The roots of The Kabbalah Centre were planted in 1922 by Rav Yehuda Ashlag, the first master kabbalist to modernize this closely guarded wisdom, and strive to make it accessible. He passed the mantle of leadership and publishing the sources of enlightenment to his student, Rav Yehuda Tzvi Brandwein, who later handed the torch to Rav Berg. This is our lineage, from which stems the history of The Kabbalah Centre.
KABBALAH, THE VEILED WISDOM
The primary focus of Kabbalah, since its revelation thousands of years ago, has been acquiring the concealed knowledge of God, including God’s designs for the seen and unseen universe. Yet, Kabbalah is often explained as secret wisdom or Jewish mysticism. Presented as knowledge handed down through oral tradition to select individuals from Adam to Abraham to Moses, initially it was reserved for an elite group of married man above the age of 40 who were scholars in Jewish law. In fact, the study of Kabbalah was never limited by universal rules. It was by general preference that most Jews did not approve of its widespread dissemination.
The reality was that tenacious Jewish men in their 20s and 30s could elect to learn directly from a kabbalist but pursuing study on one’s own was met with deterrents. It was hard to gain access to written materials as manuscripts and books were scarce and costly. There were other kabbalists who ardently believed the wisdom should be more widely taught, and a few who even shared their knowledge with people outside of the Jewish religion. No matter where Kabbalah was taught, women, children, and unlearned men would never have been considered for formal training in the subject.
In the 18th century, Kabbalah study became even more cloistered when rabbis and respected kabbalists prohibited unsupervised access to the writings. Furthermore, when the invention of the printing press made the mass distribution of books possible, many rabbis endeavored to keep Jewish mystical writing in handwritten form so that it could not be misinterpreted or fall in the hands of the unlearned. Some of the core kabbalistic texts were deliberately cryptic and worded in code so only those already knowledgeable in Kabbalah could decipher the content.
The real reason that Kabbalah was forbid from dissemination is because it dealt with matters about God that had not been explicitly revealed in Torah. Unlike pre-kabbalistic Jewish literature featuring descriptions of God that likened Him to a being seated on throne setting rules of ethical conduct, kabbalistic wisdom turned from this outer perception to the inner aspects of God.
TRADITIONS OF KABBALAH
The core document of Kabbalah upon which all wisdom is based is the book of the Zohar. Loosely structured as a commentary on the Bible, the Zohar was authored by Rav Shimon Bar Yochai and penned by his disciple Rav Abba, who lived in Palestine in the second century CE. Rav Shimon and his son Rav Elazar spent 13 years in a cave, and then with a small group of friends revealed abstruse wisdom of the universe that was given to them from Moses and Elijah the Prophet through Divine Inspiration. Most parts of the Zohar were written in Aramaic, an ancient language closely related to Hebrew. Information in the Zohar documents the deepest secrets of Creation passed down through great sages. The writings are shrouded in mystery, and include explanations of reincarnation and the veiled pathway of redemption through becoming Divine Light. One main idea is that God’s essence is enigmatic and beyond human comprehension. The knowable God manifests in 10 stages called Sefirot. This system, later referred to as the Tree of Life, enables “Jews” to make a connection between Divinity and the tangible physical universe.
Prior to the 20th century, kabbalists lived within the framework of Judaism. They would engage in worship, rituals, and Torah study, yet they performed these exercises with a consciousness that the purpose of these activities directly connected them to God. They believed actions they took on Earth would influence matters in other realms of existence. When the dynamic above would change, the Earthly situation would reflect those changes. Everything is interconnected. In addition, they incorporated unique practices such as meditations, midnight study sessions, and pilgrimages to spiritual sites.
OUR ROOTS - KABBALAH PRECEDING THE 20TH CENTURY
Beginning in the 13th century, study of Kabbalah bourgeoned and aspects were incorporated into traditional Jewish beliefs and rituals. Esoteric concepts such as the movement of the soul through various stages were woven into the religious story. From about 1500 – 1800, the formerly secret wisdom became popularized in Jewish communities in Europe and the Middle East. By the 1900s, Jerusalem was once again a bustling center where Kabbalah was studied. With a conscious intention to deeply connect to God, men from all over gathered there to further their knowledge of Kabbalah.
