TV Probes Kaballah

Is the celebrity-studded Kabbalah Centre bringing the benefits of age-old Jewish mysticism and learning to the masses, or is it a multimillion-dollar family enterprise scamming the gullible?

That basic question, raised with growing frequency and ever-larger headlines in recent years, was given a surprisingly well-balanced national airing last week on the ABC-TV newsmagazine, “20/20.”

Founded in 1971 in Los Angeles by Philip Berg, addressed as The Rav by his followers, the Kabbalah Centre is an American success story, with 40 branches around the world, many thousands of faithful students and followers and a thriving commercial enterprise. The center’s recent explosive growth and fame can be largely credited to an enviable Hollywood roster, led by Madonna. The celebs testify that they have found spiritual renewal and insight through Kabbalah Centre studies.

Celebrity titillations aside, the most useful aspect of the 40-minute segment for the open-minded viewer was a rare question-and-answer session between co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas and members of The Rav’s family: Karen Berg, The Rav’s wife, and their sons, Michael and Yehuda. The three Bergs have been running the center network since the founder suffered a debilitating stroke last year.

The Bergs insisted that all their teachings, however popularized, are based on the Zohar, the authoritative kabbalist text, and that even glancing at the book would infuse the practitioner with God’s energy.

“We teach a hipper, user-friendly form of kabbalah,” Karen Berg said.

The Bergs made no apology for the commercial portion of their ministry. The center sells a range of items that are supposed to be spiritually beneficial, such as red strings, candles, T-shirts, shot glasses and bottled water. They tout their merchandise as being able to cure diseases, dispel radiation and bring prosperity.

“You can do with kaballah what you want,” Berg said. “We are not God’s policemen.”

The mainstream rabbinical view was presented by Yitzchok Adlerstein, an Orthodox rabbi who teaches Jewish law and ethics at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Adlerstein, who consulted a lawyer before venturing on the program, proved a restrained but witty commentator.

He compared the “real” kabbalah to the Bergs’ version as like “taking astrophysics and reducing it to ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.'”

When shown a photo of Britney Spears with one of God’s 72 names in Hebrew tattooed on her neck, Adlerstein commented dryly that this would contribute to Spears’ prosperity as much as it would help him to tattoo “Britney’s name on my neck.”

Although there were snippets of Madonna in her “Kabbalists Do It Better” T-shirt and also video cameos of red-string wearers Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and others, the only celebrity interview was with Roseanne Barr.

“Kabbalah gets you off yourself and your ego,” she said. “I am now a calmer, gentler person than I used to be.”

Neither the TV program nor other pro-and-con arguments are likely to sway those who believe in the Kabbalah Centre’s power to effect spiritual and physical healing.

The poster boy for the center featured by “20/20” was not a lost-and-found Jewish soul, but Don Ellis, a Southern Baptist, ex-FBI agent and lawyer in a small Texas town. He has spent thousands of dollars buying a complete set of the Zohar in Hebrew and Aramaic from the Kabbalah Centre. He cannot read a word of the languages, but no matter.

“That’s my telephone line to God,” he declared, pointing to the books. “All I have to do is plug it in.”


Christianity Faltering in Muslim Europe

"Europe becomes more and more a province of Islam, a colony of Islam." So declares Oriana Fallaci in her new book, "La Forza della Ragione"

("The Force of Reason"). And the famed Italian journalist is right: Christianity’s ancient stronghold of Europe is rapidly giving way to Islam.

Two factors mainly contribute to this world-shaking development.

The hollowing out of Christianity. Europe is increasingly a post-Christian society, one with a diminishing connection to its tradition or its historic values. The numbers of believing, observant Christians has collapsed in the past two generations to the point that some observers call it the "new dark continent." Already, analysts estimate Britain’s mosques host more worshippers each week than does the Church of England.

An anemic birth rate. Indigenous Europeans are dying out. Sustaining a population requires each woman on average to bear 2.1 children; in the European Union, the overall rate is one-third short, at 1.5 per woman, and falling. One study finds that, should current population trends continue and immigration cease, today’s population of 375 million could decline to 275 million by 2075. To keep its working population even, the E.U. needs 1.6 million immigrants a year; to sustain the present workers-to-retirees ratio requires an astonishing 13.5 million immigrants annually.

Into the void are coming Islam and Muslims. As Christianity falters, Islam is robust, assertive and ambitious. As Europeans under-reproduce at advanced ages, Muslims do so in large numbers while young.

Some 5 percent of the E.U., or nearly 20 million persons, presently identify themselves as Muslims; should current trends continue, that number will reach 10 percent by 2020. If non-Muslims flee the new Islamic order, as seems likely, the Continent could be majority-Muslim within decades.

When that happens, grand cathedrals will appear as vestiges of a prior civilization (the Jahiliyya?) — at least until a Saudi-style regime transforms them into mosques or a Taliban-like regime blows them up. The great national cultures — Italian, French, English and others — will likely wither, replaced by a new transnational Muslim identity that merges North African, Turkish, subcontinental and other elements.

This prediction is hardly new. In 1968, the British politician Enoch Powell gave his famed "rivers of blood" speech in which he warned that in allowing excessive immigration, the United Kingdom was "heaping up its own funeral pyre." (Those words stalled a hitherto promising career.)

There is still a chance for the transformation not to play itself out, but the prospects diminish with time. Here are several possible ways it might be stopped: Changes in Europe that lead to a resurgence of Christian faith, an increase in childbearing or the cultural assimilation of immigrants. Such developments can theoretically occur but what would cause them are hard to imagine.

Muslim modernization. For reasons no one has quite figured out (Education of women? Abortion on demand? Adults too self-absorbed to have children?), modernity leads to a drastic reduction in the birthrate. Also, were the Muslim world to modernize, the attraction of moving to Europe would diminish.

Immigration from other sources. Latin Americans, being Christian, would more or less permit Europe to keep its historic identity. Hindus and Chinese would increase the diversity of cultures, making it less likely that Islam would dominate.

Current trends suggest Islamization will happen, for Europeans seem to find it too strenuous to have children, stop illegal immigration or even diversify their sources of immigrants. Instead, they prefer to settle unhappily into civilizational senility.

Europe has simultaneously reached unprecedented heights of prosperity and peacefulness — and shown a unique inability to sustain itself (one demographer, Wolfgang Lutz, notes that "negative momentum has not been experienced on a large scale in world history").

Is it inevitable that the most brilliantly successful society also be the first in danger of collapse due to a lack of cultural confidence and offspring? Ironically, creating a hugely desirable place to live would seem also to be a recipe for suicide. The human comedy continues.

Daniel Pipes is the keynote speaker at the Religious Zionists of Los Angeles (RZLA) annual Yom Yerushalayim Celebration May 19 at 5:30 p.m. at the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, 10500 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. For information, call RZLA (310) 274-6657.

Daniel Pipes (