Before Cartier Love bracelets or Yeezys, there was a time you couldn't open an Us Weekly without seeing one covetable accessory: a red string Kabbalah bracelet. The religion was the celebrity spiritual moment du jour during the 2000s, and everyone from Madonna to Ashton Kutcher to Lindsay Lohan dabbled in the mystical religion. But in the decade since its heyday, the spiritual movement has all but faded from the forefront of popular culture, suffering major blows along the way.
"Kabbalah is an ancient wisdom that provides practical tools for creating joy and lasting fulfillment. It's an incredible system of technology that will completely change the way you look at your world," reads the website of the Kabbalah Centre, the organization that introduced many celebrities to the practice.
Experts believe the Kabbalah Centre should be distinguished from Kabbalah itself. "There is no uniform way of studying Kabbalah in the traditional sense," says Elliot Wolfson, a Professor of Religious Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara focusing on Jewish Mysticism. "There are various texts that have achieved a canonical status, most importantly, the Zohar and the so-called Lurianic texts, but other Kabbalistic works are studied as well in traditional settings, such as the works of Moses Cordovero, Shalom Sharabi, or the Vilna Gaon."
According to Wolfson, these mystical texts are more esoteric than the Torah and Talmud and explore supernatural aspects of Jewish spirituality, but are traditionally limited to men over 40 who have spent years studying Jewish scripture and are deemed ready to understand these larger mysteries (though Wolfson adds that this tradition is often broken).
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Although it takes some a lifetime to fully study and understand Kabbalah, Rabbi Philip Berg founded the Kabbalah Centre to make its teaching available to all. A former insurance salesman, Berg discovered the teachings of the Kabbalah on a trip to Israel and began teaching classes out of his insurance office with his second wife Karen, his former secretary. The Bergs hoped to make Kabbalah accessible to groups that were traditionally excluded from its study, such as non-Jews and women, but the center struggled for years.
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Berg interpreted the Kabbalah more as a new-age self-help book than as a traditional Jewish text. He relied on his charisma to bring in new followers. Rick Alan Ross, executive director of the Cult Education Institute and author of the book Cults Inside Out, told Broadly that many of the Kabbalah Centre's teachings have no basis in Jewish text: "Berg's teachings represent his own idiosyncratic combination of beliefs. For example, that scanning the pages of the Zohar, even when you cannot read Hebrew, somehow will imbue you with supernatural power." According to Walter Martin's book The Kingdom of the Occult, Berg also claimed that by chanting God's Hebrew name, followers would be able to change their cells and alter their immune systems. A spokesperson for Kabbalah Centre denied this: "With regard to the cell/immune system, Rav Berg did not make such a claim or promise to students.."
"I do not stand in judgement of individuals who study at the Kabbalah Center, but what it taught there is far from the traditional Kabbalah," Wolfson says. "The Kabbalah Center has popularized the Kabbalah and removed from it any sense of secrecy. Allegedly, the mysteries are fully disclosed. The imparting of secrets to those who have no background, or who might not even be Jewish, is foreign to the predominant spirit of traditional Kabbalah."Many experts on Jewish mysticism are less generous than Wolfson. Many members of the Orthodox Jewish community rejected Berg's teachings, and the families of Rabbis Yehuda Ashlag and Avraham Brandwein—renowned rabbis Berg claimed to study under—have denounced his claims that he was the heir to their tradition. A spokesperson for the Kabbalah Centre told Broadly that the opinions of these Rabbis' families do not reflect their own beliefs: "Rav Brandewein's family disagreed with the Rav's designation of Rav Berg, and that is why there is controversy over the matter. "
But the Bergs' fortunes reversed when Madonna joined their followers. Comic Sandra Bernhard had introduced the queen of pop to the Centre's message, and she made it part of her brand. "The Kabbalah Centre really took off when Madonna became involved," Ross says. "The Kabbalah Centre became trendy through Madonna. Many people were intrigued and wanted to find out about whatever form of spirituality interested the 'Material Girl.'"
A legion of celebrities—like Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, Donna Karan, and President Donald Trump's former wife, Marla Maples—soon followed the singer to the many Kabbalah Centres the Bergs opened on both coasts. (None of these stars responded to my request for comment.) Maples told Vanity Fair that the teachings of the center helped her heal in the wake of her divorce from the future president: "During that period of time, you think you've cleared out a lot of the pain by the time you decide to move on. But, as I started looking deeper at myself, I realized there were still places inside where I held anger, or had blame. [Kabbalah] helped me learn to take responsibility for my own choices and no longer be the victim."
Kabbalah followers wore a red string bracelet to ward off the evil eye, and it became a status symbol during the Bush era. Paparazzi photographed Paris Hilton, Linsday Lohan, and Nicole Richie all wearing the red string. (You can still buy one for $26 from the Kabbalah Centre's store.) "I would never steal anyone's boyfriend," Lohan told Elle in 2006. "It's bad karma, and I'm a big believer in karma—hence the fact that I've studied Kabbalah." The Bergs played into the cultural climate of the period, even holding an event at the definitive mid-2000s clothing store Kitson.
