Religion & Beliefs

Kabbalah is Over, But It Wasn’t Daphne Merkin Who Killed It

Kabbalah is over. It was over before Daphne Merkin's two-year-researched, impeccably well written report on the Kabbalah Center last week in the Times. It was over before the JCC in Manhattan started offering a "Day of Kabbalah" and independent teachers … Read More

By / April 15, 2008

Kabbalah is over. It was over before Daphne Merkin's two-year-researched, impeccably well written report on the Kabbalah Center last week in the Times. It was over before the JCC in Manhattan started offering a "Day of Kabbalah" and independent teachers like me put up websites like learnkabbalah.com and kosmic-kabbalah.com. It was over, I think, the moment red strings became a sign of spiritual consumerism, rather than spiritual search.

Here's the point. Real spirituality messes you up. It transforms the ego, beats your inner swords into plowshares, and disrupts your sense of priorities. Fake spirituality, on the other hand, builds you up. It caters to what you want, rather than challenges what you think you want. It tells you that, yes, you can have everything you desire — and all that desire is just fine.

As a spiritual salesman myself — did I mention learnkabbalah.com? — I've wrestled for years with the clear opposition between truth and advertising. I know how to fill a room; I've done it many times, and I have gotten good enough at it that I can produce a real spiritual experience in workshops, auditoriums, even bars. (Did it most recently last week in Boston, at a music dive called the Middle East.) I also know what sells: sex, drugs, and mystery. I know how to market myself, my work, and my message.

But I also know that the true spiritual power of my teaching is in inverse proportion to how easy it is to advertise. Because the unadvertisable truth is, if you really want to study Kabbalah, you have to be prepared to give something up. And not just anything, but your sense of self, your priorities, even the ways that you love.

Of course, none of that will happen at the first few classes, at which I'll explain the concept of the sefirot and teach you something about meditation, or reincarnation, or whatever. Most likely, that'll be all you'll come for anyway, and you'll leave refreshed, inspired, informed — and fundamentally unchanged. Baruch hashem. But if you start doing the real work, whether with the tools of Kabbalah or meditation or energy or a host of other spiritual technologies, you'll see that this "you" you wanted to make happy, enlarge, and empower — is a mirage.

The Kabbalah Center, it seems, has made an institutional choice to stay on the side of sales. They've got a great racket going, charging $25 for a $1 bracelet (free on the streets of Jerusalem), and $1000 for a $250 set of the Zohar. Why mess it up? They provide a product that people want. Hell, if 150,000 people visited learnkabbalah.com every month (did I mention the website yet?), I probably wouldn't tinker with the formula either.

I give the Center the benefit of the doubt. Associates tell me that Michael Berg is a sincere learner, and a true scholar. And there is no question that the Kabbalah Center has brought more people to Kabbalah than any other institution in history — a feat they couldn't have accomplished with a more scholarly, or pious, approach. So, if you believe that Kabbalah will bring about redemption, all that salesmanship is in the service of the highest good. And I think it's possible that many at the Center do believe that.

But when sales is the goal, it's hard not to be craven. I cringed when I read Merkin's account of talking about her mother's death with the Bergs, because here was a real emotional-spiritual moment, played out in the context of the marketplace. If only Merkin would've visited (or mentioned) one of the many real neo-Kabbalists out there today, an Ohad Ezrachi or David Ingber, a Tirzah Firestone or a Jill Hammer, someone who both knows her stuff and knows the human heart. Someone who's not in it for the money.

Again, I'm not claiming that Michael (or even Yehuda) Berg has such low motives. I have no idea, and have good reason to think otherwise. But visiting the Kabbalah Center for spiritual advice is like visiting McDonald's for a salad. Sure, it's on the menu, but there are deeper, heartier, and more sincere options away from the strip malls. Reading Merkin's article, I felt sad that she didn't know any better.

The spiritual seekers I know have, at this point, all gotten over the novelty of Kabbalah. I don't teach "Kabbalah 101" anymore myself, although I do regularly use Kabbalistic language and imagery in my work. Kabbalah itself is not, of course, "over" — it's thriving in both traditional and radical contexts, and incorporating new voices (of women, non-Westerners, heretics) at an astonishing rate. But the gee-whiz phase is over, yesterday's news like the Da Vinci Code or Rudy Giuliani.

And I think that's a good thing. By now, anyone who's sincerely interested in Kabbalah has a bevy of courses, books, and teachers to choose from — all of which are way better than the Kabbalah Center's fast-food spirituality — and can do the serious work of kabbalah ("receiving") the truth of infinite being (ein sof). Meanwhile, those who want something quick and off the shelf will find the teachers they deserve.

And the twain will never, I think, meet.