June 2, 2004

by Reb Yudel
Yossi Klein Halevy discovers America: Pt I

Rather belatedly, a link to Like a Prayer, Yossi Klein Halevy's New Republic cover story on the Kabbalah Center which proves, once again, that he can find new information even in a seemingly old story:
A group of children appears and begins singing Kabbalah songs. They are students at the Kabbalah Children's Academy--part of a nationwide network of Centre schools. "At first I was afraid/I was petrified," they sing, to the tune of "I Will Survive." "I was living life alone/with no Zohar in sight/Weren't we the ones who brought/all this chaos to our lives/come on, let's convert it/Let's knock this darkness to light." Men and women are requested to sit on opposite sides of the room, and then the Megillah--the Book of Esther--is recited. Typically, it is a traditional reading, but with a twist. Instead of responding to Haman's name with noisemakers and jeering, which Jews do symbolically to erase Haman's memory, the crowd meditates on a divine name, becoming silent when Haman's name is read and contemplating the "roots of chaos."

After the reading, hundreds of celebrants gather for a buffet. People hug and call out to friends across the room. There are advertising executives and hairdressers and filmmakers and realtors. How many Los Angeles synagogues could boast such successful outreach among young Jews?

Of course, the Centre has been helped by glamour: Britney Spears was recently photographed on the cover of Entertainment Weekly wearing a red Kabbalah thread and in Us Weekly reading a Kabbalah book while lounging near a pool in Florida. Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, Courtney Love, and Roseanne have all been involved with the Centre; after Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall divorced, each reportedly sought the Centre's guidance.

Still, there's a mystery here. Why have so many apparently intelligent, successful people fallen for magical trinkets like blessed candles and red strings? Is there some promise of redemption that those of us who've tried to understand this phenomenon have missed, some distortion greater than simply turning Kabbalistic wisdom into grist for supermarket tabloids?

I get the beginning of an answer at an evening prayer service in the "war zone." The Rav leads his disciples in the Kaddish prayer, shouting its words as if in a rage. Then he interrupts the conventional service and begins chanting "Chernobyl" and other names I can't identify. A devotee explains, straight-faced, that these are all names of nuclear power plants: The Rav is trying to heal the problem of nuclear waste, which the Centre's devotees believe is spreading aids. "Whooo!" calls out Berg and his followers, waving their hands as if to send the healing vibrations onward. Pointing up toward heaven and then down to Earth, they shout the word "immortality" in several languages. Why immortality? I ask another devotee. "Because each person is potentially a messiah," he replies. "Immortality isn't just in heaven. It's possible right here on Earth."

Question: What is the Kabbalah Center actually selling? Can other Jewish groups sell it too?

And if people want immortality so much, why has noone in the Conservative movement noticed that leading rabbis in its Talmud and philosophy departments have written books about life after death?