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KABBALAH

ORIGINS OF THE APOCALYPSE

HERE IS THE FABLE:

A man in search of universal truths travels to Israel, where he studies an ancient school of mysticism based on the same Hebrew texts from which the Bible evolved. Absorbing this wisdom of the ages from an elderly Jewish scholar, the man achieves a degree of enlightenment he had not been able to attain through other systems of belief. With each revelation of this ancient knowledge he feels his soul elevated, his powers expanded, his insight honed and his horizons broadened.

Upon the death of his mentor, the man vows to carry his acquired wisdom to a select group of people who are prepared to engage in the sacrifices necessary to absorb the knowledge and benefit from the teachings. He will spread his message to the ends of the earth, providing humanity with secrets hidden for several millennia. He will convey this power as a means of alerting humanity to its destiny. He will become the new source of the ancient wisdom known as the Kabbalah.

Neither a religion nor an organization, Kabbalah is a system of thought drawn from Jewish theosophy, philosophy, science and mysticism. Various interpretations (and spellings) of the word exist, but they all relate to the notion of a secret oral tradition handed down through generations to a select few students by scholars and wise men. The exclusivity of knowledge and closed structure of Kabbalah gave rise to the English word cabal, meaning a private intrigue of a sinister nature. Over time, this definition reversed its flow to the point where these traits are now applied to the root word regardless of its original intent. Kabbalah, many believe, functions according to the definition of cabal, suggesting a group of Semitic conspirators working in the shadows to achieve devious ends through secretive means.

Kabbalah began as an oral tradition, an interpretation of the word of God as expressed in the first five chapters of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. In the Torah, also known as The Five Books of Moses, these books represent a general philosophical basis for Kabbalah, including historical descriptions of the origin of Judaism and over 600 specific laws.

Those familiar with the Old Testament chapters will recognize that laws are almost nonexistent in them, with the exception of Deuteronomy. The other books, especially Genesis and Numbers, consist primarily of stories and analogies as a means of presenting ideas that could be translated into laws.

Where laws were concerned, ancient Hebrew theology was divided into three sections. First was general Biblical law, taught to all children of Israel. Next was Mishna, the soul of the law, granted to rabbis and teachers. Finally came the soul of the soul of the law—the Kabbalah—concealed from all but the most perceptive and worthy Jews.

Beyond this definition, things become confusing to the uninitiated. On the one hand, followers of Kabbalah and Jews generally believe that every word and every letter of every word in the Torah conveys special significance, requiring wisdom and insight to decode its true meaning. On the other hand, stories in the Torah do not follow strict chronological order; the location of one story versus the other may have more to do with the concept of the belief structure than its relationship to tales preceding and following it. With such an enormous range of interpretations, it's not surprising that various factions have seized on their own explanation of messages supposedly hidden within the Torah. One faction even suggests that the entire content of the Torah represents the true name of God, broken into stories in order that mortals, lacking divine discernment, can absorb it.

It's a challenging, confusing and inhibiting task, this attempt at knowing the unknowable, and in one sense Kabbalah represents a technique of by-passing logic to fathom these meanings with a transformation of consciousness. Other disciplines that employ similar techniques to achieve similar results include Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Zen and some forms of yoga. Originally, extensive training was required to elevate the searcher's consciousness to the necessary level, a process involving a sequence of experiences, each more radical and demanding in its methods.

With time Kabbalah became a label encompassing the entire range of Jewish philosophy, designed to probe the mysteries of life and death by discovering the essence of God. As evidence, Kabbalah scholars point to elements of this search in the Bible, including portions of the opening chapter of Ezekiel:

The heavens opened and I saw visions of God…. I looked and lo, a stormy wind came sweeping out of the north—a huge cloud and flashing fire surrounded by a radiance; and in the center of the fire, a gleam of ember. (Ezekiel 1: 1,4)

The mystical study of the Creator may have been important, but in the opinion of many rabbis it was also dangerous. According to a well-known Talmudic story, four rabbis once gathered to immerse themselves in mystical studies, vowing to remain in deep contemplation of the Torah's meaning until they reached an understanding. Over time one went mad, another died a premature death, and a third became a heretic, abandoning the faith of his fathers. Only the fourth entered the discussion in peace and left it in peace. This tale, and stories of others who became mentally unbalanced while engaged in deep contemplation of Kabbalah teachings, served for centuries as a warning that these deep mystical secrets are not to be trifled with.

