Maybe it’s not so weird, after all

The first time I visited the Kabbalah Centre, I thought it was weird. The congregants all wore white; the man on the bimah called out letters of the Hebrew alphabet (“Alef to bet to taph!”); the letters themselves were displayed in massive typeface on posters around the sanctuary.

At certain moments in the Shabbat service, congregants circled their arms around their heads, like background dancers in a music video. And when the Torah came out, everybody held their hands out with their palms up, to, as the man standing next to me explained, “Receive the Light.”

My wife was there, too, upstairs in the women’s section. She whispered something to a friend during the rabbi’s sermon, and someone on the other side of her hissed, “Shh!” It was comedian Sandra Bernhard.

Weird? It all seemed to me a cross between Scientology and Hebrew school — full of glassy-eyed acolytes who knew more about multilevel marketing than Torah.

Two weeks ago, I went back. And what I found and what I felt shocked me: I liked it.

That’s right, I liked it.I had been reading Jody Myers’ (photo, left) just-released book, “Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest: The Kabbalah Centre in America” (Praeger, $49.95), and it is the book’s great strength that it forces a second and third look at a group that the great majority of mainstream Jewry finds suspicious, aberrant, fraudulent — even dangerous.

Myers is a professor of religious studies at Cal State Northridge. She is a scholar of orthodoxy and Zionism and a member of the Library Minyan at Temple Beth Am. In 1999, simply out of curiosity over the disdain her colleagues had leveled at the Centre, Myers walked for the first time into the Centre’s attractive mission revival building on Robertson Boulevard, just south of Olympic Boulevard. This slim, diminutive and energetic academic decided then and there to use her sabbatical leave to research the Centre.

She dug into archival, academic and religious research, interviewed numerous adherents and leaders and attended two 10-week courses the Centre offers, along with numerous Centre services and events. She devoted seven years to this work.

The result is a rare example of open-minded, fair inquiry on a highly charged subject. She tracks the origin of the kabbalah movement, examines its main teachings, looks at the particular way Kabbalah Centre founder Rabbi Phillip Berg adapted those teachings to the American spiritual seeker, and she profiles Centre participants. She rarely lets the curious down — though I suspect she will incense many readers who expect a mainstream indictment of this new form of Jewish expression.

Instead, what she offers is a dispassionate analysis of the Kabbalah Centre as one of many new religious communities that have sprung up to satisfy the spiritual needs of a new generation. While most Jews and their rabbis disparage it, the Centre has grown worldwide to attract tens of thousands of participants by appealing to a generation that is suspicious of religious authority but hungry for tangible spiritual benefits. At a time when mainstream Jewish life is struggling and often failing to reinvigorate itself, the Kabbalah Centre has successfully taken, in Myers words, “an elitist and highly complex religious tradition limited to Jews” and modified it to appeal to a large, universal audience.
It has done so without a dime of Jewish foundation grants or the benefit of focus groups, academic studies or any of the other hallmarks of 21st century institutional Jewish life, including membership dues or building campaigns.

What Myers teaches, and what my visit last month taught me, is that instead of shunning the Centre, we ought to at least be studying it.

The history of popular kabbalah in America doesn’t begin with the Kabbalah Centre. It begins with a poor Polish Russian-born rabbi named Levi Krakovsky.

As Myers tells it, Krakovsky followed his teacher, Yehuda Ashlag, to Palestine in 1922. Ashlag considered himself a disciple of the 16th-century kabbalistic master Isaac Luria, whose esoteric system of understanding the deeper, divine meanings of Torah influenced all future generations of Jewish and non-Jewish mystics. (In the age of “The Da Vinci Code,” it’s easy to see the appeal of a system of images and symbols that claims the Bible’s real, true essence is “a code that establishes correspondences between the divine realm and the earthly realm.”)

On the death of his wife, Krakovsky placed his five children in a Jerusalem orphanage and came to New York to bring kabbalah to American Jewry. He failed. In post-war America, Jews wanted their religion staid, rational and practically Protestant. After two more marriages and an itinerant life spent carrying a satchel full of his English-language kabbalah book from Jewish community to community, Krakovsky — a character in search of a Michael Chabon short story if ever there was one — died in 1966.

“Kabbalah destroys families,” his son, Shlomo, said by way of eulogy.

But before he died, Krakovsky met Shraga Feivel Gruberger in Brooklyn. Gruberger, born in Brooklyn in 1929, was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi at yeshiva TorahVaDat. Already successful in real estate and insurance, Gruberger decided to devote his life to spreading the understanding of Jewish mysticism he had received via the chain of Ashlag, Krakovsky and his colleague, Yehuda Brandwein — kabbalah means “that which is received.”

It was the 1960s. Gruberger — who by now went by the anglicized name of Phillip Berg — promoted kabbalah as a way to keep young Jews out of the cults and away from non-Jewish religions that were sweeping them up. One study at the time found that Jews, just 2 percent to 3 percent of the American population, constituted between 6 and 20 percent of the membership of radical new religions. Berg, Myers writes, wanted to “show alienated and spiritually hungry Jews that their own religious heritage contained everything they needed for fulfillment.”

Berg’s genius was in making something that was dense and esoteric into something highly accessible. What Ashlag wanted to teach to all Orthodox Jews, what his disciple Krakovsky wanted to teach to all Jews, Berg wanted to teach to all — period.