Feature

Philip Berg, 1929–2013

The rabbi who made Kaballah trendy

Though raised in an Orthodox home and ordained as a rabbi, Philip Berg had grown disillusioned with Judaism by his mid-30s and had largely set it aside to make a very good living selling life insurance. But on a trip to Israel in 1964, Berg encountered Yehuda Brandwein, an aging rabbi considered the leading scholar of an esoteric strain of Jewish mysticism known as Kaballah. “He was, as I came to learn, uniquely gifted in his ability to draw back those who had become alienated,” Berg later wrote.

Thanks to that meeting, “neither Berg nor Kaballah would ever be the same,” said the Los Angeles Times. Berg started promoting the discipline in his Brooklyn insurance office before divorcing his wife and marrying Karen Mulnick, “his secular, street-smart former secretary.” She pushed him to teach non-Jews, and the Bergs eventually set up branches throughout the world. “Many followers treated the couple like deities, vying to eat Philip’s table scraps and addressing Karen in the third person.”

Berg’s Kaballah Centre in Los Angeles would eventually become “a magnet for celebrities” such as Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashton Kutcher, Elizabeth Taylor, Britney Spears, and Demi Moore, said The Jerusalem Post. But Orthodox critics accused Berg of demeaning the Kaballah—a quest for hidden lessons in the Torah that had for centuries been the exclusive province of the most experienced and rigorously trained rabbis—and turning it into “a form of new-age lifestyle.” Berg’s Kaballah Centre and its satellites earned hundreds of millions of dollars, drawing an investigation—but no charges—from the Internal Revenue Service and prosecutors.

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