Whatever the true meaning of the Torah, Kabbalists generally agree that it is best viewed as a practical tool, not an intellectual exercise. Like all tools, it should be applied for the constructive purpose of enlightening humanity and not practiced in solitude with the selfish goal of enriching the reader materially or intellectually. Ultimately, Kabbalists share similar goals with traditional religions, especially with Gnostics. Both seek answers to vexing questions: Why did a good and merciful God introduce evil into the world He created? How could an infinite God create a finite world? How is it possible for humans to know the Unknowable?

Kabbalah deals with the mystery in two ways, one logical and the other allegorical. The logical explanation states that every idea contains its own contradiction, and since God is the sum of all ideas, He contains all contradictions. Good and evil, justice and injustice, mercy and cruelty, limits and infinity, and other opposites are all united into a greater whole that is God.

The allegorical version suggests God is a mirror that shines a brilliant light towards the world. Before the light reaches us, it is directed through a series of several mirrors; each time His light is reflected towards us, it loses brilliance until, by the time it reaches earth, much of the radiance has been absorbed and the pure light is blemished. Among the blemishes are elements of evil and pain, and humans must either see beyond these blemishes or move closer to the source of light and its original holy brilliance.

If followers of Kabbalah merely sought knowledge of questions that have vexed every culture through the ages, why were they considered secretive and sinister? And how effective is the movement in dealing with these mysteries today?

To simplify an understanding of Kabbalah and its followers, the movement can be divided into three eras or phases: ancient, medieval and modern. Each is distinct from the other to the point where the differences are more prevalent than the similarities.

Depending on the shade of your religious belief, Kabbalah reaches back to the desecration of Eden when angels, who acquired the wisdom of Kabbalah directly from God, brought its lessons to Adam in an effort to help him and Eve return to the embrace of the Creator. Subscribers to this tale believe the same knowledge was passed to Noah, Abraham and finally Moses, who included the first four books of the Bible into Kabbalistic teachings.

In addition to these biblical writings, three other books dominate ancient Kabbalah philosophy: The Book of Creation (Sepher Yetzirah); the Book of Splendor (Sepher ha Zohar); and Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation. Some followers of Kabbalah claim Abraham authored the Book of Creation, although modern scholars date its writing from ad 12. The Book of Splendor originated around ad 160, authored by Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai who, sentenced to death by the coregent of Roman Emperor Aurelius Antoninus, hid in a cave for twelve years while he wrote the text.

The author of the Apocalypse may or may not have been St. John the Divine, and its role within both Kabbalah and Christian society continues to be controversial. A few scholars label it “pagan writing,” born from the scheming mind of someone steeped in Egyptian and Greek mysticism, and composed as a counterattack on the efforts of Christians to convert pagans. According to this theory, Apocalypse was meant to serve as a means of converting Christians back to pagans. In a corollary to this idea, popular in the early part of the twentieth century, the “pagans” may well have been Jews seeking to satirize Christianity for their own amusement and ends. Whatever its origins and intent, the scenes of death, destruction and selective salvation in Apocalypse are difficult for modern readers to comprehend, especially identities linked to its many allegories. To readers more than 1500 years ago, for example, the allegory of the Great Whore that appears in Apocalypse refers to Babylon, and the beast with seven heads that she rode would be understood to represent Rome and its seven hills.

Ignoring these coded interpretations, contemporary readers, especially those in fundamentalist/evangelistic branches of the faith, appear to delight in the visions of Apocalypse, discovering prophecies and foreseeing myths that two millennia of Hebrew scholars appear to have overlooked.

More relevant and intriguing than the question of authorship or even the specific aim of the ancient books is the Sephiroth or Tree of Life, derived from the allegory of God's perfect light blemished during its reflected journey to earth. Out of this concept of an emanation from the Creator came nine more, producing ten linked centers joined by pathways. The result was a device which, with all due respect to sincere followers of Kabbalah, resembles a cosmic board game.

