The Los Angeles Times had a compelling two-part series this week that thrilled me to the very core. One of my big gripes in contemporary culture is how egotistical, materialistic celebrities make a big public deal out of their spiritual and philanthropic activities. Case in point: the deep-pocketed Kabbalah Centre and its glitzy acolytes like Madonna, Ashton and Demi (may they R.I.P.) and even Paris Hilton. It's true — shallow celebrities run deep — and apparently in herds.
The Times' stories detail the behind-the-altar lives of the Centre's leaders, Philip and Karen Berg, who parlayed their familiarity with the Zohar — an esoteric text explicating the mysteries of Jewish spirituality and practices — into a global empire. In the old days, one had to be male and of the faith to partake in such arcane wisdom, but in our times the Bergs were happy to teach anybody who might help grow their practice — enabling them to enjoy a lavish lifestyle that the Internal Revenue Service is currently investigating. We're talking luxury gambling weekends in Vegas on the Centre's dime. Blackjack — now there's a spiritual way to pass the evening.
Some twenty years into their veritable Wal-Mart of Jewish spiritual offerings, the Kabbalah Centre ran afoul of a council of rabbis in Toronto, where the couple's aggressive fundraising practices and dubious scholarship was not properly appreciated. Followers were told that criticizing the Bergs was proof that you "have an opening in your consciousness for Satan," according to a former longtime member who grew disillusioned with the sect. See for yourself — Karen Berg is indistinguishable from Mike Myers' portrayal of Linda Richman in SNL's "Coffee Talk" parody. This is wisdom!?
For the record, I was raised a non-observant Jew and was the grandson of a man whose fondness for Madalyn Murray O'Hair — America's most famous atheist at the time — bespoke his antipathy toward authority of any stripe. Having fought the brutal oppression of the Russian Czar at the turn of the century, my Grandpa Joe had no time for rabbis, priests or even presidents. Nonetheless I did fall under the sway of one Jiddu Krishnamurti, an extraordinarily wise and unaffiliated philosopher whose works I still regularly read as a spiritual emetic.
The interesting thing about Krishnamurti is that he was recruited by a cadre of British hucksters called Theosophists in 1909, who claimed that the unassuming — even doltish, according to some accounts — lad was destined to become the future World Teacher. That gave Theosophy's founders, Annie Besant and Charles Leadbetter, a platform from which they could wheedle donations out of spiritually-inclined socialites. However, on the day he was to take over the wheel of the cash-happy cult, young Jiddu renounced its legitimacy, saying that "The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth. Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, any sect."
This was an act of bravery and honesty the likes of which were inspiring to me as a young man — Krishnamurti refusing to be the celebrated top dog in a well-funded, spiritual pyramid scheme. Madonna and Paris and Ashton and the rest of those headline-seeking seekers should take heed of K's wise words: "All authority of any kind, especially in the field of thought and understanding, is the most destructive, evil thing. Leaders destroy the followers and followers destroy the leaders. You have to be your own teacher and your own disciple. You have to question everything that man has accepted as valuable, as necessary."
The irony is that the self-dubbed "material girl," Madonna — perhaps the least spiritual figure of the last 5000 years — was responsible for taking Kabbalah study and the Bergs from the minor leagues to the big-time. Thank Sandra Bernhard for that — she introduced her once-pal Madge to the Bergs in the first place. Eventually, the disco-diva's foundation would contribute some $10M to the cause, and Donna Karan would pony up another $2M. Now that the IRS's criminal division is snooping around, these high-society seekers have remained curiously silent. They must be meditating.....