Among them was our teacher, Rav Yehuda Ashlag, founder of The Kabbalah Centre. Born in Warsaw in 1885, Rav Ashlag grew up in a Chasidic family and received a traditional Jewish education. He began studying Kabbalah when he was a young boy, and was fascinated by the writings of Rav Isaac Luria (the Ari), the 16th century master kabbalist from the town of Safed. As a teenager, Yehuda Ashlag would rip out pages from Rav Luria’s book Etz HaChayim (Tree of Life) and tuck them between pages of the Talmud he was studying. An exceptional student, Rav Ashlag was ordained as a rabbi when he was only 19 years old, and his reputation as a highly skilled interpreter of the Talmud quickly led to a teaching position.
In 1921, at the age of 36, inspired by Divine guidance, Rav Ashlag decided to move from Poland to Israel. He believed that if he remained where he was, he would surely die. Only in Israel would he be able to achieve his spiritual destiny. His passion was so great that he left his wife and several of his children with relatives in Warsaw. His family joined him later in Israel. Restless, with an arduous existence and a grand vision, he would move seven more times, spending most of his life in either Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.
Devoted to taking Kabbalah out of obscurity, Rav Ashlag built his approach upon the teachings of Rav Isaac Luria. Rav Luria posited that the transformation of humankind depends on the healing of self-destructive tendencies and egotism. Thanks, in part, to Rav Ashlag’s titanic efforts, the concepts developed by Rav Luria remained the common language of kabbalistic thought. Rav Luria became known as the Ari (holy lion). Imbuing the Zohar narrative with spectacular intrigue, he explained the historical cause of chaos as resulting from souls disconnecting from the Divine. He declared that the purpose of human life was to heal these shattered, scattered parts by returning them to their Source, a process called tikkun. Rav Ashlag not only accepted these teachings, he was convinced that Rav Luria’s soul had entered his, being in the form of an ibur, and that it was his own fate to share his interpretation of Kabbalah with others. In 1922, one year after his arrival in Jerusalem, he established a small yeshiva and began to teach his vision of Kabbalah to Torah scholars. This was the seed of what we now know as The Kabbalah Centre.
In a notable departure from ancient Kabbalah, Rav Ashlag evolved the teachings to reflect the modern 20th century. He was certain that the dissemination of Kabbalah would lead to salvation, not only for each individual that could become a vessel for the Light but also for a unified humanity that could transform itself, and create an era of enlightenment.
Rav Ashlag understood the importance of spreading Kabbalah outside of the community of elite scholars, although he still focused on orthodox learned men. Six years after his arrival in Jerusalem, he published his first work in which he introduced the basic vocabulary and concepts that he used throughout the rest of his life. Unfortunately, this extensive commentary on the writing of Rav Isaac Luria titled Talmud Eser HaSefirot (Teachings of the Ten Sefirot) was a complex work that could only be comprehended by those who already had a deep understanding of Kabbalah.
Seeking to address people of influence who could change the world, Rav Ashlag also wrote essays that were of topical interest. He innovated a fusion of science and spirituality that presented a pragmatic application for humankind. His interpretation of tikkun was one in which each person must take action to repair himself, as well as the world at large. A prolific writer, he told about God’s desire to have His human creations experience a life of fulfillment, and about the potential of every soul to return to its Divine origin. Rav Ashlag deemphasized the differences between Jews and non-Jews that had been expressed in previous interpretations of Kabbalah. Most significantly, he envisioned the final stage of humankind as one in which individuals would not be judged on the basis of race, religion or nationality. This core work, which he toiled over for 12 years, lead to his thoughts on what he called Global Spirituality. The chaos of the Earthly realm would evolve to a worldwide order in which everyone together would reach an affinity with God.