The Sephiroth has been traced back at least as far as the tenth century, with some Hebrew scholars suggesting it originated as early as the third century, first presented in the Sepher Yetzirah, or Book of Creation. According to the Sepher Yetzirah, God employed thirty-two secret paths of knowledge when creating the world, consisting of the ten emanations of the Sephiroth (each emanation is called a sephirot) plus the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Together, all thirty-two components represent the Tree of Life and are the central image of Kabbalistic meditation. In addition to the path that God used to descend into the material world—and the route mortals must take in their ascension to God—the elements of the Sephiroth actually spell the sacred name of God.

At this point, things become dense and complex.

The base of the Sephiroth (Malkut) represents the world, with all of its flaws and perfections. The pinnacle (Keter) represents God, or the Supreme Crown. The rest are identified in this fashion:

Chokma

Wisdom

Binah

Understanding

Chesed

Mercy

Gevurah

Strength

Tiferet

Beauty

Netzach

Victory

Hod

Splendor

Yesod

Foundation

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The ancient Sephiroth or Tree of Life, tracing the path from earth to heaven's perfection.

Three triangles are formed by the nine sephirots and connecting pathways above the Malkut. These symbolize the human body; the topmost represents the head, the middle represents the trunk and arms, and the bottom represents legs and the reproductive organs.

Employing the Sephiroth, mankind can ascend to God by moving upwards through one sephirot at a time, gaining the wisdom of each before moving to the next. Each sephirot is divided into four sections, with each section representing one of Four Worlds: the world of Archetypes (Aziluth); the world of Creation (Briah); the world of Form (Yetzirah); and the Material world (Assirah). Each sephirot also holds the sacred unknowable and unspeakable name of God, Yahweh or the Tetragrammaton, a word so hallowed that other words, including Elohim, Adonai and Jehovah, are substituted for it in scriptures employed by the Kabbalah.

Adding a fillip of gamesmanship to the concept of the Sephiroth as a religio-philosophical puzzle or ecclesiastical Ouija board was the principle that angels guard every sephirot. Their role is to prevent climbers from ascending closer to God unless they possess the acquired wisdom, purity of soul, and determination to continue their climb to the next sephirot.

Everyone familiar with Kabbalah knows and understands the Sephiroth, but few completely agree on its purpose or application. Some believe it represents stages of the creative process used by God to create a succession of realms that eventually produced the universe. Others suggest that it signifies fundamental laws of physics such as gravity and magnetism.

To ancient mystics, the Sephiroth provided unlimited opportunities to explore, intellectually and spiritually, the primary mystery of life. Tracing its paths, assessing its components and exchanging views on its meanings generated as much cultural diversion for them as any twenty-first-century electronic entertainment device produces for ourselves, although the Sephiroth's aims are infinitely higher, of course. This explains why Kabbalah and the use of the Sephiroth spread across Europe into Germany and Italy, and how it spawned multiple offshoots and interpretations. These varying meanings were either staunchly defended by its adherents or discussed only in code at secret meetings.

The complexity of the Sephiroth's design, the density of its interpretation, its role as a code-breaking device available exclusively to Kabbalah's devotees, and latent anti-Semitism all bred fear and suspicion among outsiders, many of whom suspected that Kabbalah devotees were members of a secret society bent on overthrowing Christianity.

In the thirteenth century, a Spanish Jew named Moses de Leon injected new layers of mystique into Kabbalah, and new sources of paranoia among outsiders who considered the movement a threat. Depending upon your point of view, de Leon was either a brilliant religious mystic with the good fortune to stumble upon an ancient Kabbalah document, or a medieval P. T. Barnum.

Born in 1250, Moses de Leon could use colorful phrases devoid of any well-defined thought to pontificate on almost any subject, like today's ebullient pitchmen selling kitchen gadgets on late-night television. He wrote several manuscripts dealing with Kabbalistic principles, some of them intentionally provocative, but his Midrash de R. Shimeon bar Yochai, better known as the Zohar (“Splendor”), essentially revitalized and redirected Kabbalah.

Written in Aramaic, the language of the Talmud, the Zohar is an extended commentary on the Torah, the first five works of the Bible, seeking to explore the mystical aspects of its familiar stories. The Zohar defines the human soul as comprising three elements:nefesh, or lower animal part, linked to instincts and bodily cravings; ruach, or middle soul, containing moral virtues; and neshamah, the highest measure of the soul. Besides separating man from animals, the neshamah enables humankind to share in an afterlife. De Leon, who claimed he had come into possession of the original document drafted by Rabbi bar Yochai, produced and sold several copies.

