Couple's success spreading kabbalah yields to discord, tax probe

Discussion in 'Judaism' started by Nick the Pilot, Oct 17, 2011.

  1. Nick the Pilot

    Nick the Pilot Well-Known Member

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    Kabbalah: The Kabbalah Centre's founders built a far-flung empire now under IRS investigation. - latimes.com

    Philip Berg’s new wife was young, beautiful and worldly, everything that he, a middle-aged orthodox rabbi, wasn’t. Karen Berg could be pushy too. She brought a television into their home over his objections. She tossed out his traditional black fur hat, and pressured him to teach ancient Jewish mysticism -- known as kabbalah -- to the public.
     
    "Men and women together?" Philip said.
     
    "Yeah, sure, men and women," she replied.
     
    Philip understood how radical her proposition was. For centuries, elite rabbinical scholars -- all of them men -- had guarded like rare gems the spiritual secrets believed to be encoded in the Torah. Karen was an outsider to this culture. Entrepreneurial and unimpressed by religious authority, she saw no reason why such valuable teachings shouldn’t be offered on the open market.
     
    "Let’s give it to the people," she insisted.
     
    Philip was torn between tradition and his soul mate. He chose Karen.
     
    That conversation four decades ago, recounted by Karen in videos and in a book she wrote, set the course for their lives. Once so poor that they shopped at thrift stores, slept in cramped rooms above a Queens synagogue and studied scripture on a pingpong table, the Bergs gradually turned their spiritual vision into the Kabbalah Centre, a worldwide organization with headquarters in Los Angeles, branches in dozens of countries and assets estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
     
    The center’s teachings about God, happiness and the meaning of life drew a passionate following that included big names in film, fashion and music. Devotees treated the couple as if they were gods. Some considered it an honor to eat Philip’s table scraps. They addressed Karen in the third person and showered the couple with gifts, including couture handbags and spa vacations. The Bergs stayed in luxury hotels, traveled by private jet and took gambling trips to Las Vegas, according to former members of their inner circle.
     
    The Kabbalah Centre prospered, but eventually its success proved divisive, and harmony gave way to public discord. The Bergs’ lifestyle was questioned, their finances scrutinized. Friends became enemies, supporters fell silent. In recent months, IRS agents investigating the center’s finances pored over records and questioned the Bergs’ followers.
     
    Philip had always sensed that Karen’s idea of kabbalah for the people would stir vehement opposition. "We’re probably going to get killed," he warned her during that conversation 40 years ago. "We’re probably going to get stoned."
     
    Philip Berg was born Shraga Feivel Gruberger in Brooklyn, two months before the stock market crash of 1929. His family was devoutly religious. Their neighborhood, Williamsburg, filled with Hasidic Jews fleeing Europe. A thorough Torah education was a given and Philip began his at age 3. He attended ultra-Orthodox yeshivas and was ordained a rabbi in 1951.
     
    As a young man, he turned away from full-time religious studies. He later wrote that he had become "profoundly disillusioned by my religion as it had been taught to me," but he also needed to support his wife, Rivkah, and their young family. The couple would eventually have eight children. He Americanized his name and became a salesman for New York Life Insurance Co., a position family friend Billy Phillips said afforded him a chauffeured Cadillac and good cigars. In the early ‘60s, Philip went to Israel, where he was introduced to kabbalah by his wife’s uncle, a renowned scholar named Yehuda Brandwein. Kabbalah entranced Philip. Unlike yeshiva, often dominated by debates about the minutiae of Jewish law, kabbalah focused on life’s existential questions: Why am I here? How can I be happy?
     
    Brandwein, who ran a Jerusalem yeshiva, was Philip’s spiritual guide to the mystical world that would become his lifelong devotion.
     
    The Hebrew word for "received," kabbalah holds that the first five books of the Bible contain hidden lessons. Kabbalists believe God revealed this wisdom to Moses along with the Ten Commandments. That knowledge, they believe, was passed down orally until the 13th century, when it was published in a series of books known as the Zohar.
     
    Some Jewish scholars regarded with suspicion kabbalah’s preoccupation with astrology, reincarnation and a world of unseen forces. Others, including Philip, saw it as Judaism at its purest.
     
    Returning to Brooklyn, he opened his insurance office at night to orthodox Jews for the study of the Zohar. In 1965, with the help of another student and an elderly, impoverished scholar, Levi Krakovsky, Philip set up the National Institute for Research in Kabbalah, a forerunner of the Kabbalah Centre.
     
