple of Baruch Ashlag.

1991 (September 13):  Baruch Ashlag died in Bnei Brak, Israel.

1991:  Laitman established Bnei Baruch as a study group in his apartment in Bnei Brak.

1997:  Bnei Baruch launched its first website. Laitman began his weekly radio show with Israeli radio.

2001:  Bnei Baruch headquarters moved to Petah Tiqva.

2004:  Laitman received his Ph.D. from the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Science.

2007:  Bnei Baruch started a program broadcasted both by the channel “Karma” in the Israeli cable television and in a local channel of the Israeli television.

2008:  Bnei Baruch acquired its own television channel in Israel, Channel 66.

2011:  Arvut, the social activist branch of Bnei Baruch, was established.

2013:  Beyachad, a local political party formed by Bnei Baruch students, emerged as the most voted political party in the municipal elections in Petah Tikva.

2014 (January 1):  Bnei Baruch headquarters moved to a new building, owned by the group, in Petah Tiqva.

FOUNDER/GROUP HISTORY

In the early thirteenth century, a corpus of texts transmitting a body of “ancient wisdom,” both theoretical and practical, came to be generally known as the Kabbalah throughout the Jewish world. In the same thirteenth century, the most authoritative statement of Kabbalah, a group of books called Zohar, [Image at right] first appeared in Spain, although it was attributed to a second century Jewish rabbi, Shimon Bar Yochai. In the sixteenth century, Isaac Luria (1534-1572), a rabbi from Safed, then part of Ottoman Syria, also known as “the Ari” (the Lion), emerged as the most prominent interpreter of Kabbalah.

In the eighteenth century, Kabbalah was vigorously challenged by modernists who followed the Jewish version of the Enlightenment (Haskalah). They regarded Kabbalah as hardly compatible with what they perceived as the necessary modernization of Judaism. The cultural establishment of the newly established State of Israel was influenced by that tradition and had in turn an ambiguous attitude towards the Kabbalah. The foremost academic scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), had moved from Germany to Jerusalem in 1923 and was widely revered. Scholem, however, interpreted the Kabbalah as a thing of the past, an important current in Jewish thought well worth of historical studies in the universities, but with very little to contribute to contemporary Jewish culture. Scholem created the category of “Jewish mysticism,” as something that nurtured and kept united the Jewish community in the diaspora but was eventually superseded by Enlightened Judaism and Zionism. This position was shared in Israel by many who believed that, as important as Kabbalah might have been in the past, its contemporary incarnations were obsolete, reactionary and superstitious, and incompatible with Zionism and socialism. Prominent masters of Kabbalah did emigrate to Israel from Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, and Yemen, but their fame was long confined to the ultra-orthodox subculture.

Two prominent rabbis promoted, however, different views and prepared what will later become a revival of Kabbalah in the late twentieth century. Abraham Yizchak Kook (1865-1935), who became the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, integrated Kabbalah into his Jewish nationalist system and insisted that Kabbalah was compatible with Zionism. Yehuda Halevy Ashlag (1884-1954) came to Palestine from Poland and in turn offered a version of Kabbalah compatible with socialism through his theory of “altruistic communism.”

Ashlag [Image at right] was born in Warsaw in a Hasidic family. He famously prophesied that most Jews who would remain in Poland would die, and tried to convince the local Jewish congregation to emigrate to Palestine before it was too late. He even pre-ordered caravans from Scandinavia in order to arrange a small commune in Palestine, where Polish Jews could live and work in tanning, but his efforts were not successful. Both Orthodox and secular Jews in Poland opposed his plans. Eventually, he moved to Palestine alone in 1921.

Ashlag proposed a new interpretation of Luria’s Kabbalah, which included a special interest for social issues. Altruistic communism meant, for him, that Kabbalah will ultimately persuade humans of the need of moving from egoism to altruism, thus building an egalitarian society. This model society, he maintained, will be reached through human transformation rather than political revolution.

