KABBALAH CENTRE TIMELINE
1885: Yehuda Ashlag was born in Warsaw, Poland.
1891: Levi Isaac Krakovsky was born in Romny, Polish Russia.
1929 (August 20): Feivel Gruberger (later known as Philip Berg) was born in Brooklyn, New York.
1922: Y. Ashlag established a small yeshiva and began to teach Kabbalah to his pupils. In the same year L.I. Krakovsky moved to Palestine and and met Y. Ashlag.
1937: L.I. Krakovsky moved to the U.S. and founded the Kabbalah Culture Society of America in Brooklyn (later in Hollywood).
1945: Karen Mulnich (later Berg) was born in the USA
1954: Y. Ahlag died in Jerusalem.
1962: Berg met his mentor Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein, the dean of the Yeshiva “Kol Yehuda“ on a trip to Israel.
1965: P. Berg founded the “National Institute for Research of Kabbalah“ in New York.
1969: Yehuda Brandwein died. P. Berg founded the first …. in Tel Aviv.
1970: The “National Institute for Research of Kabbalah“ changed into the “Research Centre of Kabbalah.“
1971: P. Berg married his second wife, Karen
1972: Yehuda Berg was born.
1973: Michael Berg was born.
1984: P. Berg and K. Berg set up their main residence in a large house in Queens, New York from which they launched the teaching of Kabbalah throughout North America.
1988: The “Kabbalah Learning Centre“ was founded in Toronto, Canada.
1995 (approximately): R. Berg established the main residence of the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles.
2005: K. Berg founded the Kabbalah Centre charitable foundations “Kids Creating Peace“ and “Spirituality for Kids.“
2013 (September 16): Philip Berg died. Karen Berg became the leader of the Kabbalah Centre.
“Kabbalah” is the collective name for Jewish mystical writings produced in the medieval era and afterward s 2007b:1). These writings were collected and sorted by the Jewish historian Gershom Scholem (1897-1982). Scholem published these writings, which deal with secret and hidden aspects of Jewish scriptures, under the title Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism in 1941. With his studies in religious history, he constituted the scholarly engagement with Kabbalah in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (cf. Huss 2005). Accordingly Kabbalah can be understood as a collective term for different works, ideas and practices which have been developed in a Jewish environment since the twelfth century and which have been spread in different parts of the world through the present day(cf. Dan 2007:15). During the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah, the Jewish erudite tried to promote aspects of Jewish belief based on rationalism that fitted the zeitgeist of the enlightenment. Since then, in European and American Judaism Kabbalistic, ideas and practices are of only minor importance and were scorned as superstitious (cf. Myers 2007b, 15).
However, in some ultra-orthodox Jewish Communities, especially in so called Hassidic groups, Kabbalistic elements are still central today. Different movements, which dispersed all over the world from Eastern Europe since the eighteenth century, can be counted as Hassidism. These groups generally refer to Israel Ben Elieza (1700-1760), also known as “Baal Schem Tow” (“Master of the good name”), who is told to be the founder of Hassidism. Messianic elements are in the centre of Hassidic religious teachings, as is the idea of a mystic leadership leadership (cf. Dan 2007, 121). Besides their importance in Hassidic groups, Kabbalistic ideas have also gained recognition outside Judaism.
There currently are many opportunities to study Kabbalah in seminaries, online-courses, with Kabbalah-teachers or in study groups. Bookstores, libraries and the Internet make Kabbalistic teachings available to anyone.
The invention of the International Kabbalah Centre can be seen as part of a process of the dissemination of Kabbalistic ideas in the twentieth century in the U.S. A notable role in the propagation of Kabbalistic ideas was played by Rabbi Levi Isaac Krakovsky (1891-1966) leadership (cf. Dan 2007:121). His booklet, The Omnipotent Light Revealed: The Luminous Tegument to Unite Mankind into One Loving Brotherhood on the essence of Kabbalistic wisdom was published 1939 in Hollywood, a hotbed for spiritual seekers in this time (cf. Myers 2007b:26). Krakovsky himself was a student of the Kabbalist Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag (1885-1955) in Palestine. After his arrival in Palestine in 1922, he met Ashlag, and they established a teacher-disciple relationship (cf. (cf. Myers 2007b: 26. Even though biographical details about Krakovsky are not known, it is certain that he has already come back to the U.S. in 1937 as one of the first kabbalah-students of Ashlag to propagate Ashlag’s version of Kabbalah. Krakovsky founded the Kabbalah Culture Society of America, first in Brooklyn and later in Hollywood, which existed until the 1940s (cf. Meir 2013:239). To spread Ashlag’s Kabbalah, he published many pamphlets and booklets in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish. His works had a great influence on the writings of the Kabbalah Centre. Krakovsky concentrated on Ashlag’s thesis of the connection between Kabbalah and science. This connection in mind, he understood “Kabbalah as a scientific tool for material advancement” (Myers 2007:26), that should be available to all humans. Ashlag, in turn, refined the teachings of Isaak Luria, known in Kabbalistic circles as Ari hakodsch (“the holy lion”), and combined them with the Marxist ideology of his homeland and his Hassidic religious background. Hassidic Kabbalists broke with the elitist tradition that limited the access to Kabbalistic writings to a small circle of particularly educated students. The writings were told as stories to make them accessible to as many Jews as possible, even to the less educated (cf. Myers 2007b:20).