Broadly reached out to the Kabbalah Centre to ask why so many celebrities and influencers flocked to their centers. Karen Berg respond to the email herself: "Kabbalah is a study that expands consciousness and understanding… Kabbalah also helps us to, without any trace of shame, recognize the part of us that is perhaps not as enlightened, a part of ourselves that we are not always proud of, and gives us the tools to transform that quality within us. The more we can become the person that our soul wants us to be, the more complete we feel. I think this applies to you and me and to the most powerful people in the world."
The organization has employed new techniques to bring in money, like the $26 strand of red string and the infamous $4 a bottle Kabbalah water that Madonna allegedly tried to fill a swimming pool with. An undercover Telegraph reporter with cancer once visited the London Centre to investigate whether he could be "healed" through Kabbalah; he was charged £860 for a copy of the Zohar and a few cases of the water that would "cure" his illness.
"I have received many complaints about excessive and repeated financial demands for donations, courses and services," Ross told me."[The] demands made by the Bergs and their staff that caused students to max out their credit cards, not pay their rent or mortgage and in some situations end up evicted or foreclosed on. Others complained that the demands made of their time caused them distress, lost them a job or sidelined their career, education, and family life."
Financial pressure wasn't limited to civilian members who could not afford to donate their salaries to the Centre. Famous model Jerry Hall left the religion after she found its financial demands too intense. "We had a fantastic time with the Kabbalah Centre for about a year," she told Index Magazine. "They give very practical advice on day-to-day stuff, like how to be a better parent. But we couldn't go through the Door of Miracles unless we gave the Kabbalah people ten percent of our money, so we couldn't study it any more."
Unfortunately, money corrupts everything, even spirituality.
As the Bergs' fortunes increased, so did the scrutiny of their organization. The Centre has faced a number of scandals, the most damaging of which came to light, ironically, because of Madonna. According to a Newsweek expose, the singer raised $18 million dollars through her Raising Malawi Foundation, which she cofounded with Rev Berg's son Michael. They planned to build a girls' school in the small African country's capital, before folding the project after wasting $3.8 million on construction.
According to the report, $3 million of the money actually spent on the project was spent at the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre and not in Malawi; the Centre also reportedly collected money earmarked for the Malawi charity that was never actually turned over to the foundation. The issues faced at the Malawi school eventually caused Madonna to scrap the organization's board and take over oversight along with her manager and accountant. The Centre soon came under investigation by the IRS for tax fraud, after more allegations came to the surface of the Berg family using the foundation for their personal enrichment. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Kabbalah Centre was accused of taking more than $600,000 from a widow with dementia for the Centre.
The allegations against the Bergs are not just financial. A former student successfully sued Berg's son Yehuda, who had taken a leadership role with his brother at the Centre after Philip Berg's death in 2013. She alleged that Yehuda had attempted to drug and sexually assault her in 2014. A judge ordered Yehuda and the Kabbalah Centre to pay $177,500 in damages in 2015. A Kabbalah Centre spokesperson told Broadly, "Yehuda has not been involved with the Kabbalah Centre since he resigned in 2012. When Yehuda left the Centre, he made clear that he was doing so because his departure was in the best interests of the Centre and in the best interest of his own personal effort to change his life. The Centre respected Yehuda's decision at that time, and we continue to wish him well." Yehuda did not respond to a request for comment.
Ross believes that the Kabbalah Centre's many scandals have driven most of its celebrity followers away, but a few core adherents still remain. Some moved on to more trendy religions, while others became disillusioned by the Centre's financial demands. A few members of the new generation of celebrity it girls, like Ariana Grande, have experimented with the Centre, but its membership has dropped sharply. (None of the Centre's celebrity members responded to Broadly's response to comment.) Ross estimates that the Centre only has 3,000 to 5,000 core members. When asked about current membership, a Kabbalah spokesperson told me simply, "There are more than 40 [Kabbalah Centre] locations around the world.")
Berhnard, one of the Centre's first celebrity members, who introduced Madonna to Kabbalah, told Women's Wear Daily, "I went in 1995 before there was any hoopla and I got the best out of it. Then the wheels started to fall off. I'm not nearly as involved with that place as I was. Unfortunately, money corrupts everything, even spirituality. And it's hard not to get caught up in the excitement of glamour and fame."
When Broadly asked the Kabbalah Centre what they say to those who allege the group is more of a money-making enterprise than spiritual movement, a spokesperson simply directed me back to Karen Berg's statement about the spiritual benefits of Kabbalah: "Many people are attracted to learning more about Kabbalah for the reasons outlined in [Berg's] answer."
Ross believes that regardless of actual membership numbers, the Kabbalah Centre will continue to thrive: "The Bergs are rich and the Kabbalah Centre continues to be well financed through their many wealthy members," he says. "Madonna and Donna Karan have each given the Kabbalah Centre millions of dollars and continue to support the Bergs. Other celebrities seem to have left due the excessive control attempted by the Bergs and their continuing demands for financial support and large donations. But the Bergs continue to run the Kabbalah Centre much like a family business, even though it has tax-exempt charitable nonprofit status." Ross even believes the Bergs may have opened a new Centre in Washington, DC to get closer to the Trump administration through their connections to Marla Maples. A Kabbalah Centre spokesperson denies his claim.
The Bergs recently hosted a large event for Passover called "Pesach 2017: Live From Los Angeles With Karen and Michael Berg." Those who couldn't afford the flight to Los Angeles were offered to tune in for a live stream with a Kabbalah University Premium Plus Account for the low price of $42 a month.