    In a tiny apartment so crammed with books that he could have only one visitor at a time, Krakovsky translated the Zohar and other texts into English. He yearned to spread the teachings, but like other scholars before him, he was confounded by an inherent contradiction in kabbalah: It taught that the Messiah would appear only when the world embraced its wisdom. Yet only Jewish men, 40 or older and with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Torah and Jewish customs, were permitted to study it.
     
    Krakovksy lugged his handwritten manuscripts around Brooklyn in a suitcase, searching for an audience. He died in 1966, never having found a publisher. Years later, his heirs claimed that Philip had stolen some of his manuscripts. They sued, accusing Philip of publishing the translations under his own name to make money and "to falsely enhance [his] stature ... as a great Kabbalah teacher."
     
    Philip denied the allegations.
     
    The case went to trial in Manhattan federal court, but just as the jury was to begin deliberations, the center reached a confidential settlement with Krakovsky’s family.
     
    Whether or not he stole Krakovsky’s work, Philip inherited his desire to expand kabbalah’s reach. That ambition might have remained unrealized had he not hired a gum-smacking 16-year-old named Kathy Mulnick as a receptionist.
     
    Oft-told tale of couple’s meeting
     
    Philip and Karen Berg are seen here at a 2009 event in Israel sponsored by their Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre, which the IRS is investigating. (Photo by Shai Halamish)
     
    The Bergs’ romance is the Kabbalah Centre’s creation story, and the family has told and retold it in books, videos, religious services and media interviews. Verifying it has proved difficult. Many of those involved, including Philip’s first wife, are dead. The Bergs declined to talk to The Times.
     
    Raised by a single mother in postwar Brooklyn, Kathy Mulnick was a self-described wild child who could take care of herself. She attended 13 different schools, and would later tell friends she couldn’t read until she was 9. Later in life, after she changed her name to Karen, she regaled friends with stories of the toughness bred by her chaotic youth.
     
    Her family was Jewish, Karen has said. But they were assimilated and ignorant of even the most sacred parts of the religion. In a 2009 interview with the Jerusalem Post, she recalled a family tradition of enjoying a big meal on Yom Kippur, the day of fasting and atonement. Her job at Philip’s insurance office exposed her to the world of religious Jews who observed the Sabbath and kept kosher.
     
    She has written that as a high school student, she had nothing in common with her boss, a 31-year-old with a wife and children. "In fact, I disliked the man," she wrote in "God Wears Lipstick," a 2005 book subtitled "Kabbalah for Women. "
     
    After six months, she quit.
     
    At 17, she married a man from her neighborhood. They had two daughters, built a contracting business and eventually divorced. After they separated, she decided to call an old friend in Philip’s office. At the end of the conversation, she asked the woman to say hello to Philip for her. It had been eight years since she had seen him.
     
    "Not 10 minutes later, my phone rang," she wrote.
     
    It was Philip. They chatted and their conversation turned to his devotion to kabbalah. Karen was intrigued because of her interest in New Age philosophy and asked if he would give her private lessons. By her account, Philip, who wouldn’t even shake hands with a woman who wasn’t his wife, nonchalantly replied, "Okay, why not?"
     
    "We made a date for dinner that night to discuss the details," she wrote later. "I have to tell you at that meeting, it was all over. We knew instantly that we were meant for each other."
     
    Philip’s marriage to his first wife fell apart, and he and Karen were married in 1971. Their early relationship was a tug of war between her worldliness and his piety. Philip threw out his new wife’s library of New Age books and blocked the door when she tried to bring a television into their home. He gave in when she threatened to leave him, Karen wrote.
     
     
  2. Nick the Pilot

    Nick the Pilot Well-Known Member

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    (cont.)

    Then there was the hat.
     
    "One day I took that big black fur hat off his head and threw it right out the window. I said to him, ‘Let’s understand something. I joined your world so you’ve got to come to mine. I can't live with this kind of strictness,’" she wrote.
     
    Philip gave up the insurance business and the couple moved to Israel shortly after they were married. They lived in a tiny apartment in Jerusalem with their sons, Yehuda born in 1972 and Michael in 1973, and drove a beat-up Fiat, recalled Jeremy Langford, an early disciple who lived with the Bergs in Israel for two years.
     