From the outset, readers of the Zohar were split about its meaning and authenticity. The most ardent followers of Kabbalah and many eminent scholars of the Talmud accepted de Leon's claim that the Zohar's contents were revelations from God handed down through Rabbi bar Yochai to his devoted disciples more than 1000 years earlier. Others were less certain, and more than a few suspected de Leon of fraud. This latter opinion is supported by the story of a wealthy man who, following de Leon's death in 1305, approached de Leon's widow and offered a large sum of money in exchange for the original ancient document of the Zohar. The widow, left destitute, confessed there was no original: her husband had been the sole author. “When I asked him many times why he put his teachings in the mouths of others,” she explained, “he always answered that doctrines placed in the mouth of the miracle-working Shimeon would be a better source of profit.”

The wealthy man who sought the original Zohar copy may have been disillusioned by this story but other, more fanatic followers were not. “If de Leon indeed wrote these words,” they countered, “then he wrote them aided by the magic power of the Holy Name, and it does not matter into whose mouth he meant to place them—they emanated from the mouth of God, and that is all we need.”

The fanatics won out, based in part on de Leon's attractive writing style that convinced many followers only God could have spoken with such eloquence. Soon the Zohar was being quoted with as much veneration as was the Bible, and even Talmudic scholars began to regard it as a sacred book, turning to it as an authority when dealing with various theological questions.

Success begets success, in both publishing and theology. Soon a later addition to the Zohar appeared. Titled the Raaya Meheimna, its unknown author added two more parts of the soul to the Zohar's description: the chayyah, which provides mankind with an awareness of the divine life force; and the yehidah, the highest plane of the soul, where union with God becomes attainable.

The Zohar, Talmud and Sephiroth may provide both a source of rich inspiration and a fount of endless speculation for its followers, but how could such arcane viewpoints propel Kabbalah into the realm of secret societies and the whirlwinds of threats and conspiracies they share?

Anti-Semitism played its usual role, aided from time to time by infallible self-fulfilling speculation. From the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries, it was acknowledged in Britain with some distress that Jews held secret religious ceremonies, where elements of Kabbalah were discussed. And it was no doubt true. The British alarmists conveniently forgot, or overlooked the fact, that Edward i had expelled Jews from England in 1290. Those who ventured back, along with their descendants, were forced to hold clandestine services while denying their own existence, meeting the classic prerequisites of a secret society.

Kabbalah, with all of its complexities and mysticism, provided conspiracy proponents with everything needed to brand the movement subversive and dangerous. In her well-researched but outrageously racist Secret Societies and Subversive Movements, author Nesta H. Webster proposed two Kabbalahs. The ancient version, i.e., before the appearance of the Zohar was the Good Kabbalah, filled with wisdom handed down over generations by Jewish patriarchs. The modern Kabbalah, including the Zohar and its spin-offs, was simply evil. According to Webster, the Zohar's original wise counsel had been “mingled by the Rabbis with barbaric superstitions, combined with their own imaginings and henceforth marked with their seal,” qualifying it in Webster's judgment as “false, condemnable and condemned by the Holy See, the work of Rabbis who have also falsified and perverted the Talmudic tradition.”

Whenever the opportunity arose, the antics of one individual or another served to personify Kabbalah and its subversive nature for people who chose to see it in that light. None was better suited for the task in the mid-1700s than Hayyim Samuel Jacob Falk, a well-known London eccentric. In addition to promoting an association with Kabbalah, Falk claimed to perform miracles, a talent he drew from the wisdom of Kabbalah. Falk could burn a small candle for weeks, fill his cellar with coal by repeating a special incantation, and exchange an expensive dinner plate with a pawnbroker for cash only to have the plate mysteriously appear in his home before he returned. Or so the stories went. When London's Great Synagogue was threatened by fire, Falk reportedly averted disaster by writing four Hebrew letters on the door, causing the fire to by-pass the building even as it consumed other structures.

