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Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I’m eating the world’s worst tuna-on-rye in a kosher Italian restaurant. Soggy bread, prefab cheese, some kind of special sauce that tastes like talcum powder. The good rabbi over there, on the other side of the table from me, chose the place, and while this guy may know a thing or two about the Lord of Lords, King of Kings, he doesn’t know squat about lunch.
But no matter. This lunch is like getting to play backgammon with the Buddha, patty-cake with the pope. I’m sitting across from the Man, Rabbi Yehuda Berg, son of Rav and Karen Berg, brother of Michael Berg, who collectively are the ruling family of the Kabbalah Centre — the world’s largest Kabbalah educational center and by extension the direct metaphysical descendants of everything top-secret and superholy in Jewish mysticism. Yehuda Berg is one of the people who busted the gates of secret magic wide open and, in the process, weaned Madonna off the yoga teat and sold her on bottled Kabbalah water and that nifty Hebrew tattoo she sported in her last video.
Berg busted the gates open by publishing a book in 2000 titled “The Power of Kabbalah” (Kabbalah Publishing), one of several on the topic written by members of the Berg family. On the strength of these writings and word of mouth, they’ve attracted a group of roughly 200,000 students worldwide, including not only Madonna, but her main squeeze Guy Ritchie and a host of other soul-searching notables, like Roseanne and Courtney Love. Alongside everyone else they show up at any of the 50 Kabbalah Centres spread across the globe and shell out about $24 per class for a 10-class self-help-styled workshop.
In Los Angeles and New York and Miami, where some of the largest centers are located, there are about 20 such classes a week, on topics ranging from parenting to relationships to reincarnation to healing, each drawing as many as a hundred students. A short lecture is followed by a discussion that takes place in smaller groups and is heavy on the caring and sharing. That’s about it, that’s how it works. No backwoods stream dunking or snake handling or conversion to Judaism required. In fact, 50 percent of Kabbalah Centre students aren’t Jewish. And this egalitarian approach has made the center the world’s hippest spiritual stop ‘n’ shop.
If you aren’t up on your arcane philosophies, or haven’t picked up People magazine for a while, or if you missed Madonna on “Dateline” a few months back, Kabbalah is Jewish mysticism. It’s been around for centuries, a sacred oral tradition passed from master to student, dating back (at least according to Kabbalists) to Abraham the Patriarch. The fundamental Kabbalistic text is called the Zohar and is attributed to Rabbi Bar Yochai in the second century. This text was augmented by a number of secondary commentaries, the majority of which were written down in Spain during the 13th century. Much of the actual nature of the mystical practice remained shrouded in mystery (these texts were kept hidden from non-Jews and Jews alike, becoming the purview of only a select few) until historian Gershom Scholem published his seminal “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism” in 1946 and a dozen other books on the subject.
Explaining the underlying principles of Kabbalah is about as easy as trying to explain what red looks like to a blind man. Scholem writes in “Kabbalah” (Keter Publishing), “The Kabbalah is not a single system with basic principles which can be explained in a simple and straightforward fashion, but consists rather of a multiplicity of different approaches, widely separated from one another and sometimes completely contradictory.” The basic theory is that the Torah, meaning the five books of The Old Testament, is a giant linguistic puzzle. This puzzle starts with the phrase: “In the beginning was the word.” Kabbalists take this to mean that God spoke the universe into creation (the language of the Torah is actually, literally, the language of God) and that the goal of mankind is to figure out how He did this. Life thus becomes one big quest to learn how to speak the language of God.
This is no simple thing. As spiritual paths go, traditional Kabbalah is an especially tough one. It is both heavily symbolic and heavily philosophical, and a great number of Kabbalistic teachings seem to relish further confusing the issue (either to weed out the unholy or to toughen the holy or both). The meditations involve everything from complicated visualizations to understanding arcane numbers theory to proper ways to eat lunch. Such rigor is felt necessary because, if you succeed, Kabbalists claim you get the ultimate Cracker Jack prize: having the same powers as God.
For centuries, Jews, even those who don’t actually practice Kabbalah, have been keeping this prize a secret. It was the strength behind the religion’s power structure. Because of this there were all kinds of rules about who gets to learn it. According to tradition, you’ve got to be male and over 40 and a Torah and Talmud scholar — and really, they mean it. Ten years back I tried to do some research about Kabbalah for a novel I was writing and quickly found that not only would no one tell me squat about Kabbalah, but everyone seemed seriously pissed off that I had the chutzpah to even ask.
