Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag

Scholar of Kabbalah and progenitor of the Kabbalah Center.

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The Kabbalah Center

The Kabbalah Center was founded in 1965 by Philip Berg, who as a young man studied with Ashlag's brother-in-law and who has claimed to be the master's direct successor. And not his alone: a timeline at the organization's website links Berg and his wife to no lesser a figure than the biblical patriarch Abraham.

A quick glance at Center offerings may be enough to suggest that Berg is working some of his own magic. For one thing, there's the red string that can be purchased to protect an individual against the "evil eye." The price is $20, for a commodity that may actually be worth ten cents—an example, perhaps, of how the Kabbalah Center helps its members become godly givers. Then there's an online lecture in which Jesus is referred to as an adept of kabbalah, which would certainly come as news to kabbalists. This and Berg's recent references to the Zohar as "the Holy Grail" raise the question of where exactly he and his organization may be headed.

Marketing aside, what is the connection between kabbalah in general, and Ashlag's teachings in particular, and what the Kabbalah Center preaches? Consider the matter of the soul, a fundamental element in kabbalistic thought. The soul, in all of its gradations, is given by God; it belongs to an order that it did not create, and it exists to be cultivated. By contrast, Madonna, a/k/a "Esther," is hardly alone these days in confusing the soul with the self—which is not part of any order, which bows to nothing but itself, and which invents and re-invents itself repeatedly.

Traditionally, kabbalah was considered a secret science, something only for the few. Rabbi Ashlag challenged this convention. If there is anything to be learned from the contemporary fate of his teachings, it is the deep wisdom of the traditional view. As the rabbinic sages said in praise of the biblical Esther, "A blessing rests only on something that is hidden from the eye."

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Aryeh Tepper

Aryeh Tepper completed his doctorate in Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in July, 2010. He presently writes for Jewish Ideas Daily.