The models and movie stars filing past the phalanx of flashbulbs at the New Museum last week had not come to see the latest exhibition of contemporary art or next fall’s fashions. They had been invited to the book launch party for "The 72 Names of God: Technology for the Soul," the latest publication from the Kabbalah Centre International.
The 215-page, day-glo volume promises the key to eradicating "depression, stress, creative stagnation, anger, illness and other physical and emotional problems" through the contemplation of six-dozen three-letter combinations of Hebrew letters, publicly revealed for the first time.
For many in the crowded party last Thursday night, the most immediate problem was catching a glimpse of the best-known kabbalist around today – Madonna, who was in town promoting her new CD, "American Life."
The Material Girl provoked outcry from some Jewish quarters last fall when she incorporated material from Jewish tradition in the video for one of the CDs tracks. Callers to the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, for example, complained that in the video for "Die Another Day" – the theme song to last year’s James Bond flick – Madonna wraps herself in tefillin, reveals a tattoo of one of God’s mystical names (lamed-aleph-vav, for "destroy your ego") and emblazons that name on an electric chair. One Web page, koshertorah.com, questioned Madonna’s teachers at the Kabbalah Centre for letting her do such things.
Criticism is nothing new for the center, which boasts 50 branches worldwide, including several in Israel and a five-story building on East 48th Street, and study groups cropping up in places like Louisiana and Kenya.
Cult-watchers report fielding calls regularly from anguished spouses and relatives who say that the center is taking over their loved ones’ lives and funds. In the past decade, rabbinic authorities in Queens and Toronto have issued statements condemning the center’s practices. Critics, leading kabbalists among them, view its teachings as simplistic, inauthentic and even bordering on idolatry.
But some observers, while not endorsing the center, see its emergence as an important barometer of Judaism’s place in contemporary American life.
"The really interesting thing about the Kabbalah Centre is that it says that being Jewish no longer is necessarily for Jews," said Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL-The National Center for Learning and Leadership.
Jews enjoy such freedom "that one can take a particular tradition and wisdom – in this case, one take on the mystical part of tradition – to the public square and not worry," Rabbi Kula told The Jewish Week. "It’s an amazing moment."
Shaul Magid, an associate professor of Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, sees the Kabbalah Centre’s efforts as akin to the Jewish renewal movement. "They’re trying to bring back a whole dimension of Judaism that’s been cut away from the American experience."
Others are less impressed. "The thing the Jewish community can learn from the charismatic cults springing up around America is that there is an appetite for doing something spiritual that’s connected to Judaism," said Douglas Rushkoff, author of a new book on contemporary Judaism. But Rushkoff cautioned that practices advocated by the center have a "placebo effect for spiritual connectedness."
Kabbalah’s spread is undeniable. Synagogues, community centers and schools have picked up on the public’s fascination, offering courses and workshops on the esoteric doctrine.
Celebrities like comedian Sandra Bernhard and rock singer Mick Jagger have studied the brand of Jewish mysticism promulgated by the center’s director, Rabbi Philip Berg, or Rav Berg, as he is known, 74, his wife, Karen, and their sons, Michael and Yehuda, 31, the author of "The 72 Names of God."
Since its founding here in 1965, the center claims to have touched the lives of 3.5 million people worldwide, a number Rabbi Yehuda Berg admits is "arbitrary" – calculated based on books sales, visitors and students and mailing lists – but "as close as possible." The Kabbalah Children’s Academy in Los Angeles has 250 students enrolled through the seventh grade, and expansion plans are under way.
Hundreds regularly fill the New York center for Shabbat services, Rosh Chodesh celebrations and classes on subjects ranging from "How to Date Your Soulmate" to "Divine Communication: How to Talk to the Divine."
Essentially, the center’s teaching holds that the universe operates according to precise spiritual laws, similar to physical laws like gravity and magnetism, that can be understood and mastered. The key to this wisdom is the Zohar ("brightness"), the principal work of Jewish mysticism.
The Zohar is "basically a commentary on the Bible," Yehuda Berg told The Jewish Week. "It’s taking the Bible, which is the basis of our religion, and really making it for everyday life."
Following the Zohar’s spiritual precepts – as explained by the Bergs and the Kabbalah Centre’s teachers – one can dispel chaos and ultimately achieve true fulfillment. The Centre’s devotees say they are on their way.
"I see my life changing," said Linda Friedman, a marketing director for a New Jersey company "I’m happier. I feel like I understand things better."
A preliminary course in Los Angeles four years ago led to a class on Reincarnation, one on miracles and a host of electives. Friedman took a year to work for the center, helping to edit its mystical primer "The Power of Kabbalah."