Yet despite the powerful synthesis of modern mysticism and social ideas that Rav Ashlag’s work presented, his attempt to reach a large following was unsuccessful. His concepts were several decades before their time. Other than a handful of devout students, Rav Ashlag did not attract many followers during his lifetime. Jointly supported by his wife, who also held a day job, life was difficult for the great kabbalist. From 1943 until his death in 1955, he labored by day to make ends meet, and chased his passion of Kabbalah on the side. Committed to translating Rav Shimon bar Yochai’s masterful work into Hebrew so all could receive the illuminating wisdom, Rav Ashlag dedicated all his own resources to making the Zohar accessible to the public. Many of his writings were found on small scraps of paper, as he could not afford the materials to pen his thoughts. Rav Ashlag’s commentary on the Zohar, called HaSulam (The Ladder) was what he had hoped would give individuals a step-by-step pathway from Earth up to the Heavenly realm. Yet its complex structure was obscure for those unfamiliar with the concepts, and he only found a few devoted disciples. Before dying in poverty, Rav Ashlag, to fulfill his mission, became increasingly dependent on one of his most dedicated students, Rav Yehuda Tzvi Brandwein.
Rav Brandwein was raised in a Chasidic community in the Israeli town of Safed. A bricklayer by profession, he also headed the Histadrut, the national workers union. With access to a multitude of people, Rav Brandwein aspired to carry on Rav Ashlag’s vision and teachings. In Israel, following the Holocaust, a new generation was thirsty for wisdom that inspired the heart as well as mind. Sensing that he had been given a key that could spark the Messianic era, Rav Brandwein ascribed to his master’s belief that the expansion of Kabbalah was authorized from above. Although he poured all his money and time into furthering the publishing of Rav Ashlag’s work, Rav Brandwein’s financial situation was limited, and he desperately needed other resources and assistance. The person who rose to carry the flame was Rav Brandwein’s most committed student Shraga Feivel Gruberger, who later changed his name to Philip Berg.
Born in 1929 in Brooklyn, New York to first generation immigrants from what is now known as Ukraine, our teacher, Rav Phillip Berg was raised in the orthodox Chasidic neighborhood of Williamsburg. After attending Orthodox Jewish elementary and high schools, he studied at Beth Midrash Goshova, a yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey. Returning to Williamsburg, he attended Torah VaDaat, from which he received rabbinic ordination in 1951, when he was 22 years old. Although certified with Jewish degrees and initiated into the clergy, Rav Berg followed the more common path of early marriage and business pursuits. He worked as an insurance agent, and invested in real estate, eventually developing a modicum of wealth. In 1953, he married Rivka Brandwein (the niece of his future teacher Rav Brandwein) and they lived in Brooklyn where they had eight children. Despite having a family afflicted by intermittent illness, he was relentless about learning Kabbalah. He travelled to Israel for his mother’s funeral, and there met his teacher, Rav Brandwein, in 1964. From that moment on, Kabbalah became the focus of his life.
Rav Brandwein had established a small yeshiva called Yeshivat Kol Yehuda, through which he intended to carry on Rav Ashlag’s teachings and book publishing. Like other yeshivas, it was a place where people would congregate to study and listen to lectures. The major difference was that the concentration was on kabbalistic texts. As in classic yeshivas, students were provided witha stipend to cover costs so they could dedicate themselves to their study. Although fueled by a commitment to the practice and dissemination of Kabbalah, Rav Brandwein was challenged by the duties of funding and administering his goals.
With a passion for Kabbalah, Rav Berg took on the mission of helping his teacher promote Rav Ashlag’s writings. Working out of New York, in 1965, he became Rav Brandwein’s book distributor in the United States, and founded the National Institute for Research of Kabbalah. His work involved the finance of all things associated with the research: scholarships for Orthodox Jewish scholars, their trips, and the publication of books and articles reflecting the research. Rav Berg was chief operating officer, a move that was intended to pave the way for his fundraising efforts in New York. In 1966, Rav Brandwein awarded Rav Berg with a second ordination that acknowledged his mastery of Kabbalah. And in 1968, a year before he passed away, Rav Brandwein wrote a letter to Rav Berg naming him president of Yeshivat Kol Yehuda.
