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NEWS FEATURE: Yehuda Berg: `In Kabbalah, Everything Has a Meaning’

c. 2003 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Place the Kabbalah Centre’s new book, “The 72 Names of God: Technology for the Soul,” on the coffee table and guests might mistake it for a pop culture-infused design book. The silver and orange cover gives way inside to abstract, black-and-white photographs, bright fuchsia and turquoise backgrounds, and pithy […]

c. 2003 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Place the Kabbalah Centre’s new book, “The 72 Names of God: Technology for the Soul,” on the coffee table and guests might mistake it for a pop culture-infused design book. The silver and orange cover gives way inside to abstract, black-and-white photographs, bright fuchsia and turquoise backgrounds, and pithy quotes from the rapper Eminem and the movie “The Usual Suspects.”

Beneath the slick packaging lies a spiritual message from author Rabbi Yehuda Berg, a co-director of the center, based in Los Angeles and New York and known for high-profile students like Madonna and Sandra Bernhard.

“What the names should activate is the beginning of a process,” he said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. The center counts 50 locations around the world, including full-fledged branches and smaller satellites and study groups.

The book claims that the names represent the “key _ your key _ to ridding yourself of depression, stress, stagnation, anger, illness and other physical and emotional problems.”

Meditating on number 31, for example, which Berg terms “finish what you start,” can help you overcome obstacles like fear and frustration. Number 50 “is about seizing the whole enchilada” _ attaining permanent happiness, spiritual greatness and immortality. The three Hebrew letters of each name are pictured, but transliterations are found only in the index, and readers are offered no exhortation to study the language.

According to Elliot Wolfson, professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, the Talmud, the authoritative body of Jewish law and rabbinical writings, refers to the 72 names but does not specify or explain them. Rashi, an 11th-century French Talmudic and biblical scholar, tied the names to verses in Exodus concerning the parting of the Red Sea, a connection Berg uses in his book as a starting point, and other streams of Jewish mysticism have recognized the power of names for the divine.

But Berg, whose book contains no footnotes or bibliography of sources, divorces the names from organized religion, writing, “This human-made invention has done nothing but create separation between people.”

“In Kabbalah,” he said, “everything has a meaning. There’s a reason for everything that happens in your life. That supersedes religion.” Many Kabbalists, in fact, trace elements of the tradition, a complex system of theology and metaphysics, back to the time of Abraham, before Judaism was even codified into a coherent faith, though Kabbalah’s most important book, the Zohar, was published in the 13th century.

Yet distancing the names from traditional Judaism takes them out of their context, said Wolfson, who estimates a decade of intense work is necessary to grasp Kabbalah fully. The center wants to “open up these traditions in this wide way to encompass everybody, but they’re sort of divesting them of their specificity and speaking a language which is kind of New Age-like,” he said.

Some critics see the book as advocating a self-help mentality that fails to accord God his proper place.

“What happens below influences above, and vice versa,” Rabbi Howard Addison, an assistant professor of intellectual heritage at Temple University, said of the book’s idea of individual behavior as the sole means of achieving a positive life transformation. “But (in Judaism) healing comes from God. It seems to me human arrogance to say, `OK, I’m going to activate the divine.”’

Berg and the Kabbalah Centre, first opened in Tel Aviv by his father in 1973, have always thrown their doors open to Jews and non-Jews alike. While adherence to a specific religion is not a prerequisite for studying at the center, which offers courses, books, religious services, T-shirts and other Kabbalah-related merchandise, belief in a divine Creator is a necessary foundation, said Berg, who considers himself a practicing rabbi outside the usual demarcations of Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.

Sanford Drob, a psychologist who has written books on the relationship between Kabbalah, psychology, and Eastern and Western philosophy, said that organized religions have often failed to provide followers with a challenging intellectual and spiritual discipline.

Comparing the recent popularity of Kabbalah to tai chi, the meditative exercises associated with Taoism, and to yoga, which originated in Hinduism, he said Kabbalah offered a Western tradition of spirituality. “That’s the reason it’s found its niche,” he said.

Berg, who was ordained from Yeshiva Knesset Israel in Jerusalem, said he grew up surrounded by classmates who were merely going through the motions of Judaism.

“At least half the people who studied with me were doing this for other reasons _ because their parents said you have to, or what they thought they had to do,” he said.

Those who advocate a more intense study of Kabbalah, however, note that the great Kabbalists emphasized a thorough understanding of the Torah and Talmud before embarking on what was often believed to be a powerful and even dangerous spiritual journey.

“Of course you can’t regulate the grace and intervention of God, how God chooses to touch people at different times,” said Addison.

“But a teacher of mine once said the proper relationship between spirituality and religion is like a beverage and a cup,” he recalled. “If there’s nothing to contain it and to give it some shape and structure, then you have liquid on the floor. On the other hand, you could just have an empty cup.”

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