Ashlag was known as Baal HaSulam, “Owner of the Ladder,” because he was the author of Sulam, “The Ladder,” a commentary on the Zohar. He also wrote important commentaries to Luria’s works, including “The Study of the Ten Sefirot” (Talmud Eser Hasefirot) and “The House of the Gate of Intentions” (Beit Shaar HaKavanot), as well as social essays and articles. In the Sulam, Ashlag interpreted the Zohar according to his understanding of Lurianic Kabbalah. Ashlag also believed that the time for disclosure of the Kabbalah, kept secret for long centuries, had finally come. In Ashlag’s works there are also hints that the time is ripe for teaching Kabbalah to non-Jews, a theme that would be developed by his disciples.

Yehuda Ashlag passed away on Yom Kippur Day in 1954. As it often happens in spiritual organizations, the unity of his group did not survive his death. Ashlag left four sons, and two of them established Kabbalistic schools and fought each other in a legal dispute about the copyright on their father’s work. They were Baruch Shalom Halevy Ashlag (1907-1991) and Benjamin Shlomo Ashlag (1910-1984). Other disciples of Ashlag followed one of their teacher’s closest associates, Yehuda Tzvi Brandwein (1904-1969), who became Ashlag’s brother-in-law through his second marriage and established a separate branch. There were other students of Ashlag who tried to establish independent organizations, but they met with very limited success.

Benjamin Shlomo’s branch remained the smaller group. He established a seminary in the ultra-orthodox city of Bnei Brak, called Yeshivat Moharal. After his death, his work in Bnei Brak was continued, separately, by his sons Simcha Avraham Ashlag and Yehezkel Yosef Ashlag, and later by his nephew, Yehuda Ben Yehezkel Yosef Ashlag, and by his disciple Rabbi Akiva Orzel, head of the Ateret Shlomo Ashlag Institute.

As for Brandwein, while continuing Ashlag’s work of disseminating Kabbalah, he became the head of the Religious Affairs Office forthe Histadrut, the Israeli Labor Union, which did not fail to raise eyebrows among ultra-orthodox Kabbalists. Brandwein’s branch was further divided at his death in 1969 among three main different groups. A small number sought the leadership of his son, Rabbi Abraham Brandwein (1945-2013), who only later in life came to accept this role. Others followed Rabbi Feivel S. Gruberger, later known as Philip Shagra Berg (1927-2013), [Image at right] who had married a niece of the elder Brandwein, although he eventually divorced her in 1971. Berg’s branch, directed after his death in 2013 by his widow Karen and two sons, acquired an international following as the Kabbalah Center. It became famous after the pop singer Madonna and other Hollywood celebrities joined the organization.

The third separate branch with roots in Brandwein’s teachings was established by his son-in-law Mordechai Scheinberger, who became the head of the community Or-Ha-Ganuz, in Upper Galilee. The community is ultra-orthodox and includes a number of baalei teshuva (i.e. of secular Jews newly converted to Orthodoxy) while it also tries to implement Ashlag’s social ideas about “altruistic communism.” It also operates a college of natural medicine called Elima, led by Rabbi Yuval HaCohen Asherov, a popular figure in the milieu of Israeli alternative healing.

The third main group of spiritual movements following in the footsteps of Yehuda Ashlag originated from his elder son, Baruch Ashlag, known as the Rabash and regarded by many as his father’s true successor. Baruch lived for a time in Manchester, England, where he was one of the tutors of the famous Jewish philanthropist, Rabbi Solomon David Sassoon (1915-1985).

Upon his return to Israel, Baruch [Image at right] led a humble life, teaching a group of selected disciples in Bnei Brak. Eventually, by studying and commenting his father’s works, he came to believe that a core teaching of Yehuda Ashlag was that Kabbalah should be spread to larger circles. He started teaching in several cities as well as expanding his work and synagogue in Bnei Brak. Baruch’s main contribution to Ashlagian Kabbalah was the notion that Kabbalah is best taught and put into practice in a group of students, through their efforts to acquire what he called the quality of bestowal. He also emphasized that the spiritual evolution of individuals is heavily influenced by the environment, and tried to adapt his father’s teachings on “altruistic communism” to a new social climate.

