Rabbi Philip Berg, Who Updated Jewish Mysticism, Dies at 86
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: September 20, 2013
Rabbi Philip Berg, whose Kabbalah Center International put a modern spin on an ancient Jewish mystical tradition, attracting celebrities like Madonna, Demi Moore and Britney Spears but also incurring criticism on spiritual and financial matters, died Monday in Los Angeles. He was 86, according to the center, although some news reports put his age at 84.
His death, from respiratory failure and pneumonia, was announced by the center.
A former insurance salesman, Rabbi Berg established the center in Queens with his second wife, Karen, in the early 1980s. The Los Angeles branch, now its headquarters, opened in the mid-1980s, and there are now branches in some 40 cities worldwide.
The rabbi suffered a stroke in 2004, and since then the organization has been led by Mrs. Berg and the couple’s sons, Yehuda and Michael.
In an e-mail message to The New York Times on Thursday, Madonna wrote of Rabbi Berg, “I learned more from him than any human I have ever met.”
She added: “This one concept that he taught me, and that kabbalah teaches, is that you have to take responsibility for your life. You can’t blame other people for what happens. You are in charge of your destiny.”
Kabbalah, which means tradition in Hebrew, arose in the 12th century among rabbinic sages in Spain and France. A body of commentary on sacred Hebrew writings, primarily the Torah but also early mystical texts, it aims to discern and illuminate hidden meanings within those works.
Rabbi Berg recast kabbalah in a late-20th-century light by combining it with a New Age focus on self-actualization. Classes offered at the center’s New York branch, for instance, include Power of Kabbalah 1, 2 and 3 and Creating Your Relationships.
Many mainstream Jewish leaders condemned Rabbi Berg as purveying a diluted version of kabbalah, which was historically considered so complex and powerful that only married men 40 and older who already possessed a deep knowledge of the Torah were allowed to study it.
But his admirers praise him as having made kabbalah far more widely accessible than it had ever been — to women, young people and even gentiles.
“It’s a mixed legacy,” Rabbi Arthur Green, rector of the rabbinical school at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Mass., said on Wednesday.
On the one hand, Rabbi Green said: “Both Orthodox and liberal Jews accused him of charlatanism and hucksterism. He sold bottles of supposedly blessed water called Kabbalah Water and charged hefty fees to people taking his classes and certainly became quite wealthy, unlike any prior teacher of kabbalah in history.”
On the other, he said, “There were people who derived great benefit from his teachings, who found their way back to Judaism through him.”
Besides Kabbalah Water, the center’s most emblematic product is a length of red string($26); worn around the wrist, the string is said to ward off the evil eye. In 2003, Ms. Spears, wearing the string and a white bustier, appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly.
A major component of the Kabbalah Center is its book-publishing arm, which has released many works by Rabbi Berg, including “The Wheels of a Soul: Reincarnation, Your Life Today — and Tomorrow” (1984) and “Kabbalah: The Star Connection — the Science of Judaic Astrology” (1992).
“In medieval kabbalah, there’s definitely reincarnation and astrology,” Jody Myers, a professor of religious studies at California State University, Northridge, and the author of “Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest,” a 2007 book about the center, explained Wednesday. “But Berg gave it central billing.”
The center’s assets, The Los Angeles Times wrote this week, “are now believed to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Philip Berg was born Shraga Feivel Gruberger in Brooklyn on Aug. 20, 1927, according to the Kabbalah Center; some sources give the year as 1929. The son of an Orthodox Jewish family, he received rabbinic ordination in 1951 from what is now the Lakewood Yeshiva in Lakewood Township, N.J.
But before long, wanting to steer a less traditional course, he Americanized his name and became a salesman with the New York Life Insurance Company. He became entranced by kabbalah in the 1960s, on a visit to Israel.
In 1971, after divorcing his first wife, with whom he had eight children, he married Karen Mulnick. Together they undertook a deep study of kabbalah, living in Israel for much of the 1970s before returning to the United States, where they started a modest incarnation of the center in their home in Queens.
The Kabbalah Centers functioned fairly quietly until 1996, when Madonna began attending the Los Angeles branch. Over time, they have been patronized by Elizabeth Taylor, Roseanne Barr, Monica Lewinsky and other celebrities as well as many ordinary men and women.
In 2006, the center became a partner in a charitable project of Madonna’s that sought to build a school in Malawi, in southeast Africa. But as Newsweek reported in 2011, “only $850,000 of the $3.8 million spent on the academy was paid out in Malawi.”
“The lion’s share, almost $3 million, was spent by the Kabbalah Center’s office in L.A.,” the magazine said.
In 2010, the Internal Revenue Service began an investigation of the Kabbalah Center’s finances; its scope included the center’s role in the Madonna project, Raising Malawi. An I.R.S. spokesman said the agency could not discuss the status of the investigation.
Madonna has continued the Raising Malawi project but no longer involves the Kabbalah Center in it.
Information on Rabbi Berg’s survivors besides Karen Berg and their two sons could not be confirmed.
In founding the Kabbalah Center, Rabbi Berg appears to have put his finger on a primal longing that is present in even contemporary sophisticates.
“He tapped into the fact that modern educated people can still be superstitious and still have insecurities and still have needs that were once filled by people who wrote amulets and gave blessings,” Rabbi Green said Wednesday. “And he was willing to do that for people in the modern world.”