In full accordance with his Hassidic understanding of Kabbalah, he had a great interest in the dissemination of Kabbalistic knowledge to a broad group of people, although his works demanded a great degree of intellectual reasoning (cf. Myers 2007b:20). Ashlag founded the publishing house Beit Ulpana deRabbana Itur Rabbanim in Jerusalem to publish his writings. It was this organization that the founder of the Kabbalah Centre, Philip Berg, saw as role model for his own Centre. Among other works, Ashlag published an extensive commentary on the writings of Isaak Luria and a translation of the Zohar into Modern Hebrew, likewise with an elaborate commentary. This was meant to make it possible for readers without Kabbalistic education to get an insight into the Kabbalistic inventiveness of his works (cf. Myers 2007b:20).
Philip Berg, [Image at right] founded the predecessor of the Kabbalah Centre in the 1960s. He was born as Shraga Feival Gruberger in 1929 in Brooklyn, New York. His family immigrated to the U.S. from the Ukraine. He grew up in a Jewish orthodox environment and studied at “Beth Medrash Govoha” Yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey (cf. Myers 2007b:33–34).
In 1951, he received his Rabbinic ordination at the “Torah VaDaat” Yeshiva in Williamsburg. He worked as an insurance agent for New York Life and became very wealthy. The work in a secular environment was the reason, why he changed his name into Philip Berg. In 1953 he married his first wife Rivka Brandwein. They had eight children together and lived in the Jewish orthodox community of Brooklyn, New York. During this time Berg studied Kabbalah with other Kabbalistic scholars like Levi Krakovsky. On his visits to Israel he met Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein (1903-1969) and became his student (cf. Myers 2007b:33–34).
Brandwein lived in a Hassidic community in Safed, Israel and headed the “Histadrut”, the Jewish national workers union. He was a student of Yehuda Ashlag and the uncle of Berg’s wife, RivkaBrandwein. Like Krakovsky, Brandwein tried to spread the teachings of Yehuda Ashlag to Jewish people. He established a yeshiva called “Yeshivat Kol Yehuda” where interested Jewish man were able to study Kabbalah and listen to his lectures. (cf. Myers 2007b:35). Berg was one of Brandwein’s students at his Yeshiva. After testing his knowledge about Kabbalah, Brandwein gave him the permission to have pupils himself. [Image at right] He also became Brandwein’s book distributor in the U.S. and founded the forerunner of the Kabbalah Centre, the “National Institute for research in Kabbalah,” in New York in 1965 (cf. Myers 2007b:35).
After Brandwein’s death in 1969, Berg claimed that he was his successor as head of Brandwein’s Yeshiva, but there is no proof that this was Brandwein’s wish. After the death of Levi Krakovsky in 1966, Philip Berg received his unpublished manuscripts and used them as basis for his own Kabbalistic ideas. He started developing his version of Kabbalah by combining classical Kabbalistic ideas and thoughts with New Age Thoughts (cf. Myers 2007b:39). Like Ashlag and Krakovsky before, Berg emphasized the universal relevance of Kabbalah, Kabbalah`s value as a source of science, and the social ills that could be solved through the spread of its teachings (cf. Myers 2007b:31).