As it happened in other branches, after his death his disciples divided into various groups. The ultra-orthodox members of Baruch community in Bnei Brak, including those who had married the master’s daughters, asked Baruch’s son, Shmuel Ashlag (1928-1997), to lead the community. Shmuel was a shohet, namely a person certified by a Jewish court to slaughter animals for food in the manner prescribed by Jewish law, and had worked as such in Argentina. Most students, however, did not accept that Shmuel should succeed Baruch just because he was his son. Some followed Avraham Mordechai Gotlieb, who established the Birkat Shalom Institute. Gotlieb’s group included mostly ultra-orthodox Jews, with a majority of baalei teshuva. The Nehora School and its publishing branch Nehora Press, currently under the leadership of Jedidah Cohen, follow the teachings of Gotlieb but also try to bring Kabbalah to a larger Jewish audience, mostly though the Internet. Others who studied for a few years with Baruch established their own organizations in the United States. They include Fievel Okowita of the Kabbalah Institute of America, and Rabbi Aharon Brizel, who offers a strictly Hasidic version of the teachings through his Ashlag Hasidut in New York. A handful of other disciples of Baruch, including his son-in-law Yaakov Moshe Shmuel Garnirrer, and Adam Sinai through his organization HaSulam, also continue to teach Kabbalah in Israel to small groups of mostly ultra-orthodox followers.

When Baruch died, on the other hand, only some of his students had an ultra-orthodox background. Many had been brought to Baruch by Michael Laitman, whose claim to be the designated successor of the Rabash was endorsed by Baruch’s widow, Feiga and by senior disciples of the younger Ashlag, including some of the ultra-orthodox. It is Laitman who is at the origins of Bnei Baruch.

Michael Laitman [Image at right] was born in Vitebsk, in present-day Belarus, on August 31, 1946. He is referred to as Rav or Rabbi by his disciples as an honorific title, as he is not an ordained rabbi and in fact does not act as one by leading religious services. Interestingly, Laitman’s background is not in religion but in science. He studied Bio-Cybernetics in Russia, worked at the Blood Research Institute in Saint Petersburg, and even started a Ph.D. in this field. However, he grew increasingly dissatisfied with the answers contemporary science has to offer to the deepest questions about the meaning of life. He spent two years in Lithuania as a refusnik (i.e. a Jewish Soviet citizen who was refused permission to emigrate to Israel). He finally managed to move to Israel in 1974. He is referred to as Dr. Laitman on the basis of the Ph.D. degree he earned in Russia in 2004 from the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Science.

In 1976, Laitman started looking for answers to his questions in religion, although he was more interested in its “inner” aspects than in the external practices. He studied in the Lubavitcher village Kfar Chabad, where he first heard about Kabbalah. He explored Kabbalah on his own and with a few teachers. He also studied in one of the Berg groups for two months, and received two private lessons from the leader of the Kabbalah Center, which left him dissatisfied because of the New Age-style teachings included. Having explored the teaching styles of other leading Kabbalists, in the end, in 1979, Laitman found Baruch Ashlag, who at that time had six or seven students only in the ultra-orthodox Israeli city of Bnei Brak. During the subsequent twelve years, Laitman remained with Baruch, serving him and studying day and night in his group, as well as in private. Laitman also kept his interest in science, and maintains to this day a cooperation with the leading Hungarian philosopher of science Ervin László.

Bnei Baruch (“Sons of Baruch,” with reference to Baruch Ashlag) started in 1991, after Baruch Ashlag’s death, as a modest study group in Laitman’s apartment in Bnei Brak. In fact, as mentioned earlier, most of Laitman’s followers were not Orthodox Jews. Many were Israeli Jews of Russian origin, a population where the percentage of Orthodox is historically low. Nonetheless, they tried to adapt to life in Bnei Brak. Their number grew, as more expressed the desire of learning about the elder Ashlag and his son through such a close disciple of the latter as Laitman was. The breakthrough came in 1997, with the Internet first and live radio broadcasts later. The systematic use of new technologies in the following years transformed a local group into an international movement, with study groups present in several countries. Headquarters were moved from Bnei Brak to Petah Tikva, in the area north-east of Tel Aviv. Expansion through the use of technology continued in 2007, with a TV program by Bnei Baruch broadcasted through Israeli television. In 2008, Bnei Baruch acquired its own channel, Channel 66, popularly known as “the Kabbalah channel.” Two Internet television channels called Kab.tv (which broadcasts the TV channel) and Open TV, a television production company known as ARI Productions, and the websites www.kabbalah.info and www.kabbalahmedia.info, the latter a mammoth archive of video and audio recordings and texts, remain to this day essential tools for Bnei Baruch’s dissemination of Kabbalistic teachings.