Now, thanks to the Kabbalah Centre, all that has changed. Since the founding of the center the mysteries have become available to all seekers, not just a select group of Jews. “Back in 1922,” Berg tells me, “an Israeli rabbi named Yehuda Ashlag started the first center in Jerusalem because he felt that Judaism had become spiritually voided. More wars have been fought in the name of religion than anything else — Judaism included. Religion’s supposed to be a way for people to get closer to God, but instead it’s become another reason for separation.” Ashlag’s remedy was to start teaching Kabbalah to everyone — not just Jews — but anyone at all who wanted to be down with Yahweh.
“Kabbalah’s supposed to be for everybody,” says Berg. “It teaches us that a relationship with God is an individual thing — no priests, no rabbis, no organized religion.” Without these things, there’s no reign of the righteous. Basically, to guard against this loss of power, Kabbalah was turned into one of history’s best-kept secrets. And it was Rabbi Ashlag who decided, much to the chagrin of many of the orthodox, that enough was enough.
Ashlag followed a centuries-old tradition and passed his torch to his prize student Rabbi Brandwein who, upon his death in 1969, passed it to his prize student named Rav Berg who, alongside his sons, is currently the lineage’s acting patriarch. It was the Bergs who decided to make Kabbalah more practical and user-friendly by adding a few smiley faces. One of the first things they figured out is that no one really cares about forbidden fruit if they can’t use it to bake a pie. So instead of having classes about God, the center has classes about the much more practical task of finding your soul mate. Along the way, what they teach might show you a thing or two about God, but their version offers some serious personal change without putting in all that time on the hard cold floors of the monastery. No fasting, no thorny path. According to Berg, all you need for change is a bit of prayer and a bit of meditation.
If this sounds a little ethereal, well, it is. This is mysticism after all — served quick and easy: You sign up, take a few classes, and suddenly, shazam: happiness, true love, career fulfillment — whatever you want on the menu is yours courtesy of a beneficent creator. Welcome one and all to the McDonald’s of Jewish mysticism.
Billy Phillips, a 45-year-old multimedia producer in L.A., who has been studying Kabbalah for the past 15 years, defends that very simplicity. “Why shouldn’t it be this simple? Everyone should be able to understand real divine truth and apply it. It becomes very elitist if truth is reserved for the most holy. If a mother has a sick child does she have to be holy to request a miracle?”
It’s hard to attribute the center’s success to one factor — though getting Madonna to shill for you on national TV doesn’t hurt. Take Wendy Gimenez, a 26-year-old New Yorker, an office manager for a commercial real estate firm (and for that matter a non-Jewish Puerto Rican), who has been attending classes for the past three months. “I first came because I was watching an interview with Madonna,” she says. “It made me curious so I went to an orientation class.”
But the celebrity factor isn’t the reason she stayed. “During the class they talked about using the power of Kabbalah to find a better life,” says Gimenez, “that while I might be fine in my present life, I could use Kabbalah to get more fulfillment.” This better life is further augmented by the fact that Kabbalah comes with a 4,000-year-old religious endorsement. But the strangest part is that while other L.A.-style fix-your-life, find-your-God spiritualities come complete with a charismatic guru of the “respect the cock” tradition — Sri Chinmoy, Sun Myung Moon or Anthony Robbins himself — Yehuda Berg is a schlub.
In person, at lunch, he has all the charisma of an eggplant. He’s disheveled, uninterested, uninteresting. In “Ulysses,” James Joyce writes, “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body,” and Berg seems no different. His beard is patchy, trimmed with blunt scissors. He spends the entire meal with a ring of tomato sauce wrapping clown lips around his mouth. He speaks in a mumble and not quite badly, but absently, as if he can’t be bothered to fire up his brain to find the right word, but instead simply uses whatever comes to mind.
“There’s a tall, moody feeble about a gay wizard.”
“A Talmudic fable about a guy without.”
Making things even more complicated is that even if you write off Berg’s lack of magnetism as profound humility (an important point since Berg teaches that ego is the main thing that stands between man and God) his book doesn’t exactly underpromise. The subhead on the cover of “The Power of Kabbalah” reads: “This book contains the secrets of the universe and the meaning of our lives.” Not bad for $17.95.