A RADICAL DEPARTURE
In the same year, Rav Berg’s first marriage dissolved, and he met Karen Mulchin. With a penchant for meditation, astrology, and the mystical sphere, Karen asked Rav Berg to teach her Kabbalah in exchange for administrative work for his then business in insurance. Eventually he agreed, and in a groundbreaking move, she became the first woman to publicly study Kabbalah. The two were married in 1971. Rav Berg said that after Rav Brandwein’s passing Karen became his second teacher. Though he taught her Kabbalah, she taught him about people. This partnership was unlike any before it, as the commitment to Kabbalah belonged to them both. After several years of learning the benefits of the wisdom, Karen told Rav Berg, “If I can study Kabbalah and I am no great scholar, then others can study too; it can help everyone. Let’s teach Kabbalah to men, women, and children.” At first Rav Berg refused, this was a revolution. But before long he concurred, and together they embarked on a journey that changed the history of Kabbalah.
In a radical departure from the veiled revelations of medieval Kabbalah, the Rav and Karen prepared to share the wisdom without precondition. The universalism intrinsic of Rav Ashlag’s teachings became their primary goal as they opened the doors wide to everyone who desired to learn Kabbalah. It was a timely move, for the youth of the 1970s were gravitating away from Judeo-Christian religions, and to the more mystical eastern religions. Building on Rav Ashlag’s legacy of book publishing, the Rav and Karen set up their own publishing activities. Rav Berg compiled and edited books of Kabbalah, while Karen oversaw the administration previously managed by Rav Berg in the 60s, under the direction of his teacher Rav Brandwein. In 1970, they changed the name of the National Institute for Research of Kabbalah, to the Research Centre of Kabbalah, which published five books from 1970-73 including Ten Luminous Emanations, a contemporary interpretation of Rav Ashlag’s Teachings of the Ten Sefirot.
Bravely taking the constraints of traditional religion head on, the Rav and Karen moved to Israel with Karen’s two daughters, and founded a second Centre in Tel Aviv. Set in the middle of secular Israeli society, the wisdom they offered answered life’s bigger questions, and allowed each person the ability to awaken higher consciousness through the study of Kabbalah. Their appeal to a young audience that included women became a magnet for unconventional minds. By the late 70s, young Israelis were drawn to different kinds of spiritual experiences, and were prepared to explore alternatives. Rav and Karen Berg presented a compelling option: A form of spirituality that was based on ancient mystical teachings, and respected individual choice. The time was ripe for humanity to receive the wisdom of Kabbalah.
THE US CAMPAIGN TO SHARE KABBALAH
Although they were immersed in Israeli activities, in 1981, the Rav and Karen directed their attention to the United States as the next step in the journey to teach Kabbalah. With the addition of two sons, they moved back to their place of heritage in New York. They brought with them several student/teachers, and appointed others to lead the Israeli Centre under their guidance. In the tradition taught to him by his teacher, the Rav, together with Karen, entrusted those who were passionate about wisdom with the operation. The model of the teacher-student activity, and the format by which Rav Ashlag began the work of disseminating Kabbalah, was continued in a contemporary context.
Standing on the shoulders of Rav Brandwein and Rav Ashlag before him, during the early 1980s, Rav Berg began publishing his first books, which he wrote in English—an approach designed to appeal to a wider audience. He laid down the fundamental principles of Kabbalah in volumes that include: Kabbalah for the Layman, The Kabbalah Connection, Wheels of a Soul, and Astrology: The Star Connection. The Centre also produced editions of Hebrew and Aramaic texts written by kabbalist masters Rav Isaac Luria and Rav Yehuda Ashlag, which became foundational materials for the classes.
Rav Berg’s interpretation of Kabbalah further provided liberation from the concept of an imperious God. He delivered the wisdom from the perspective that there is no obligation, and no coercion in spirituality. The ideas the Rav and Karen espoused were in sync with the sentiment of the times, in which young people were resistant to authoritative, organized religion. Under their guidance, The Kabbalah Centre drew people who longed to be set free from religious conformity and vapid acts of obedience. Kabbalah was adopted because it was perceived as a relevant, heartfelt path to enhance one’s life and achieve elevated consciousness. The Kabbalah Centre became the first to teach Kabbalah to a nonreligious audience, and to this day, it is considered to be a spiritual, not religious, path of study and participation.