The systematic use of technology notwithstanding, Bnei Baruch still relies primarily on the personal interaction of Laitman with his followers, who he calls “students.” He still teaches daily, except when he travels, in the Petah Tikva international center.

DOCTRINES/BELIEFS

To Laitman, Kabbalah and science are not separate fields, and in fact Kabbalah is the ultimate level of science for our time. Laitman also maintains, against different interpretations of Yehuda Ashlag, that he taught that Kabbalah should be disseminated to everyone, including non-Jews. Quoting writings of Yehuda Ashlag, Laitman believes that references to Israel and to the Jews in the elder Ashlag’s writings should be properly interpreted. Israel is a word connected to the concept of having a desire to “attain” the Creator. The word “Israel” comes, Bnei Baruch teaches, from Yashar-El, literally “straight towards God,” and refers to humanity as a whole. As for the Jews, after Abraham they started calling themselves Yehudim, Jews, Laitman claims, from the word Yichud (meaning “unity,” “unification”). A Jew is, thus, not a nationality but rather a worldview.

Laitman’s universalistic position on the dissemination of Kabbalah is grounded in a very specific vision of history. Abraham, Laitman teaches, was a Babylonian (not a Jew) who discovered the basic principles of Kabbalah in Babylon. When the ego erupted for the first time in Babylon, Abraham called for the siblings of Babylon to unite about it, using the method of connection he has discovered (i.e. the wisdom of Kabbalah), but only few listened. Those who decided to follow Abraham were named Israel after their desire to cling to the force of nature (i.e. to the Creator). With Abraham and his original “Israel” began a cyclical process of descent into the egotism and ascent above it, with moments of corruption of the unity followed by attempts at its restoration. The highest spiritual “degree” was attained by the people of Israel during the times of the First Temple, when they were united above their egos in mutual love. This spiritual state brought success in all fields of life. But the spiritual and material success of the nation of Israel was not enough, since according to Ashlag the purpose of creation should manifest in the whole of humanity. Thus, the people of Israel had to fall from their high level of success, so that later they will intermingle with the nations and eventually return to their higher spiritual degree of unity, only this time sharing it with the whole world.

At the end of the time of the First Temple the people of Israel started falling from their degree of unity. The growth of the ego and the inability to transcend it into brotherly love brought about a fall from Israel’s high spiritual degree, which resulted in the destruction of the First and the Second Temple. The destruction of the Second Temple was the most extreme outburst of egotism within the Israeli nation. As a result, Bnei Baruch teaches, after the completion of the writing of the Book of Zohar, Shimon Bar Yochai ordered to keep it secret until the emergence of a generation that will be able to resist the growth of the ego. However, a new period of ascent and a time of final cleansing was inaugurated by Luria, who opened the study of Kabbalah to all Jews, and culminated with Yehuda Ashlag, who opened it also to non-Jews.

Laitman also refers to Yehuda Ashlag’s theory of will, that he prefers to call “desire:” “the desire is the root of the mind and not the mind the root of desire.” Desire governs all human activities, yet there are different levels of desire. The first level includes the primary, physical desires, starting from the basic desires for food and sex. The second level concerns money and riches. The third, power and fame. The fourth, knowledge. Humans elaborated different strategies to cope with desires, either by systematically satisfying them or by trying to reduce the level of desire.

Becoming increasingly materialistic, the world is less and less satisfied with the fulfillment of the four levels of desire. Desires no longer satisfy. Some escape in alcohol and drugs, others fall into depression or even commit suicide. It is precisely from disillusion and crisis that a fifth level of desire arises, the desire for spirituality. It should not be confused with a religious experience. It is rather the desire to find an answer to the most fundamental human question: what is the purpose of our life.

Each desire comes with its own method of fulfillment. The specific method for fulfilling the fifth level of desire is Kabbalah. When the fifth level of desire was not widespread, it made sense to teach Kabbalah only to a select few. Since we live now in a time when spiritual desire largely surfaced throughout humanity as a whole, Kabbalah should be disclosed and taught to all those willing to learn it.

