Kabbalah followers

Madonna, left, seem here in Tel Aviv, enrolled at the Los Angeles center at the suggestion of Sandra Bernhard. Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, pictured in Israel, were married by a Kabbalah Centre teacher. (David Ralings / Kabbalah Centre Israel and Associated Press)

Second of two parts

When Philip Berg decided in the early 1970s to teach kabbalah to the masses, he predicted that orthodox rabbis would stone him and his wife, Karen. For a long time, that seemed a pompous overstatement. Few people had even heard of the kabbalah school they ran out of their living room in Jerusalem and later in Queens.

But Philip knew that revealing the secrets of the Torah to any Jew who wanted to learn them -- spiritual teachings once open only to elite rabbinical scholars -- would be controversial. It also proved wildly popular.

Two decades later, the Kabbalah Centre had become an empire with branches in major cities, a publishing arm and scores of passionate young volunteers. Then in March 1990, the center caught the attention of a council of rabbis in Toronto. They didn't stone the Bergs, but they publicly disputed the validity of Philip's teachings of ancient Jewish mysticism and took exception to the center's aggressive fundraising.

"We have become aware of a group of young men promulgating the sale of so-called kabbalistic literature and of their establishment of classes in this topic," the rabbis wrote to the city's orthodox community. "We categorically state that the group known as the Centre for Kabbalah Research is not approved nor endorsed by the undersigned rabbis."

The letter was circulated among Jewish groups around the world. In Jewish enclaves where the center had long gone door-to-door soliciting donations, there was sudden hostility. People ordered members off their front porches and sometimes out of their neighborhoods. The repercussions reached the Bergs' two sons, who were students at an orthodox yeshiva in New York. Their teachers told them to abandon their father, according to a former member who at the time was close to the family.

The rabbis' denunciation might have been fatal to a more traditional Jewish organization. But the Kabbalah Centre taught that the closer a person drew to the light -- God -- the more the forces of darkness would target him. Followers saw the criticism as proof that the Bergs were on the right spiritual path. They hailed them as prophets.

Members of the chevre, the center's religious order, discussed the intense level of spiritual development one would need just to be Karen's assistant and lined up to eat Philip's leftovers as a way to show their devotion, former members said. The center's synagogues around the world had special chairs for the Bergs' exclusive use, even though they might visit only once a year.

It became standard practice to address the Bergs in the third person. "Does Karen want water?" followers would ask her. "How is the rav today?" they would inquire of Philip.

A large painting at the Toronto branch showed Philip in what struck one visitor as a classic Christian pose: Jesus leaning against a rock.

"It was the very same picture, except it was the rav's face," recalled Dorothy Clark, whose husband, Kenneth, helped Philip write books that sought to popularize kabbalah.

An inner circle of very wealthy donors -- the "close people" as they were known at the center -- gave hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of dollars in tax-deductible tithes and donations. Big donors were rewarded with seats at the Bergs' table at Sabbath meal, invitations to intimate prayer services and personal conversations. Those who grumbled were chastised by officials or other students.

"When you brought up something about the family, they would tell you it clearly shows you have an opening in your consciousness for Satan," said a former longtime member who grew disillusioned and left the center but did not want to be named because relatives are still members. "Clearly you are not doing enough to get the light."

Adored inside their organization, the Bergs continued to be vilified outside. Rabbis in Israel, Philadelphia and Queens condemned them publicly. At a religious conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, an orthodox rabbi gave a speech criticizing the center's practices and Philip's "scandalous" personal life, an allusion to the breakup of his first marriage. The center responded with a defamation suit, which it later dropped.

L.A. headquarters

The Bergs were spending more time in Los Angeles, running the center from a converted 100-year-old Spanish-style church on Robertson Boulevard. The location, which became the center's world headquarters in 1998, was near the heart of the city's orthodox community, but more significant was its proximity to Westside neighborhoods the entertainment industry calls home.

The first celebrity drawn to the Kabbalah Centre was Sandra Bernhard, who began studying in 1995. Bernhard was a raunchy stand-up comic who'd posed nude for Playboy. She dove into kabbalah classes with a charismatic Israeli teacher, Eitan Yardeni. She was effusive in the media about kabbalah, which she said had eliminated "at least 80% of the chaos in my life." In her Hollywood circle, she was a one-woman marketing campaign for Yardeni and the center.

"Sandra told me that I would love him, and that he was for real, and righteous," Roseanne Barr wrote in her memoir "Roseannearchy." Both comedians are Jewish, but other people Bernhard recruited were not.

In the Bergs' decades of challenging tradition, the center had remained fundamentally Jewish. The conflict with the orthodox establishment had always turned on whether kabbalah study was permissible for certain Jews -- women and men without yeshiva training. Gentiles were never even a consideration, and were a rare and generally unwelcome presence, according to former members. Gentiles at Sabbath services were expected to stay in the back and not participate.