    Karen began to study kabbalah seriously. They argued over what to do with
     
    Philip’s spiritual knowledge. She suggested teaching kabbalah to anyone who wanted to learn about it, including women and those without yeshiva training. Philip acquiesced, and in so doing elevated Karen to a status well above a rabbi’s wife. In the eyes of followers, Karen became Philip’s peer: He had the education, she had the nerve.
     
    "What Karen Berg has done is what no man in history has done," said Phillips, the family friend. "Never have the words ‘kabbalah’ and ‘Zohar’ been known outside the small circle of kabbalists."
     
    The Bergs advertised introductory classes; the cost was about "the price of a falafel," one former member recalled. The New Age seekers, retirees and others drawn to the courses in Tel Aviv were from secular homes and knew little about their Jewish heritage.
     
    "We loved that we found mysticism in our own backyard, in Judaism. The teacher spoke of things that very much resonated with us.... There was no pressure to be observant," said one longtime member who became disillusioned and left the center after two decades. The former member, who continues to practice kabbalah’s philosophy of helping others, asked not to be named because relatives are still involved.
     
    Philip held himself out as the spiritual successor to Brandwein and used the name of a kabbalah yeshiva founded in Jerusalem in 1922. But Brandwein’s heirs, who were running the yeshiva at the time, publicly disavowed any connection to Berg.
     
    Philip had fewer than two dozen regular students in 1977 when Langford enrolled. Langford said he was captivated by the rabbi’s teachings: "Everything we did felt so important. The future of spirituality was dependent on us."
     
    The Bergs spoke constantly of expanding and in published materials sometimes exaggerated the size of the organization, he said. "There was a joke that anywhere he had sneezed he would say there was a branch there," Langford said.
     
    In the classroom, Philip, known as the rav, or rabbi, was beloved for his clear explanations of lofty concepts such as shame and mercy. At home, his conversations with Karen often concerned less spiritual topics.
     
    "She was always talking about money and the need to have it," Langford said. Karen wanted a big house and her husband agreed, saying it could attract new students, he said.
     
    "He could see in her no evil. He could see in her no wrong," recalled Langford, who was the first student promoted to teacher. He is now a glass artist in Israel and said he still studies kabbalah.
     
    In the early 1980s, the Bergs returned to the U.S.
     
    "He came to me and said that if he wants to make it big time, it can’t be done in Israel," Langford said.
     
    The Bergs settled in Richmond Hill, a middle-class Queens neighborhood. Karen finally had the big house she wanted, but its stately exterior belied a modest existence. They had moved back from Israel without enough money for a car, according to former student Dorothy Clark. She and another former student recalled that Karen dressed their sons in secondhand clothing.
     
    The house doubled as the American headquarters of what would soon be known as the Kabbalah Centre. The basement served as a dining hall and the living room as a synagogue. Classes were held around a pingpong table, one of the Bergs’ few pieces of furniture, recalled Michel Obadia, a Manhattan hair salon owner who studied at the center.
     
    As in Israel, the students were mostly alienated Jews who liked Philip’s combination of approachability and orthodox background. He would teach that the oft-told stories of Adam, Abraham and other Torah figures contained hidden wisdom about how the universe worked. Over two hours, Obadia recalled, Philip would discuss what the Zohar taught about a particular esoteric topic -- how to find the middle ground between judgment and grace, for example.
     
    Obadia said students would speak up about how the abstract principle applied to their own lives.
     
    "He had the language, the formulas, for you to pierce through and all of a sudden start to understand things," said Obadia, who left the center more than 20 years ago but can still recite many of Philip’s teachings.
     
    He said that at the close of class, many students would strap on phylacteries -- small boxes that contain Torah passages -- and pray together.
     
    Their congregation was growing, but the Bergs were determined to reach even more people. They turned to publishing. In Israel, they had discovered that students wanted their own kabbalah texts and would pay for them. This was a revelation to Philip, who was used to impoverished yeshiva scholars hunkered over communal books, as he later recalled in testimony in a civil lawsuit.
     
    The books sold in Israel were dense and difficult, and written in Hebrew. Berg turned to Clark’s husband for help in making the teachings more accessible. Kenneth Clark was a Chicago Tribune reporter covering entertainment in New York. The two men got together every Wednesday night at the Bergs’ dining room table.
     
    "His idea was to get this into common language that anybody could understand," Kenneth Clark recalled in court testimony years later.
     
    Philip would explain a portion of kabbalah to Clark, who had been raised a Southern Baptist and knew no Hebrew. Clark would look for ways to make the ancient teachings relevant. When Philip described kabbalah’s conception of the age-old conflict between good and evil, Clark suggested comparing it to the "Star Wars" movies.
     