Thus, there is no contradiction between a time of crisis, where, as Yehuda Ashlag wrote, “the essence of the souls is the worst,” and the emergence of the fifth level of desire. The crisis itself generates the widespread emergence of spiritual desire. However, in order to be fulfilled, this desire should undergo two processes. The first is reaching its maximum degree: a process fueled by the universal crisis itself and its resulting general desperation. The second is called “correction,” a key concept in Kabbalah in general and in Bnei Baruch’s teaching in particular. Our relation to life should be “corrected” by moving from egoism and selfishness to altruism. This is a long and complicated journey, and it also includes a social dimension. Throughout the centuries, new opportunities of correction have arisen. Moving from egoism to altruism is at the heart of Bnei Baruch’s pragmatic Kabbalah. Not only does it ensure that knowledge, the fourth desire, is used for the best but it makes fulfillment of spirituality, the fifth desire, possible.

Another key Bnei Baruch teaching deals with the idea of “connection.” On the surface, our word is not dominated by connection but by conflict, not by love but by hate. However, even if we cannot erase the ego, we can always connect above it. We cannot eliminate conflict. What we can do is create a bridge above it and build another level. Below, we are conflicting; above, we are connected. The ideal type of our connection, Laitman teaches, was the single soul of Adam, which was shattered into 600,000 souls that are the roots of all human souls, and thus our social reality was created. Connecting again in harmony and mutual love restores that single soul, and this is manifested in the establishment of an egalitarian and harmonious society.

Laitman’s Ashlagian Kabbalah is by no means atheistic. If we connect correctly, he teaches, we discover in the connections among us a special flow and circulation of a force, which is called “the upper force.” We can also call it the force of God. This force, Laitman explains, “is the force of the light, or upper world force. It is called Boreh, Creator, from the words Bo Reh, come and see, meaning that when we connect we discover it and see it.”

Reincarnation is also part of Laitman’s teaching and is connected with altruistic communism. “We incarnate time and time again, he explains, until we come to a point where that “communist” society comes to a state where it is implemented through us on earth. This means we build a balanced society where the upper force, which is the force of connection and love, is among us and connects us, and then by this we will achieve the complete correction.” Laitman insists, however, that Yehuda Ashlag’s communism should not be confused with Soviet communism, which was just a dictatorial system of manipulation far away from “real” communism.

RITUALS/PRACTICES

There are no rituals in Bnei Baruch, which claims to be a secular organization. Students who are Jews and like to pray do this on Shabbat, but separately from the main meetings. As it happened for other Kabbalah groups historically, one can say that studying and following lessons is the main spiritual practice of Bnei Baruch. These lessons are normally scheduled every day at 3 A.M. in the Petah Tikva international center, and are followed by other groups and individual students throughout the world via the Internet. The unusual schedule has raised eyebrows among critics, who insist on its inconvenience for those to have to work next morning. Bnei Baruch answers that teaching at night is a traditional “ritual” in Kabbalistic schools, and was practiced by Baruch Ashlag himself. In fact, the practice also exists in monastic traditions of different religions.

ORGANIZATION/LEADERSHIP

Bnei Baruch [Image at right] is a network of students who recognize the authority of Michael Laitman as the legitimate heir and successor of Yehuda and Baruch Ashlag. There are some 100 full-time workers in Petah Tikva, while most of the students have a regular job and follow the daily lessons by attending a center or through the Internet.

An annual convention in Israel gathers in the Tel Aviv Convention Center some 8,000 followers. In addition, there are local study groups in 107 countries, with approximately 50,000 regular participants in Israel and some 150,000 worldwide, participating either physically or through streaming (the figure of 2,000,000 is often quoted and refers to visitors of the website). Local conventions have been organized in such diverse places as Mexico, Turkey, the United States, and Russia. Conventions and courses are organized through a non-profit association known as Bnei Baruch-Kabbalah L’aam (Kabbalah for the People). Israeli media often use the name Kabbalah L’aam to designate the movement.