Falk appears to have reveled in the sense of mystery and occult practices that enveloped him. He also enjoyed living well—asceticism had no place in Falk's lifestyle. A letter written by a contemporary of Falk to a friend described an encounter with the Kabbalah mystic:

His chamber is lighted up by a silver candlestick on the wall, with a central eight-branched lamp made of pure silver of beaten work. And albeit it contained oil to burn a day and a night, it remained enkindled for three weeks. On one occasion he remained secluded in his room for six weeks without meat or drink. When at the conclusion of this period ten persons were summoned to enter, they found him seated on a sort of throne, his head covered with a golden turban, a golden chain round his neck with a pendent silver star on which sacred names were inscribed. Verily this man stands alone in his generation by reason of his knowledge of holy mysteries. I cannot recount to you all the wonders he accomplishes. I am grateful in that I have been found worthy to be received among those who dwell within the shadow of his wisdom.

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Hayyim Samuel Jacob Falk and the “proof” of a Kabbalah-Freemason connection.

Falk's wealth and the power of his personality attracted the equally rich and famous to his side, including dukes, princes, diplomats and bankers. When he died, Falk was one of the wealthiest men in London, bequeathing enormous sums of money to charities and synagogues; more than a century later, annual payments from his estate were still being paid to the poor.

All of this might have served as the innocent antics of a colorful character except for his Kabbalah connection and a portrait, widely circulated after his death, in which Falk is posed with a compass and Star of David. With an “Aha!” that must have echoed from London to Lisbon, conspiracy theorists claimed the star was not a symbol of Judaism, but two inter-locked triangles, emblematic of Freemasons—a proposal made obvious, they insisted, by the presence of a compass.

The claimed linkage with Freemasons was enough to vault the Kabbalah back onto the secret societies horse, which immediately galloped off in all directions. The first stop was the Sephiroth, where the conspiracy buffs beheld a fascinating assortment of concealed messages. Tiferet (Beauty) occupies the central position within the Sephiroth. Later interpretations suggested that the Tiferet experience required the individual to pass from human form into a “formless” condition, a process Freudians might call “transcending the ego,” leading to rebirth or resurrection, and eventually metamorphosing into a symbol of Christ. From there it was a small step to associate this with the Holy Grail, supposedly possessed by Templars and later Masons, inspiring fresh connections to new galaxies of secret conspiracies. These revised interpretations, limited only by the instigator's imagination, produced a herd of unrestricted, uninhibited and often unfathomable organizations that treated the various occult philosophies like a smorgasbord of mystiques waiting to be sampled.

One of these groups was the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which employed Kabbalah philosophy as the foundation of an exotic stew combining the Sephiroth with various Greek and Egyptian deities. For added flavor, Hindu and Buddhist theories were added, the potage served on dishes borrowed from the Freemasons and Rosicrucians.

Riding a wave of interest in the occult, the Golden Dawn attracted members of the British elite whose lives needed an injection of mystery regardless of origin or validity. Perhaps the most admired and celebrated of the Golden Dawn members was the poet William Butler Yeats who, we have seen, also plumbed Druidic thought for inspiration. The most reviled and infamous member was undoubtedly Aleister Crowley.

Born in 1875 in a family that had inherited substantial wealth from his grandfather, Crowley became fixated on sex in the midst of strict high-Victorian values, a contradiction that may explain his bizarre life. At age fourteen, he impregnated one of the family housemaids and was tossed from various schools for similar behavior; one school expelled him when it was discovered he had contracted gonorrhea from a prostitute. Still, he was intelligent (and wealthy) enough to be enrolled at Cambridge University, where he spent much of his time composing sexually explicit poetry. On the day he turned twenty-one, having claim to his portion of the family inheritance, Crowley left Cambridge with little regret on either side, and launched a life of sexual excess, narcotics addiction, extensive travel and mystical curiosity. He even found time to write several books.