    Books he wrote with Clark and other ghostwriters allowed Philip to reach beyond Queens and Israel, and the Bergs soon had branches in cities with large Jewish communities, including Miami, Toronto and Paris.
     
    They also established a religious order called the chevre , "friends" in Hebrew. The chevre , primarily young Israelis, took vows of poverty and lived dormitory-style in a house near the Bergs’ Queens home and later in cities around the world. By day, they knocked on doors in Jewish business districts, carrying Zohars and delivering a pitch about the center to raise funds. At night, they roamed Jewish neighborhoods.
     
    "We would say, ‘We are teaching Jewish spirituality.’ Most people would say, ‘I'm not interested.’ Some would say, ‘What's it about?’" recalled Shaul Youdkevitch, a high-ranking teacher who had a falling-out with Karen in 2008 after three decades as a chevre .
     
    The chevre tried to persuade people to make a donation or buy a Zohar for $360, according to Youdkevitch and other former members of the order. Many of the people they solicited did not read Hebrew, but the chevre assured them that wasn’t a problem: Just passing a hand over the Zohar’s letters can give spiritual insight, and its physical presence provides protection from harm. (The talismanic powers of the Zohar remain a central tenet of Kabbalah Centre teachings.)
     
    In the mid-‘80s, the center began emphasizing donations as a way to ensure members’ well-being, spiritual and otherwise. Consistent with Jewish tradition, followers were urged to give generously beyond the expected tithe of 10% to 20% of their income.
     
    Teachers departed from tradition in telling donors their money should go only to the center: Spreading kabbalah was more vital than the work of homeless shelters and other charities. The center taught that tithing protected donors against financial setbacks, and that additional donations would stave off divine punishment in the form of illness, family strife and other problems.
     
    Karen kept close tabs on fundraising, Youdkevitch and other former members said.
     
    "She was sitting on every chevre in the world: ‘Where are you? How much money are you bringing in?’" he recalled her inquiring. "She would say you have to be outside all day."
     
    Philip focused on spiritual matters. He prayed six to eight hours a day and continued to write books with Clark. In 1988, Philip published "Power of Aleph Beth." The first sentence mentioned "Star Wars" director George Lucas and the cover featured a sci-fi design with Hebrew characters floating under a dark planet.
     
    The book used modern worries such as nuclear war and drug abuse to give kabbalah teachings a contemporary feel.
     
    There was also a nod to a world-famous pop star.
     
    "We are living in a material world and I’m a material girl," began the second chapter. Nearly a decade before Madonna attended her first kabbalah class, she served as what Clark called "a made-to-order metaphor for what kabbalah does not teach."
     
  3. bananabrain

    bananabrain awkward squadnik

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    what fecking con-artists these people are. madonna's still a made-to-order metaphor for what kabbalah does not teach (fancy actually filling your radiators with so-called "kabbalah water"); it is a mockery of kabbalah to con people into paying that kind of money for a volume of zohar and the "scanning" practice is total and utter bollocks. most of these people have no chance of understanding what is actually in it and many would probably find the contents challenging, baffling and infuriating, as well as completely and utterly non-pc.

    b'shalom

    bananabrain
     
  4. Nick the Pilot

    Nick the Pilot Well-Known Member

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    This whole thing is a shame because the Zohar and Kabbalah are important parts of Theosophical teachings.
     
  5. wil

    wil UNeyeR1 Moderator

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    a sham.... have none gained any understanding by starting with these folks and then going onto further study with others?

    Has this not made more people aware of the potential of Kaballah and Judaism then would have happenned without?

    No benefit from any public awareness of Jewish traditions and the possiblity of reduced anti semitism due to this 'business'?



    either/both may answer....

    do the cons outweigh the pros completely?
     
  6. A Cup Of Tea

    A Cup Of Tea Well-Known Member

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    The unfortunate thing is that they put enough lies in it that it is hard to tell what it was meant to be from the start. As I understand it, their followers where not taught to find their own way. They weren't taught Hebrew (or whatever language is required) so they could read the source, but they were feed concepts.
    I hope good things have come through this, but I think that how it all played out (from the articular) it is capable of more destruction than truth.
     
  7. Nick the Pilot

    Nick the Pilot Well-Known Member

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    Wil,

    You asked,

    "do the cons outweigh the pros completely?"

