“We were told he would live forever,” a weeping friend told me, speaking about the death of Rav Philip Berg, the head of the controversial and dynamic L.A.-based Kabbalah Centre. Born Feivel Gruberger in New York City, Berg died Monday in Los Angeles. He was 86, and had been in poor health since a 2004 stroke.
With his wife Karen and their sons, Yehuda and Michael, Berg headed the influential Kabbalah Centre, taking it over from Yehuda Brandwein on the latter’s death in 1969. For decades, Berg’s goal was to bring Kabbalah to the masses. He wrote dozens of books designed to render a dense and esoteric discipline comprehensible to people with little or no religious instruction. Inspired by Karen – who often described herself as the Rav’s first student – in the early 1970s Berg began offering Kabbalah instruction to anyone who would accept it.
The early students were almost all Jewish, often young people raised in Orthodox families who had grown disaffected with the strictly observant practices of their parents. For a while, the Bergs lived in Jerusalem and concentrated on building the Centre there, living an observantly Orthodox lifestyle. Many of the Centre’s chevre (literally, friends) joined them here. The chevre, full-time volunteers, stayed with the Centre through a return to America in the 1980s and an eventual move to Los Angeles in 1992.
It was in L.A. that the Kabbalah Centre became a global cultural phenomenon, thanks to (non-Jewish) celebrity students like Madonna, Demi Moore, and Mick Jagger. As Michael and Yehuda Berg took on more responsibility for leading the Centre, more followers poured in – as did more controversy.
Critics in some sectors of the Jewish community were outraged over the Kabbalah Centre’s willingness to teach this ancient wisdom to non-Jews, while the haredim and others were outraged by the Centre’s insistence on teaching women alongside men. Others were troubled by the Centre’s unending money-making campaigns, which at their worst involved peddling a “Kabbalah Energy Drink” and similar schemes.
Many of those same critics, however, ended up teaching Kabbalah – just not in the precise way that Berg and the Centre did. Whatever quibbles they might have had with his rabbinical training or his students or his particular pronouncements, countless rabbis from across the entire Jewish theological spectrum embraced Berg’s simple notion that Kabbalah was a way of engaging young Jews who otherwise found shul and its obligations to be dull or irrelevant. Kabbalah, as Berg was first to conceive it, was Judaism’s answer to the Enlightenment; to the Sixties; to the problem of modernity itself.
Kabbalah made good Jews better Jews, and it made non-Jews into more righteous human beings, or so Berg argued. All you have to do is see how many synagogues in Israel and the diaspora now teach Kabbalah to their congregants to realize that Berg was onto something big.
I studied Kabbalah at the Centre’s Los Angeles flagship location for a decade. The Centre drew me, a patrilineal Jew with Anglican impulses, and it drew my wife, a cradle Catholic. We joined the Centre a year before the Rav had his stroke, and were privileged to hear him lecture. Our children were given their Hebrew names by Rav Berg, and my son received his brit milah on the lap of a then-frail but still lively spiritual master.
While some will remember Berg as a divisive charlatan and others will revere him as a saint on par with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I will remember the kind and gentle man who stroked my son’s cheeks during his brit. I will remember the man who, when I asked him to bless my wife and me with a child, replied with a kiss and the words “I’ll be hearing your good news soon.”
My wife and I are divorcing. I have left the Kabbalah Centre. I no longer study with the Rav’s family. But I love him yet. While his legacy will be debated for years to come, for me he was a dear teacher, and the world is poorer that we have him no longer.