Feature

How Hollywood sees ‘the Light’

Celebrities are flocking to a spiritual movement loosely based on an ancient form of Jewish mysticism. How kosher is Kabbalah?

What is Kabbalah?That depends on which Kabbalah you mean. Kabbalah, a Hebrew word loosely meaning 'œreceived wisdom,' is an ancient branch of Jewish mysticism that aspires to a deep, personal connection to the divine. Dating back to at least the 12th century, traditional Kabbalists employ a complex system of prayer and meditation, devoting years to the solitary study of Jewish symbols and texts in pursuit of a higher plane of spiritual awareness. Although never part of the Jewish mainstream, Kabbalists are considered a legitimate, if arcane, Jewish sect, and thousands of Orthodox Jews around the world are immersed in Kabbalist prayer and study. Then there is the version of Kabbalah that in recent years has become popular in the hip precincts of Los Angeles, New York, London, and other cities.

Are the two Kabbalahs related?Very loosely. The Los Angeles'“based Kabbalah Centre, the epicenter of the new Kabbalah, teaches a mysticism that's more New Age than Old Testament. Its founder is a former insurance salesman from Brooklyn named Philip Berg. An ordained rabbi, Berg studied under a Kabbalist 'œmaster' in Jerusalem, and in 1969 he began preaching his own brand of Kabbalah. Like ancient Kabbalah, Berg's version says that God is perceivable as 'œforms of light.' But while traditionalists believe this light can be reached only after intensive study and commitment to Jewish rituals, Berg dispenses with those requirements. Instead, he emphasizes personal improvement and adherence to his unique formula for casting out evil influences and achieving happiness. Embracing the Light, he says, leads to 'œfulfillment in every aspect of your life: relationships, business, health, and more.' What's more, one need not be Jewish to pursue this path.

How does one come into 'the Light'?It's 'œremarkably simple,' according to the Kabbalah Centre's literature. The Light is radiated through the Zohar, the ancient Kabbalist text. Touted by the Centre as 'œthe ultimate instrument for generating endless miracles,' the Zohar is a mystical commentary on the Torah, the primary source of Jewish law, written in medieval Aramaic and Hebrew. Berg claims that adherents gain spiritual enlightenment by scanning the Zohar with their fingers and eyes, even if they can't read the words. The Centre also offers an array of products said to enrich the study of Kabbalah'”including bottled water, scented candles, and eye cream. The most popular 'œtool of Kabbalistic wisdom' is a red string bracelet, which the Centre proclaims wards off 'œthe very powerful negative force of the Evil Eye.' Pop diva Madonna is among the celebrities who proudly display their Kabbalah bracelets. In some ways, in fact, Madonna has become the unlikely public face of Kabbalah.

How did that happen?It's the power of celebrity. Madonna discovered Kabbalah through her friend comedian Sandra Bernhard in 1997. That year, Madonna credited Berg with 'œcreative guidance' on her Ray of Light album. Soon, Kabbalah was attracting the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Demi Moore, Winona Ryder, Britney Spears, and dozens of other actors and celebrities. Claiming that her very identity had been transformed, the Catholic-born Madonna made a pilgrimage to Israel last year and adopted the Hebrew name Esther. She also has put her money where her Zohar is. Since 2001, she has contributed some $18 million to the Centre, according to an in-depth report in Radar magazine. Madonna also sells Kabbalah products at her concerts, and the proceeds of her children's books are earmarked for Kabbalah.

Where does all the money go?That's unclear. The Kabbalah Centre is a nonprofit, tax-exempt religious institution, but Berg appears to live the life of a millionaire businessman, not a holy man. Critics, in fact, have questioned whether the entire enterprise is a shrewd business operated by Berg, his wife, and two grown sons, both rabbis. According to Radar, tax documents filed between 2000 and 2003 show assets of about $60 million for five of the nonprofit entities controlled by Berg. One subsidiary distributed a new 'œKabbalah Energy Drink' this year that is projected to generate $20 million. The Bergs recently built three new mansions in Beverly Hills, all listed in property records as being owned by the Centre. The Bergs deny any impropriety and say they make all the required disclosures. Jewish religious scholars, though, are very unhappy with Berg's practices, teachings, and the Kabbalah Centre's aggressive proselytizing.

What are they saying?

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