Joining Golden Dawn exposed Crowley to the Sephiroth. Inspired by the idea of a mechanical means for exploring inner mysteries of the soul, he launched his own organization, the Astrum Argenium, or Silver Star, and assumed control of the Ordo Templi Orientis(Order of Oriental Templars), or oto. Both employed aspects of Kabbalah in their teachings. Thanks to his over-the-top sexuality (“I rave and I rape and I rip and I rend” is from one of his more prosaic works) and his extensive writings, absorbed with relish by late-Edwardian readers even while being condemned for their amorality, Crowley became a figure of note throughout Europe. He resided for many years in Italy and Egypt where, between orgies and opium parties, he managed to complete several manuscripts. Two of his best-known books, Diary of a Drug Fiend and Magick in Theory and Practice, make sidelong references to his study of Kabbalah and the Sephiroth. Another publication, Liber 777, consists of a set of tables connecting ceremonial magic and religious tenets from both eastern and western religions with 32 numbers, representing the 10 sepherots and the 22 paths within the Sephiroth. His notoriety and his association with Kabbalah, as contrived as it was, strengthened the conviction in some quarters that the Jewish mystical philosophy represented a serious danger to Christian values, and was part of some unarticulated global conspiracy.

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The notorious Aleister Crowley as a youth. Between orgies and opium parties, he discovered Kabbalah.

Crowley died penniless in 1947. His personal influence may have waned over the years, but he succeeded in establishing Kabbalah in the minds of many people as a secret organization with connections to the Templars and Freemasons, among others.

Remember the fable of the man who ventured to Israel in search of universal truths and ancient wisdom, returning with hidden secrets of the Kabbalah? His name was Feivel Gruberger. He made his trip to Israel in 1968, not in search of understanding but in search of people to buy insurance policies he was peddling, and to avoid paying support to the wife and eight children he left behind in Brooklyn. To soften any loneliness he might experience in his new land, Gruberger was accompanied by his former office secretary, a divorcee named Karen.

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Brooklyn insurance agent Feivel Gruberger morphed into Philip Berg, modern Kabbalah guru.

Whatever opportunities may have arisen to sell insurance in Israel were abandoned when Gruberger encountered Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein, an eminent scholar of Kabbalah. According to widely dispensed lore, Gruberger absorbed all of Rabbi Brandwein's deep knowledge of Kabbalah, exceeding his mentor's insight and understanding of the complex religious philosophy, or so he claimed. Calling Gruberger a quick study is something of an understatement because, when the rabbi died within a year of encountering Gruberger, the former insurance salesman assumed directorship of Brandwein's organization.

Soon after Rabbi Brandwein's passing, Gruberger transformed himself into a direct descendant of Moses named Philip Berg, the world's leading authority on Kabbalah, and converted the rabbi's long-established seminary into The Kabbalah Center, moving its headquarters to Los Angeles, California. Gone was any reference to Feivel Gruberger, the philandering insurance salesman, or his family in Brooklyn. Gone too was the insurance office secretary who had accompanied Gruberger to Israel. The divorced mother of two who previously had demonstrated neither interest nor aptitude in religion and spirituality was now Karen Berg, author of several distinguished books on Kabbalah.

The appearance of a California-based mystical religious assembly, promising everything from spiritual comfort to better sex, attracted converts from the beginning, not an unusual event. Such groups in California are almost as prolific as the state's orange groves, and the shelf life of both products is often similar. But the Kabbalah Center proved different in many ways.

First, its structure and appeal were unique. No other sect could boast 2000 years of acquired wisdom, plus a road map to spiritual knowledge in the form of the Sephiroth. Also, access was as easy as a McDonald's drive-through window. Instead of parsing philosophical dogma written in an ancient style, peppered with vague references and thickened with allegories, neophytes need only follow a visual ten-step process with various pathways to explore at their own pace. For an extra measure of fun, they could attempt to decipher various clues appearing as letters of the Hebrew alphabet, but this was optional and unnecessary, according to Kabbalah Center leaders.

It was a strange adaptation of an ancient faith structure. Medieval scholars once believed the Sephiroth represented a corridor towards enlightenment. Now many Californians eager to sample the Creed of the Month considered it a fashionable diversion, a claim to inner peace and understanding that others had yet to embrace.

Berg and his staff, which included Karen's sons Yehuda and Michael, proved to be brilliant marketers. After serving for two millennia as a mystical solution to the deepest questions of spiritual life, Kabbalah was transformed into a supermarket of pious accoutrements, a Wal-Mart of fashion-of-the-day spiritual trinkets and treatises. By 2005, more than twenty books and CDs, all authored by Karen Berg and her sons, had been cranked out. With titles like God Wears Lipstick, and a twenty-two-volume version of the Zohar, the collection represented at best a successful marketing exploitation of gullible dilettantes and at worst a mockery of an ancient tradition. As though to test the credulity of their followers, the Bergs added products ranging from scented candles and Kabbalah baby clothing to blessed mineral water and boxes of seventy-two stones, each invisibly imprinted with a different name for God. It is, of course, a test of faith to believe that anything is on the stones. But perhaps that's the point.