In the 1970s, Berg changed the name of the National Institute for Research of Kabbalah to “Research Centre of Kabbalah“ (cf. Myers 2007b:52). It originally was meant to be a Jewish-orthodox community. As such, in the beginning it consisted of a small group of Jewish men who together studied Kabbalistic writings. He designated himself as the successor to Yehuda Ashlag and by that enlisted himself in a line of famous Kabbalists. In the 1970s, Berg published English translations of Ashlag’s work and other Kabbalistic manuscripts (cf. Myers 2008:412). After Bergs first marriage dissolved, he met Karen Mulchin, and in 1971 they married. Karen Berg was the first woman in the history of the Kabbalah Centre to be introduced into the “secrets” of Kabbalah (cf. The Kabbalah Centre 2017b). This was the starting point that changed the audience of Bergs organization. Philip and Karen Berg developed a new “universalistic” version of Kabbalah. Later, they opened the doors to everyone who was interested in learning Kabbalah, regardless of age, gender and religious background (cf. Myers 2007b:1–2).
After their marriage they moved to Israel where they founded the Kabbalah Centre in Tel Aviv. Their aim was to bring secular young Jewish people back to their religion. With a combination of Judaism, Ashlagian Kabbalistic ideas and New Age themes Berg tried to attract young spiritual seekers (cf. Myers 2007a: 417–18). Over the years hundreds of people joined Berg’s Kabbalah lectures in Tel Aviv.
Nevertheless, in 1981 the Bergs returned with their two sons Yehuda (1972) and Michael (1973) to the U.S.. During the first phase of the formation of the Kabbalah Centre until the early 1980s Bergs intention was to reach out for a secular but Jewish audience. His aim was to present his audience a way to lead a spiritual and fulfilled life by keeping the Jewish laws but without any religious obligation. In this way he wanted to bring back these secular Jews to Judaism (cf. Altglas 2011:241ff). Since the 1980s an expansion and, by that, a disentanglement of the Kabbalah Centre out of Judaism can be observed (cf. Altglas 2011:241ff). By the end of the 1980s Berg changed the focus of his Kabbalah concept. He replaced religious terms by secular ones, established centers for community worship and learning and called the movement officially Kabbalah Centre. This was the moment when the Kabbalah Centre as a religious organization was born (cf. Altglas 2011:241ff; Myers 2007b:66).
By the 1990s a major change in the orientation of the Kabbalah Centre took place. [Image at right] From that point forward the Kabbalah Centre addressed not only a Jewish audience but also a non-Jewish audience as well, and it started to market Kabbalistic ideas in terms of self-help-literature and guidebooks. The new orientation became apparent by the rare use of the word “Jew” and the less frequent references to rabbinic sources in the publications of that phase (cf. Altglas 2011:242f.). Yehuda and Michael Berg, as well as his wife, Karen Berg, began to publish their own versions of Kabbalah. Personal fulfillment, self-improvement and healing are pivotal in these books as well as on the official website of the Kabbalah Centre (cf. Bauer 2017; Altglas 2014). While in its early phase the Kabbalah Centre mainly focused on the collective study of Kabbalistic writings in recent times the marketing of the Kabbalah Centre’s offering via online classes and lectures has become central. Today a manifold offering of classes and lectures can be booked online and the Kabbalah Centre-teachers are available via the Internet as well. The Kabbalah Centre is internationally known, attracts Jews and non-Jewish. After founding their main residence in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s, the Centre attracted some celebrities followers, like Madonna, and received widespread public attention (cf. Einstein 2008:165).
Kabbalistic teachings are often linked to the idea of “En-Sof,” which is the idea of a primal cause of the universe, and to the concept of the “Sefirot.” The sefirot are ten “vessels” receiving en-sof’s emanation of light. These emanations animate all divine and human realms and beings. These ideas have been described in detail in the Zohar, an important Kabbalistic writing of the late thirteenth century written in Spain, which is the basis of the Kabbalah Centre’s teachings and practices. [Image at right] As a “spiritual tool,” the Zohar is described by the Kabbalah Centre as: “a text that not only expresses spiritual energy, it embodies it“ (Zohar website).
Other main religious doctrines of the Kabbalah Centre are explained by reference to the religious narratives of Yehuda Ashlag, who adopted the narratives of the Zohar. Central to his narratives are the “desire to give” and the “desire to receive.” According to Ashlag, in the beginning there was only the infinite desire to give, en sof (=no end), which is the Kabbalistic term for divinity. Because there was no one to receive, the divinity created the vessels with the desire to receive. These vessels are called the ten sefirot in the cosmogonic narrative of Berg according to the cosmogonic narrative of Ashlag en sof.
Another central term in the religious doctrines of the Kabalah Centre is “Bread of Shame.” This is an universal law which stipulates that we receive nothing in this physical word without earning it.
The human ego becomes apparent by the “desire to receive“ and reactive actions. “Reactive action” is another central term in the Kabbalah-Centre-ideology; it means self-centeredness and selfish behaviour. The transformation of reactive actions into proactive action is one of the principles of Berg’s Kabbalah. He calls this process “spiritual transformation.”