    --> This makes me think about how this couple got started on this whole thing in the first place. The feeling that I'm getting is that they probably started out with the best intentions. But one of the wost things about religion is that people can make a lot of money at it. (This is exactly what happened to a lot of U.S. TV evangelists.) I cannot help but wonder if this couple also started out with the purest of intentions, only to be hopelessly sucked in by greed, which may have turned turned the whole thing into a sham. (They sell copies of the Zohar for $360? )
     
  8. wil

    wil UNeyeR1 Moderator

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    I know nothing about them other than what I've read here.

    And clearly I am playing Devils Advocate.


    Has anyone seen the prices they charge for a coffee cup, a tee shirt or a DVD when PBS is doing a fundraising drive?

    I don't know what Zohars normally go for, I don't know if they are available on Ebay, or if this one is diamond encrusted....but I do know the price of any item is determined by what others are willing to pay.

    And if folks have a choice, for the $3.25 Zohar at the used book store, or the $28 one at Amazon (all numbers made up)....or the $360 one....they have made that choice.


    So I ask again. Is it possible with all the negative aspects of this venture there were also some positive ones?
     
  9. A Cup Of Tea

    A Cup Of Tea Well-Known Member

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    A positive one I can think of is that the people they touch feel that they are moving forward or even in the right direction in their pursuit of things. That their actions make a difference, like buying a book that effects their lives positively.
    But can't get over the fact that the followers become fully dependent on the teachers in this case. I bit cult like.
     
  10. Nick the Pilot

    Nick the Pilot Well-Known Member

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    Wil,

    You asked,

    "Is it possible with all the negative aspects of this venture there were also some positive ones?"

    --> Yes, I think there's a good chance that someone, somewhere, learned a lot about the Kabbalah and Zohar from this couple. (If so, this is great from the perspective of myself and my fellow Theosophists, because the Kabbalah and Zohar are important parts of Theosophical theory.)

    I also see what you are saying, that this couple is trying to support themselves by doing this, it takes money to pay for a house and car and food, and making money in this way is justified.

    But there is the other side of the coin:

    "And if folks have a choice, for the $3.25 Zohar at the used book store, or the $28 one at Amazon (all numbers made up)....or the $360 one....they have made that choice."

    --> Not if it is a case of mentally unstable people being ripped off by someone like Jim and Tammy Faye Baker.
     
  11. Nick the Pilot

    Nick the Pilot Well-Known Member

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    A Cup of Tea,

    I agree. Another thing we have to consider is that many people have difficult lives and they need some emotional support to get through life. Religion (and reasonably expensive religious books) can provide such necessary emotional support. A full set of Theosophical teachings is 13 large volumes, weighs a ton, costs $500, and people who buy them are happy to have them as important reference materials.

    But there are also extremely unhappy people who rely on religion too much for emotional support in life -- these are the kind of people who get sucked in by charlatans. We can only imagine how many of each were/are students of this couple.
     
  12. wil

    wil UNeyeR1 Moderator

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    So how much for the ebook on my kindle? or online for my Ipad?

    Sorry to put you on the spot but you'll now have to differentiate between the scam and swindle of a $360 Zohar and charging at all for an e version of the Theosophical Teachings...

    If you want to spread the word, it is easier today than ever, has no printing costs and the entire world should be able to download for free...

    yes? no? maybe so?
     
  13. Nick the Pilot

    Nick the Pilot Well-Known Member

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    Wil,

    I am surprised you are not willing to look at this from my point view, as I have already looked at it from your point of view.
     
  14. pohaikawahine

    pohaikawahine Elder Member

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    There are so many other books and schools that help one along this path and they don't cost an arm and a leg. And just thinking and learning is sometimes free. There is a message in why one must be 40 years old to begin to learn the inner secrets (at least I think so). "The presence of the Lord abode on Mount Sinai and the cloud hid it for six days. On the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. Now the Presence of the Lord appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights." (Exod. 24:16-18) Just something to think about... Me ke aloha pumehana, poh
     
  15. wil

    wil UNeyeR1 Moderator

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    I am, it is a line of inquiry developed from your indication that the set costs $500...

    Now with my denomination we have our founders writings, and he established a printing company which still exists today. Yet none of his works were copywrited, he insisted they remain in the public domain, so now when publishing and printing is no longer required, all of his writings are available on the net for free. Yet they still publish books for those that prefer them.

    So folks have a range, they can get the metaphysical bible for free online, or buy it for $35 from the Church, $28 from Amazon, or buy the leather bound one for $125....choices...
     

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