These days, Friedman attends a weekly Zohar class and Shabbat services. Like many of the center’s regulars, she said she found little meaning in her religious upbringing.
In synagogue, "I would sit and count the hairs on some woman’s sweater. So what’s the use of me sitting there?" Kabbalah made her realize that the Torah "is not just a book, it’s actually a tool. It’s actually something that connects you literally to the metaphysical universe."
Such subjects as astrology, numerology, Satan and self-realization are common in discussions of Jewish mysticism, itself a dense and cryptic blend of religion and philosophy.
What seems different about the Kabbalah Centre is its emphasis on practice rather than contemplation, on "tools" instead of intellectual inquiry.
Adherents of the Berg school, for example, are encouraged to scan the Aramaic letters of the Zohar to absorb their energy. For protection from the evil eye, many people wear the center’s Red String, said to have meditated over at Rachel’s Tomb in Israel and imbued with the Matriarch’s essence.
"You can learn facts, but what’s the difference if you learn every line of Genesis but you’re still unsatisfied with your life?" Friedman said when asked about the center’s anti-intellectual bent. The center’s purpose, she said, is to help change people’s lives, "not to produce rabbis or PhDs in kabbalah."
The Brooklyn-born Rabbi Phillip Berg, a former insurance salesman, traces his mystical lineage to modern kabbalists in Israel, Rabbis Yehuda Ashlag and Yehudah Brandwein. Both men were proponents of the Lurianic school of practical kabbalah, begun by the 16th-century philosopher Isaac Luria.
The center’s Lurianic roots accounts for its promotion of implementation over contemplation, said Magid of JTS, an expert on Jewish mysticism.
"They really, actually take the notion of the power of the sacred text seriously," he said. An e-mail bulletin sent out in February, for example, requested contact information for people serving in Iraq, offering to send them mini-copies of the Zohar as a bulwark for peace.
Believing that words have power, even when they are not understood, "they’re definitely not making that up," said Magid, who also studied the Lurianic Kabbalah. But, he added, "the particular tradition I was trained in really thinks it’s nonsense." Others have called the practice "magic" and "divination." Proponents of the practice say it brings them to a higher level of understanding.
One of the Kabbalah Centre’s selling points is that it is making the ancient wisdom available and packaging it in a format that is accessible to anyone and everyone interested.
"Wisdom doesn’t have to be complex, humdrum, and heavy," the "Power of Kabbalah" states in a one-page chapter titled "The Language of Analogy." "In kabbalah, after all, wisdom is called the Light!"
Along with information, the center offers a range of products, including video and audiotapes, mezuzot, candles, a line of designer T-shirts and specially treated water.
The center has issued "for the first time in history" an English-language version of the Zohar, which costs $491 for a 22-volume set. The center’s Hebrew-language version is $345 (hardcover); its letters "are said to transmit protection and enlightenment to all those who merely scan its pages," a blurb on the center’s Web site, kabbalah.com, says.
Such pragmatism is a particular feature of the popular movement, Magid said. "Let’s just do it. Let’s not bother with the details, the subtleties, the complexities. That’s very American."
And also dangerous, critics say.
One warning repeated by those who have followed the center’s trajectory from a local group to an international organization is that its doctrine instills dependence on the center as the sole source of true teaching.
"That’s a serious concern in terms of pedagogy and the culture of the center," said Rabbi Michael Skobac, the education director of the Toronto branch of Jews for Judaism, which monitors missionaries and cults. Not only does it manipulate followers into sticking with the program, but it "denigrates the rest of the Jewish community" as "dead and lifeless," Skobac said.
Like others in his field, Skobac declines labeling the center. One Toronto rabbi was slapped with lawsuit after he denounced Berg’s people. Other critics have said they’ve been harassed and accosted by center associates. The center’s spokespeople have consistently denied those charges.
They have also denied accusations that the center meddles in marriages of people not astrologically suited to one another, and that it pressures students to donate funds in return for healing or enlightenment.
Yehuda Berg said the center encourages questioning, and insisted, "Kabbalah is about non-coercion." Anyone who says the center is a cult, he said, "have never stepped foot in the Kabbalah Centre."
Rushkoff has. In 1999 he wrote an article about the center for Paper Magazine. Today, Rushkoff, a New York University professor whose most recent book is "Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism," speaks passionately but cautiously when asked about the center and what its growth means for American Jewry.
He said he understood why people turn to "things like kabbalah" to help them "deal with the chaotic."
"How could a Madonna feel, becoming so big? How could anyone feel?" he said. "You do need a way of trying to make order out of tremendous discontinuity.
"But anything celebrating Judaism but saying people should be illiterate is not Judaism. Paying someone for magical protection," he said, "is inherently disempowering."