While the general scheme of human history and the emergence of the fifth level of desire develops ideas of the elder Ashlag, Bnei Baruch goes on to explain that we are in the middle of an especially serious systemic international crisis, which included the 2008 financial troubles and entered into a new phase in 2011. The crisis affected the Middle East through the so called Arab Springs, as well as Israel. It required, Laitman believes, a sustained effort to offer Kabbalah not only to individuals but also to society. Thus, a social activist branch of Bnei Baruch called Arvut (Mutual Responsibility) was established in 2011. Arvut is not a political party but operates through a number of community projects aimed at defusing tension in Israeli society, promoting the values of mutual responsibility, assisting the elderly and the poor, and supporting gifted youths to achieve success in school and university. Several students of Laitman are active in politics as members of the Likud party, although among the students some also identify with very different parties. Students of Bnei Baruch also formed an autonomous local political party called Beyachad (Together), that participated in the 2013 local elections in Petah Tikva. Beyachad was the most voted political party in the city and elected four representatives to the City Council. They became part of the opposition, against a majority that includes representatives of different parties.

Kabbalah in general has inspired several modern architects, painters, and musicians. Bnei Baruch is very active in the field of music and dance, where it has directly inspired well-known Israeli, Russian, Ukrainian, Canadian, Croatian, and American performers, including Arkadi Duchin, Tony Kosinec, Rami Kleinshtain, and the Israeli rock band HaAharon (The Last Generation). In addition to actors and musicians, Bnei Baruch includes visual artists whose work is directly inspired by its teachings. One such artist is Austrian-born Zenita Komad, whose works include both Kabbalistic symbols and illustrated quotes from Yehuda Ashlag and Laitman. Her paintings and installations have been exhibited in leading galleries in Vienna and elsewhere

In a literary rather than visual form, the same thoughts are expressed in Jeff Bogner’s memoir The Egotist, a travelogue of a journey from the life of a bored New York socialite to Kabbalah, from below to above, from reception to bestowal, and an example of a literary work inspired by Bnei Baruch. Another such example is the novel The Kabbalist, written by Semion Vinokur, a Bnei Baruch student and a movie director who won an Israeli Film Academy Award in 1999. This “cinematic novel,” written in Russian and translated into several languages, tells the story of Yehuda Ashlag in a semi-fictional and poetic way.

ISSUES/CHALLENGES

Although Israel had its first anti-cult media campaign in 1974, mainly targeting a movement imported from India, the Divine Light Mission, subsequent efforts for specific legislation against “cults” never succeeded. They were restarted in 2015, after self-proclaimed ultra-orthodox rabbi Elior Chen and polygamist Goel Ratzon were sentenced to severe jails penalties for slavery, rape, and child abuse in 2011 and 2014.

As early as 1992, sociologists Nurit Zaidman-Dvir and Stephen Sharot (1992) noticed a unique feature of Israeli anti-cult movement: “In contrast to other western societies, the most active and effective anti-cult activities in Israel have been initiated and carried out by religious interests and organizations and especially by the ultra-Orthodox. Ultra-orthodox organizations in Israel participate in the anti-cult movement together with very secular groups and individuals, and they denounce as “cults” groups seen as luring Jews away from Judaism or being otherwise heretical.

Bnei Baruch has been criticized by the Israeli anti-cult movement both for being a “cult” and for misrepresenting Kabbalah. Particularly vocal against Bnei Baruch in the Israeli media have been four former students, a father of a former student, a former wife of a student, and the leader of the largest Israeli anti-cult organization. They offered depositions in a civil case involving one of them, wrote to politicians, and published hostile articles both in printed media and websites.

Bnei Baruch has been accused of being a personality cult reflecting its leader, of creating a climate where students disconnect from their families and surrender work and career opportunities, of maintaining strict control over its students, and of separating students from the larger society. Critics also claim that the group is exploiting members by requiring excessive monetary contributions.

These arguments are not original and in fact are part and parcel of the standard anti-cult treatment of countless groups labeled as “cults” and attacked by using disgruntled ex-members as a main source. Even if one accepted the standard notion of “cult” proposed by anti-cultists, however, Bnei Baruch would hardly fit. It does not propose a religious “conversion” from one religion to another. Most, if not all, of Bnei Baruch’s materials and lessons are disseminated free of charge. Its main source of income is tithing, although not all students tithe and those who don’t are not sanctioned in any way. This practice has been criticized but is quite common among groups of both Jewish and Christian origin. Tithing is a time-honored practice in many Protestant churches and is a core practice in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In all spiritual groups, leaders, and particularly founders, are considered with great reverence. In Bnei Baruch there is, however, no extravagant personality cult of the leader. Laitman’s writings are not considered normative, unlike the Zohar and its commentaries by Yehuda and Baruch Ashlag. Laitman’s teaching style constantly calls the attention to what he calls the “method,” which results from the writings of his teachers, rather than on himself or his own writings.