Or, take Page 6 of “The 72 Names of God: Technology for the Soul” (Kabbalah Publishing), which has already sold over 45,000 copies. “Science, physics, biology, religion, spirituality, and philosophy all have their roots in Kabbalah … Kabbalah profoundly influenced the greatest thinkers of history, including Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Pythagoras, Plato, Newton, Leibniz, Shakespeare and Jung.”
I know that many of the names on the list did actually peruse Kabbalah — Jesus’ participation is recorded in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Newton wrote more about Kabbalah than he did about science, though those writings didn’t surface until earlier this century. The certainty of Plato’s participation, however, is not established. When I asked Berg about this he told me that “Plato’s world of forms mirrors Kabbalistic teachings,” which is apparently proof enough for him. Either way, in his books, Berg rarely points out these facts, he simply name-drops and leaves it alone.
“The thing about the center,” says Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, bestselling author of “Honey From the Rock: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism” (Jewish Lights Publishing) and rabbi-in-residence at the Hebrew Union College in New York, “is that it’s highly stylized and very far from traditional teaching.” Kushner scoffs at the red thread bracelets — said to ward off the evil eye — that grace the slim wrists of Winona Ryder and Demi Moore and sell for $5 in center gift shops, and Kabbalah water, blessed and “empowered” with magic, which sells for $2.50. Those items “should raise some serious yellow caution flags for the serious seeker,” he says.
Perhaps the center is not built for the serious seeker, but for someone like Gimenez — someone who doesn’t want to abandon her New York lifestyle for a world of God, but someone who simply wants a better life in New York. “It’s only been a short time that I’ve been coming to classes and practicing Kabbalah, but I’ve seen small changes in my life. Being a New Yorker, there’s so much hustle and bustle. I felt like I was living in a panic. Now that I’ve started using their meditations, I’m more relaxed. I’m much more in control.”
Which is the thing: The center prides itself on results. If you go there looking for a better life, you better find that better life. “Don’t believe a word we say,” says Phillips, the L.A. producer. “Look at the results. Kabbalah should work for everything, for every problem in life, and it should work 100 percent of the time.”
And for Phillips, it has worked. “Before I started studying Kabbalah, I was rich in business, but I was poor in life. I was completely unappreciative of my family, I was under the delusion that many entrepreneurs have that I was providing for my family. I wasn’t providing for my family, I was gratifying my ego. My kids didn’t want an extra million dollars, they wanted an extra hour with their father. My wife didn’t want a bigger house — she wanted a husband with a heart.”
Berg echoes this 100 percent results sentiment. Both of his books begin by imploring the reader to be skeptical. “If your life doesn’t get better by using these tools then stop using them,” he says. “Throw away my book, don’t come to class. Don’t waste your time.”
And while merely showing up is not enough, the meditations and spiritual exercises the center teaches are remarkably simple. Most are aimed at getting the practitioner to be “proactive” rather than “reactive” — i.e., making decisions that are not driven by ego but instead are driven by a desire to be one with God.
To make this happen requires working with “The 72 Names of God.” Berg’s instructions call for a little positive affirmation that takes the form of studying short explanations of the various names. For example: “Moses became a liberator of the very slaves he helped rule. Because of this tremendous transformation, the letters that compose his name hold great spiritual power. This particular configuration transmits the forces of healing.”
Study is followed by a little visualization (picture the Hebrew letters that make up this name of God) and a little meditation (focus on the letters, focus on your breath). The whole practice is done for about … as long as you feel like doing it. Like most other religions, Kabbalah emphasizes good works, and each of the centers has a variety of charity causes where students volunteer, but this merely greases the wheels of change. The real deal is the names-of-God meditations. When I asked Berg how long I would have to do this kind of meditation before my life got better, he said, “A month. You should notice a difference in a month.”
A month. Impressive. And not just to me: Even in superfaddish L.A., people keep coming back. Madonna herself has logged seven years of study.
Lunch is over. Berg pushes back from the table. He still hasn’t wiped the tomato sauce from his face. Does Kabbalah teach people about napkins? Who knows? I ask him why Madonna, why everyone else has stuck with Kabbalah so long — what’s their secret? “We live in the information age — people want real information about how to live better lives. Kabbalah is the world’s oldest self-help book. It had been hidden from people for too long. Our secret is that it’s finally not a secret.”
This story has been corrected since it was originally published.
Steven Kotler is the author of the novel "The Angle Quickest for Flight." His nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Wired, GQ, Variety and other magazines.More Steven Kotler.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)