A GRASSROOTS MOVEMENT IN NORTH AMERICA
In 1984, the Rav and Karen set up their main residence in a large house in Queens, New York from which they launched the teaching of Kabbalah throughout North America. Around them, in addition to their four children, was a core group of student/teachers numbering about a dozen people. Comprised of young men and women, this group was committed to the vision of Rav Ashlag: That the study of Kabbalah can bring peace to a chaotic world. A term was born for the committed staff called chevre, Hebrew for “group of friends.” Those who sat with Rav Shimon in the cave writing the Zohar were also known as friends. It is written in the Zohar that the Light within its pages was permitted to be revealed because of the unity of the friends.
What evolved was a spiritual community that lives within the Jewish traditions that were in harmony with kabbalistic principles. For all involved, learning and teaching Kabbalah was no longer a second pursuit whilst working another job to make a living. In a model pioneered by the Rav and Karen, teaching Kabbalah was the work. Similar to the culture of a Kibbutz, The Research Centre of Kabbalah provided housing, meals, and stipends. Designing the experience to be a life-changing process, the Rav and Karen moved Kabbalah from a sideline activity to a respected profession by which those dedicated to the wisdom could make a living and support their families.
In the early years, with little financial resources, the crusade to share Kabbalah was a grassroots effort of door-to-door missionary work, called charisha, a Hebrew word for plowing. Tilling from town to town and state to state, the Rav and Karen and the chevre planted seeds of Kabbalah by selling books throughout America, Canada, Mexico, and Guatemala. As grueling as the work was, the Rav, Karen, and teachers regarded charisha as a way to share Kabbalah and remove the spiritual barriers that kept Kabbalah hidden. Through the close mentorship of the Rav and Karen and the ongoing nature of the work, the chevre experienced constant learning and growth. As Rav Ashlag taught, this path is a way to reveal Light and remove the darkness. When individuals become a vessel for the Light, they can unite in transforming the world.
THE MOVEMENT GOES INTERNATIONAL
By the late 1980s, The Kabbalah Centre was a growing movement; gaining momentum as lead teachers were flying to Toronto once a week. In 1988, the Canadian government granted the Toronto group’s request for status as a charitable religious organization, and the name was changed to Kabbalah Learning Centre. This designated its difference from a synagogue, and highlighted its educational operation. The Kabbalah Centre did not request membership fees; people could choose to dip their toe in the wisdom by taking a class or attending a Sabbath service. Communal meals and holiday celebrations were opened for participation.
Over the 1990s, the Rav and Karen established Kabbalah Learning Centers throughout North America including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, as well international locations such as London, Paris, Johannesburg, and Mexico City. They spent a great deal of time on the road, traveling from Centre to Centre, residing in each city for weeks at a time to connect with local communities. In the mid-90s, the Rav and Karen reestablished their main residence in Los Angeles.
Kabbalah Centres worldwide attracted increasing numbers of Jews and non-Jews, and the Rav and Karen took actions to actualize Rav Ashlag’s vision that humanity will be without distinctions between individuals, not by race, religion or nationality. Embracing a wider audience, they welcomed people of non-Israeli and non-Jewish backgrounds to become chevre and staff. In 1999, due to The Centre’s expansion, the Rav and Karen incorporated the movement as Kabbalah Centre International. Today, there are more than 40 Centers around the world.
In 2004, Rav Berg suffered a stroke, and Karen became the director of Kabbalah Centre International, teaching and publishing her own books: in 2005 the bestselling God Wears Lipstick, the first book on Kabbalah for women; Simple Light: Wisdom From a Woman’s Heart; To Be Continued: Reincarnation & the Purpose of Our Lives; and in 2016 Finding the Light Though the Darkness. In 2013, the Rav passed away. Today, Karen works with their son, Michael Berg, who is an accomplished author himself and co-director of The Kabbalah Centre. Together they stay committed to their roots, now using all methods of modern technology to offer the wisdom through classes, courses, and books, online and in physical Centres. Translating ancient texts, making Kabbalah available and relevant to people of all faiths and levels of understanding remains the backbone of Centre activities. Most importantly, through decades of effort in making the wisdom of Kabbalah accessible, The Kabbalah Centre is no longer the exclusive place to learn Kabbalah.
The historic and social context included in this article was sourced from Kabbalah and The Spiritual Quest: The Kabbalah Centre in America by Jody Meyers published in 2007