Students dismiss as mere slander the criticism that Laitman “dictates” their choices in matters such as work, marriage, and divorce, although they acknowledge that they may consult with him on personal matters. In particular, they emphatically deny that he invites students to leave work in order to devote their lives solely to Bnei Baruch. Laitman’s writings actually emphasize the value of work. He argues that a person who does not work and thus is incapable to provide for his or her family, is in fact harming his or her spiritual path. Students are asked to be active members of society, pay taxes, serve in the army, pursue a career, and invest in their families.

Another area of criticism concerns women. Men and women are separated during the night lessons (although not in other lessons or courses), with women normally following the meetings from a separate room. For this and other reasons Bnei Baruch has been accused of patriarchal attitudes and of discriminating against women, a criticism also heard against other Kabbalah groups, Hasidic Judaism, and Orthodox Judaism in general. Admittedly, the vision of the woman in the classics of Kabbalah, including the works of Yehuda Ashlag, is somewhat traditional, and the practice of separation during the lessons is also common in Jewish ultra-orthodox groups. This, however, is occasionally reduced to a mere caricature in interviews given by some militant ex-members. They claim that husbands are encouraged by Laitman to devote to their wives “no more than seven minutes of attention per day.” This is regarded as ridiculous by students of Bnei Baruch. Works by Laitman emphasize the value of marriage, family, healthy relationships between husbands and wives. Laitman compiled a series of teachings in the spirit of the Ashlags about the importance of a loving relationship between spouses, and this is indeed a recurring theme in his lectures. He also mentions as an example his own relation with his wife, and the facts that he normally takes a walk on the sea shore with her for at least one hour each day and goes to a family holiday at least three times each year. Laitman’s ideas about women are certainly far away from feminism as understood in twenty-first century liberal culture. But they do not promote abuse or discrimination of women, nor of homosexuals. In fact, the owner of the historical Tel Aviv gay bar Evita, Shay Rokach, is both a well-known LGBT activist in Israel and a student of Bnei Baruch. At his invitation, Laitman spoke in 2011 at the Gay Center in Tel Aviv.

Criticism of Bnei Baruch should be partially understood as part of the recent Israeli remake of the older European and American “cult wars.” Anti-cultists routinely apply to Bnei Baruch accusations of brainwashing and mind control developed during the “cult wars” by Margaret Singer (1921-2003) and other anti-cult luminaries, and thoroughly criticized by mainline academic scholars of new religious movements. Within this context, it is also claimed that students are asked to sign a strict “statute” (takanon) and that some teachings are kept secret and revealed only to a selected groups of initiates. Students deny this, and academic research about Bnei Baruch has not found any evidence of these accusations. On the other hand, the Israeli controversy about Bnei Baruch goes beyond anti-cult stereotypes and is also part of the struggle for the Kabbalah.

Kabbalah has been subject to many different interpretations. They may be distinguished into four groups: academic, religious, esoteric, and pragmatic. Academic interpretations in the tradition of Scholem, whose main contemporary representative is Moshe Idel, try to reconstruct the oldest versions of Kabbalah through a study of the texts. They are often critical of pragmatic interpretations. For them, the latter simplify what is an immensely complicated system of texts and traditions, and impose a coherent meaning to disparate and often contradictory sources. Religious interpretations insist that Kabbalah is intrinsically connected to Jewish precepts and part of a religion, Judaism. In some of these interpretations, although by no means in all, Kabbalah is in fact Judaism’s esoteric content. For those advocating the religious interpretation, teaching Kabbalah to those who are not qualified does not make sense, and teaching it to non-Jews is tantamount to sacrilege.

Esoteric interpretations were proposed by occultists such as Madame Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891), the main founder of the Theosophical Society, and the founders of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. They appropriated Kabbalistic texts and read them through the lenses of their own esoteric systems.