At the same time, in Kabbalah Centre philosophy the “human ego” is equal to the concept of Satan. To find salvation and to lead a purposeful life, one has to elevate to a higher level. This elevation of the soul can be achieved by following the concept of the desire to share. Because humans are egoistic by nature, the Kabbalah Centre offers techniques to fight the desire to receive (i.e., Satan).
Various courses and lectures are held regularly in Kabbalah Centres worldwide or online. The online-courses have to be booked over the partly chargeable website named Kabbalah University. These courses span the whole area of the religious, as well as everyday life. In addition to courses about the Jewish holidays, Kabbalistic topics, and the specificvprayers and meditation techniques of the Kabbalah Centre, online seminars about well-being, relationship, success, and Health are offered. The class offered most often is “Power of Kabbalah”.
The Jewish commandments (“Mitzvoth”) and the Jewish religious texts (“Halachah”) are important parts of Berg’s teachings, but in contrast to traditional Judaism, Berg altered the attributions to these central elements of Jewish life. He describes the mitzvot as special gift from God to humankind, especially to the Jews. The observance of these religious laws and rituals serves as a vehicle that raises the soul or the energy of a person and that transforms or, rather, refines the soul from an immature to a mature form. Only by keeping the Jewish rituals absolutely and carefully, Berg argues, does redemption become possible. But Berg suggests that the observance of the Jewish rituals without the Kabbalistic knowledge makes redemption impossible. Only the Kabbalistic knowledge would enable persons to gain an understanding of the deeper meaning of the Jewish rituals. The keeping of the mitzvot is not the only important reference to Judaism in the Kabbalah Centre. The Centre also provides followers the opportunity to participate in the Jewish tradition and Jewish rituals (Jewish feasts, holidays and the Shabbat are celebrated). Furthermore, each of the Kabbalah Centre disciples is allowed to participate in the communal prayers, meals and lectures. Even though the performance of the practices, the prayers, the religious chant and the mitzvot are adapted and the meaning ascribed to them is transformed. Their purpose no longer is to serve Jewish orthodoxy but rather to enhance the spirituality of the participants. From the perspective of the Kabbalah Centre, they are “spiritual tools” that establish a connection with the “Light.” Berg describes the Shabbat as a gift to all humankind. In large cities, the Shabbat is celebrated regularly. Jews and non-Jews are invited to pray and eat together.
The “spiritual tools,“ special Kabbalistic techniques, are the most important practices in the Kabbalah Centre. Jewish prayers, practices and rituals, as well as the meditation on Hebrew letters, are called spiritual tools. One of the most important spiritual tools in the Kabbalah Centre is the “scanning” of Hebrew letters. This practice is based on the idea that the Hebrew letters “are sacred sequences, activated visually“ (Berg 2003:38). To scan the Hebrew letters one has to pass his/her eyes over them, like a barcode is passed over the scanner in the supermarket. In the Kabbalah Centre, the participants scan Kabbalistic texts like the Zohar.
The meditation on the seventy-two Names of God is particularly promoted by the Kabbalah Centre. During this meditation, different Names of God are scanned. The Kabbalah Centre refers to a combination of different Hebrew letters of Exodus 14, 19-21, which form the seventy-two Names of God. Yehuda Berg calls this meditation a “Hebrew technology“ and attributes special energetic effects to each single name that address different daily life situations and problems. Besides the scanning and the meditation on the seventy-two Names of God, other traditional Jewish prayers also are adapted by the Kabbalah Centre. For instance, The “Ana Be’Koach“ or the “Tikun ha Nefesh“ (correction of the soul) are used as healing practices.
The organization of the Kabbalah Centre is structured in local Kabbalah-Centre-offices. There are major offices in Cities like New York, Los Angeles, London, Tel Aviv, and Moscow. Today there are about forty centres throughout the word calling themselves “Kabbalah Centre.” The total number of adherents worldwide is estimated between 60,000 and 200,000. The Kabbalah Centre lacks a membership-system, and there is no official roster of participation.
Until his death in 2013 (he was suffering a stroke), Philip Berg or the “Rav” was the spiritual leader and director of the international Kabbalah Centre. After his death, Karen Berg, his wife, became the new director of the International Kabbalah Centre in 2014, and has continued to hold that position.
