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Pop Kabbalah and the other forms of McMysticism

Q. I recently started reading about other religions to find one that suits me and came upon Kabbalah. I started reading about it (through the most accessible books to find by Yehuda Berg) and started digging the whole thing he was selling. I liked the theories presented in his books and I agreed with the fact that the Bible was never meant to be something lived by so literally. Not to mention many of the other things talked about in his books. I knew that Kabbalah had something to do with Judaism (which I love my culture), but he never really mentioned that in the books.

So, I tried to find out more information on the internet and found out that Kabbalah is like a completely Jewish sect, and it is strictly based on the Torah. I found out that the ‘teachings’ of Berg are shunned by the Jewish community and they are not close to what Kabbalah actually is.

I am wondering, what is true Kabbalah and what is what I have started calling the ‘pop kabbalah’. I am intrigued by the things Berg says in his books, but now I am trying to figure out what exactly Kabbalah is.

I know that a rabbi was talking about how upset he was about Madonna being into Kabbalah because she was so openly pro‑gay, and apparently Kabbalah is anti gay. But maybe like how there are orthodox, conservative and reform Jews, the same goes for Kabbalah? And where can I find a book that will explain this stuff. Please tell me about “pop kabbalah.”

A. Rabbi Philip Berg (known by his followers as “the Rav”) is a colorful personality who quirks have angered many folks. In the past he was known to threaten critics with lawsuits, and needless to say, this type of behavior did not enhance his public image. Given the jealousy scholars have, I am not surprised to see people take pot-shots at knocking him down. Our society’s predisposition toward gossip is dangerous, and perhaps some of his critics deserved to be sued. To his immense credit, Rabbi Berg did what no other rabbi of his era could achieve: he made the Kabbalah accessible to many people who are (for whatever the reason) far removed from Judaism. I believe he serves a positive purpose in that regard, and if his works inspire you, by all means, continue reading them. While Rabbi Philip Berg’s organization may have suffered from some unusual quirks in the past, I have been most impressed with the Rav’s successful outreach program.

Today, in almost every major city around the globe, the Kabbalah Center has done more to bring people across the denominational divide to authentic Jewish spirituality than any other Orthodox movement—even Chabad. Rabbi Michael Berg, the Rav’s son is especially talented and is an excellent writer of Jewish mystical themes. In fact, on occasion, I have used some of his texts on the Zohar in my own Kabbalah classes.

Fortunately, Rabbi Berg and others demonstrate a lucid grasp of original texts.

What I dislike about the Kabbalah movement in general is its lack of historical objectivity when it comes to the actual formation of the Kabbalah. Contrary to Chabad, Kabbalah Center, or Aish HaTorah, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai had nothing whatsoever to do with the Zohar, but Rabbi Moshe de Leon (1250-1305) certainly did—at least according to his rich widow who revealed that her husband was just simply trying to make a profitable living—and attributing this work to a famous third century Sage would give it the mystique that would make him into a wealthy man!

Maybe one of the most important lessons of the Kabbala is for us to remember that the Torah is essentially a spiritual text and guide to holy living. To understand the meaning of the Torah, one must read in between the lines. To the Kabbalist, the Torah is a cosmic text that is full of spiritual metaphors. In an age where bible scholars often examine the Torah text as if it were a cadaver, I personally feel enriched with the Kabbalah’s approach. Yet, in all fairness to critical studies, the Torah must be studied on numerous and concurrent levels.

I for one, would encourage you to read other books on the Kabbalah that offer a far clearer and psychologically deep grasp of the Kabbalah; I think we need to be careful of shysters who scalp the public for a buck. See Adin Steinzaltz’s Thirteen Petalled Rose, Dr. Ed Hoffman’s The Way of Splendor as well as anything written by Daniel Matt, e.g., The Essential Kabbalah. Those are two excellent primers for a start, and you may want to read other books they have written as well.

I wish you well,

Yours,

Rabbi Dr. Michael Samuel