In contrast, pragmatic interpretations such as Bnei Baruch’s deny that Kabbalah is part of a religion or of a given esoteric system. Kabbalah for them is the answer to the deepest human spiritual desires. As such, it can be taught to people of all religions and does not require conversion to Judaism or the observance of Judaism’s prescriptions. While the leading masters of pragmatic Kabbalah do not ignore the academic literature, they look for coherence, simplicity, and sound spiritual advice where scholars emphasize complexity, contradictions, and theory.

The struggle for Kabbalah between these four interpretations is not purely cognitive. In the process, the very notion of Kabbalah is socially constructed and politically negotiated. Each interpretation serves its own purpose. Conflict is almost unavoidable. Religionists who pretend that they have the sole authority to define Kabbalah as part of Judaism see in the anti-cult climate now prevailing in Israel an opportunity to reinforce their position by labeling as a “cult” non-religious pragmatic Kabbalah, of which Bnei Baruch is the most successful example. Academic historians of Kabbalah and scholars of comparative religion, who have little sympathy for pragmatic systems, may contribute the occasional negative comment. Even specific esoteric groups may have a vested interest in disqualifying pragmatic Kabbalah as a competition to their own brands of Kabbalistic teachings.

It would be naïve to see this controversy as motivated by purely theoretical or philosophical reasons. The attempt to “own” Kabbalah is largely a struggle for power. Religious and, to some extent, academic and esoteric definitions of Kabbalah are promoted by groups that have an interest in affirming their power, by proving that public opinion at large accepts their self-assumed role as the sole custodians of an “authentic” definition of what Kabbalah is.

IMAGES
Image #1: Reproduction from the Library of Congress of the t itle page of the first printed edition of the Zohar, Mantua, 1558.
Image #2: Photograph of Yehuda Halevy Ashlag. He is also known as Baal HaSulam, “Owner of the Ladder,” because he was the author of Sulam, “The Ladder,” a commentary on the Zohar.
Image #3: Photograph of Philip Shagra Berg (1927-2013), earlier known as Feivel S. Gruberger. Berg established the Kabbalah Center.
Image #4: Photograph of Baruch Ashlag, follower of Yehuda Ashlag.
Image #5: Photograph of Michael Laitman, who founded and directs the Bnei Baruch Kabbalah Education & Research Institute. Laitman was a student of Baruch Ashlag.
Image #6: Reproduction of the logo of Bnei Baruch.

REFERENCES

Ben Tal, Shai. 2010. “Bnei-Baruch – The Story of a New Religious Movement.” Akdamot 25:148-67 [Hebrew].

Bnei Baruch. 2008. Kabbalah for the Student. Toronto, Ontario and Brooklyn, NY: Laitman Kabbalah Publishers.

Bogner, Jeff. 2014. The Egotist: A Memoir. Toronto, Ontario and Brooklyn, NY: Laitman Kabbalah Publishers.

Huss, Boaz. 2015. “Kabbalah and Its Contemporary Revival.” Pp. 8-18 in Kabbalah and Sufism: Esoteric Beliefs and Practices in Judaism and Islam in Modern Times – The 8th Annual CISMOR Conference on Jewish Studies (Kyoto: Center for Interdisciplinary Study of Monotheistic Religions [CISMOR], Doshisha University).

Komad, Zenita. 2015. WE: The Artist, The Kabbalist, and the CircleXperiment. Toronto, Ontario and Brooklyn, New York: ARI Publishers.

Myers, Jody. 2011. “Kabbalah for the Gentiles: Diverse Souls and Universalism in Contemporary Kabbalah.” Pp. 181-212 in Kabbalah and Contemporary Spiritual Revival, edited by Boaz Huss. Beer-Sheva: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Press.

Persico, Tomer. 2014. “Neo-Hasidism & Neo-Kabbalah in Israeli Contemporary Spirituality: The Rise of the Utilitarian Self.” Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review 5:31-54.

Vinokur, Semion. 2012. The Kabbalist: A Cinematic Novel. English translation. Toronto, Ontario and Brooklyn, NY: Laitman Kabbalah Publishers.

Zaidman-Dvir, Nurit and Stephen Sharot. 1992. “The Response of Israeli Society to New Religious Movements: ISKCON and Teshuvah,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 31:279-95.

Post Date:
3 July 2016

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