There is a rigidly controlled hierarchy depending on the Kabbalistic knowledge. Berg and his family are the authors of the Kabbalah Centre publications and the primary exegetes and producers of the Kabbalah Centre doctrines. To ascend in the hierarchy of the Kabbalah Centre one must take part in the Kabbalah lessons and the religious events, have regular contact with a Kabbalah Centre teacher, and integrate the Kabbalah Centre practices into his/her daily life routines.
The Berg family, the teachers of the Kabbalah Centre, and the Hevre constitute the “inner circle” of the Kabbalah Centre. They strictly observe the Jewish tradition. The “Hevre,” which is a Hebrew term that means “fellowship,” are those devoted people who work voluntarily for the Centre. It is a full time commitment, which is seen as a great honour in the Kabbalah Centre.
The “inner circle” of the Kabbalah Centre can be understood as a sect of Judaism. Most participants of the Kabbalah Centre are part of the outside circle. These people are “spiritual seekers,” who take part at the different offerings of the Centre. They select parts of the Kabbalah Centre ideas or practices, participate at religious events or classes, and “push along.”
As a postmodern religious movement, the Kabbalah Centre transformed Kabbalistic and Jewish ideas and linked them to psychological approaches. In this regard Kabbalistic and Jewish traditions have been transformed into techniques of self-improvement, self-help and healing. At the same time, the religious rhetoric is replaced by technical and psychological vocabulary. Kabbalah, as “Technology” for the soul, has been transformed into an efficient, practicable, and simple technique of self-help and healing. Nonetheless (or because of that) the Kabbalah Centre attracts many people in different countries every year. Some of them
“test” the Centre’s offer on their spiritual quest and move on. But some study the Kabbalistic teachings, adopt the Kabbalistic practices into their daily life, become part of the Kabbalah Centre Community, and integrate the Kabbalah Centre narratives into their “religious identity.”
The Kabbalah Centre adopts and transforms Kabbalistic and Jewish doctrines and practices and breaks with the Jewish tradition. Berg simplified Kabbalistic teachings to make them accessible for secular Jews and non-Jewish people. Furthermore, he universalized elements of the Jewish tradition, transformed them into “spiritual tools” and offered them to people regardless of their religious background. For these reasons Berg has been accused of transgressing the normative Jewish tradition.
Philip Berg and the Kabbalah Centre have been criticized by the international media, Jewish authorities, academic scholars and anti-cult activists. The anti-cult activists describe the Kabbalah Centre as a “cult” and call Berg a “charlatan” who offers a non-authentic version of Kabbalah. In the media, the Kabbalah Centre was compared to “Scientology“ and its commercialism was criticized in many articles.
The allegation of inauthenticity roots in the idea that the modern features of the Kabbalah Centre are incompatible with the “genuine” Kabbalah of medieval times. The distinction between “genuine” Kabbalah and “Neo-Kabbalah” reflects the academic discourse about Kabbalah. Particularly scholars of Jewish Mysticism denounce modern interpretations of Kabbalah, like that of the Kabbalah Centre, as inauthentic and superficial.
Image #1: Philip Berg, founder of the International Kabbalah Centre.
Image #2: Philip Berg and Yehuda Brandwein at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Image #3: The Kabbalah Centre, Los Angeles, August 2016. Copyright: Nicole Bauer.
Image #4: The Zohar-Edition of the Kabbalah Centre.
Altglas, Véronique. 2014. From Yoga to Kabbalah. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Altglas, Véronique. 2011. “The Challenges of Universalizing Religions. The Kabbalah Centre in France and Britain.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 15S:22-43.
Bauer, Nicole Maria. 2017. Kabbala und religiöse Identität: Eine religionswissenschaftliche Analyse des deutschsprachigen Kabbalah Centre. First Edition. transcript.
Bauer, Nicole Maria. 2015. “Branding Kabbala. Ein rotes Bändchen als religiöses Markenzeichen.” Pp. 74-77 in Ausstellungskatalog zu Religion in Ex-Position. Eine Religionswissenschaftliche Ausstellung.
Bauer, Nicole Maria. 2014. “Zwischen Tradition und Transformation. Kabbalistische Vorstellung und Praktiken in der religiösen Gegenwartskultur.” Zeitschrift für Anomalistik 12:224–47.
Berg, Philip S. 2008. Nano. Technology of Mind Over Matter. New York: Kabbalah Centre.
Berg, Philip S. 2006. Kabbalistic Astrology. And the Meaning of Our Lives. Second Edition. New York: Kabbalah Centre.
Berg, Philip S. 2005. Wheels of a Soul. Reincarnation and Kabbalah. New York: Kabbalah.
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