The height (or depth) of its marketing scheme was reached with its most successful and profitable gimmick: a short piece of red string cut, it is claimed, from a strand once wrapped around the tomb of the Hebrew matriarch Rachel. Kabbalah believers are assured when the string is tied around the left wrist in the prescribed manner

we can receive a vital connection to the protective energies surrounding the tomb of Rachel. It also allows us to take Rachel's powerful protective energy with us and draw from it anytime. By seeking the Light of holy persons, such as Rachel, we can use their powerful influence to assist us. According to Kabbalah, Rachel represents the physical world in which we live.

Shipped complete with Operating Manual, the two-foot length of string sells for $26.

Tying the string may be the most difficult action Kabbalah members need perform to achieve wisdom. While it is important for followers to purchase books from the Kabbalah Center, it is not necessary to read their contents. Berg and his instructors assure everyone that simply passing your fingertips over the text, in a process called “speed meditation,” enables you to absorb their wisdom. This technique will undoubtedly prove popular among college students cramming for exams.

Devout Jews were appalled and cynics were amused over the concept of a blessed piece of string and other Kabbalah items being priced so outrageously, and being taken so seriously. Their reactions changed to dismay when many show business stars began praising the Kabbalah Centers, paying homage to ex-insurance salesman Berg and wearing the blessed red string on their wrists. Among the most vocal and influential celebrity members were Madonna, Britney Spears, Demi Moore, Paris Hilton, Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, Diane Keaton, and David and Victoria Beckham. As a result of the public embrace of Berg and his Kabbalah Centers by these and other notable characters, weavers around the world began dying string red to be sold for $1 per inch.

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Mick Jagger, David Beckham, Madonna and Paris Hilton are among the celebrities who turn to Kabbalah for strength and solace.

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The Kabbalah red string comes with its own operating manual.

An empire was born. Soon more than two dozen Kabbalah Centers were in operation around the world, in locations from Russia and Poland to Brazil and Canada, each with ballooning membership lists. The appeal was obvious. How else could an ordinary person belong to the same club as Madonna and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York? Or wear a bracelet identical to the one clinging to Liz Taylor's left wrist?

Psychologists were not surprised at the enthusiasm of high-profile celebrities to embrace Berg's materialistic-based pseudo-religion. The appeal, they suggest, is not one of seeking the wisdom of the ages but of finding a way to deal with acquired guilt. Many celebrities are enormously insecure over their success, knowing that thousands of others with equal talent but less luck remain unknown and unheralded. Why do the stars bask in glory and wealth while others struggle through anonymity and near-poverty? They crave an explanation to assuage their guilt, and flock around any system of belief that preaches their success was preordained or stage-managed in some manner. With baffling irony, those who were rejected mimic the actions of their celebrity heroes.

Membership in the Kabbalah Centers, along with sales of Kabbalah-branded items and a 10 percent tithe from its followers, unleashed a flood of money into the pockets of the Bergs. Karen and her sons reside in side-by-side Beverly Hills mansions, while Philip Berg, a.k.a. Feivel Gruberger, occupies an apartment in New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The Kabbalah Center, of course, is registered as a religious nonprofit organization.

Kabbalah's covert nature over thousands of years resulted from racism and religious bigotry rather than from conscious efforts by its members to lurk in the shadows, and the “secret society” identity it acquired is at the heart of its recent commercial success. Its near-indecipherable doctrine may have been a barrier to many who sought its reputed wisdom, but it proved an incentive to the Bergs, who persuaded potential followers that they alone held the key to that particular code. The rest was salesmanship.

But what is the future of a creed that claims a pathway to God, a system of belief forged over twenty centuries by some of the finest spiritual minds of their age, when its name appears in flashing lights on Sunset Strip billboards, its leaders promise absorption of deep wisdom through the fingertips, and its most visible symbol is a length of colored string?

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