CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

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Bnei Baruch and the Struggle for Kabbalah

Massimo Introvigne*

 

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The following text is an interim report on an ongoing study project about Bnei Baruch, arguably the world’s largest spiritual organization teaching Kabbalah. It discusses its roots, doctrines, organization, and how it has been involved in recent Israeli controversies about “cults”. I hope to be able to develop this preliminary report, as my observation of Bnei Baruch continues, into a full-length journal article, completed with bibliography and references.

The Struggle for Kabbalah

Kabbalah has been subject to many different interpretations. Rather than asking which interpretation is “true”, social sciences try to understand what purpose each of them serves. Interpretations of Kabbalah may be distinguished into four groups: academic, religious, esoteric, and practical.

Academic interpretations in the tradition of Gerson Scholem (1897-1982), whose main contemporary representative is Moshe Idel, try to reconstruct the oldest versions of Kabbalah through a study of the texts. They are often critical of practical interpretations. For them, the latter simplify what is an immensely complicated system of texts and traditions, and impose a coherent meaning to disparate and often contradictory sources.

Religious interpretations are normally found within Hasidic movements. They insist that Kabbalah is intrinsically religious and part of a religion, Judaism. Kabbalah is in fact Judaism’s esoteric content, which should be kept concealed and disclosed only to initiates. For those advocating the religious interpretation, teaching Kabbalah to the uninitiated does not make sense, and teaching it to non-Jews is tantamount to sacrilege.

Esoteric interpretations read Kabbalah through the lenses of a pre-existing esoteric system through a process of appropriation. Each esoteric system appropriates Kabbalah in order to be confirmed or validated. Although many esoteric teachings appropriated Kabbalah, including several esoteric variations of Freemasonry, a number of them did this through Theosophy. Madame Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891), the co-founder of the Theosophical Society, appropriated Kabbalah since her early writings. To her, in the words of Israeli scholar of Theosophy Julie Chajes, “Kabbalah was Theosophy and Theosophy was Kabbalah”.

In contrast, practical interpretations deny that Kabbalah is part of a religion or of a given esoteric system. Kabbalah for them is the answer to the deepest human spiritual desires. As such, it can be taught to people of all religions and does not require conversion to Judaism. While the leading masters of practical Kabbalah do not ignore the academic literature, they look for coherence, simplicity, and sound spiritual advice where scholars emphasize complexity, contradictions, and theory.

The struggle for Kabbalah between these four interpretations is not purely cognitive. In the process, the very notion of Kabbalah is socially constructed and politically negotiated. Each interpretation serves its own purpose. Conflict is almost unavoidable. In similar cases, social scientists do not ask which interpretation is “true”, but show how the different interpretations work, which purpose they serve, and what the social consequences of their conflicting claims may be.

Practical Kabbalah: Rav Yehuda Ashlag

The practical interpretation of Kabbalah largely originated with Rav Yehuda Ashlag (1884-1954). He was known as Baal HaSulam, “Owner of the Ladder”, because he was the author of Sulam, “The Ladder”, a commentary on the Kabbalistic treatise Zohar. Ashlag believed that the time for disclosure of the Kabbalah, kept secret for long centuries, had finally come. At first sight, this may seem counter-intuitive, as Ashlag recognized that his time, i.e. the 20th century, was not more spiritually advanced than previous centuries but in fact more materialistic. 

In order to understand why Ashlag believed that, precisely in this materialistic world, Kabbalah should be taken out of secrecy, we should examine his worldview, including his theory of desire. At the core of Ashlag’s doctrine lies the dialectic tension between the power of bestowal (identified as the Creator) and the power of the reception (identified as the creation), which is rooted in the process of creation itself. The goal of the Creator through the creation, “to delight his creatures”, can be attained only by an inner transformation of the creature, a process called “equivalence of form” (to the Creator), i.e. the gradual transformation of the egoistic desire of the creature into an altruistic desire of bestowal.

According to Ashlag, “the desire is the root of the mind and not the mind the root of desire”. Desire governs a good part of human activities, yet there are different levels of desire. The first level includes the primary, physical desires, starting from the basic desires for food and sex. The second level concerns money and riches. The third, power and fame. The fourth, knowledge. Humans elaborated different strategies to cope with desires, either by systematically satisfying them or by trying to reduce the level of desire. 

Becoming increasingly materialistic, the world is less and less satisfied with the fulfillment of the four levels of desire. Desires no longer satisfy. Some escape in alcohol and drug, others fall into depression or even commit suicide. It is precisely from disillusion and crisis that a fifth level of desire arises, the desire for spirituality. It should not be confused with a religious experience. It is rather the desire to find an answer to the most fundamental human question, what is the purpose of our life.

Each desire comes with its own method of fulfillment. The specific method for fulfilling the fifth level of desire is Kabbalah. When the fifth level of desire was not widespread, it made sense to teach Kabbalah only to a select few. Since we live now in a time when spiritual desire largely surfaced throughout humanity as a whole, Kabbalah should be disclosed and taught to all those willing to learn it.

Thus, there is no contradiction between a time of crisis, where, as Ashlag wrote, “the essence of the souls is the worst”, and the emergence of the fifth level of desire. The crisis itself generates the widespread emergence of spiritual desire. However, in order to be fulfilled, this desire should undergo two processes. The first is reaching its maximum degree: a process fueled by the universal crisis itself and its resulting general desperation. The second is called “correction”, a key concept in Ashlag’s teaching. All parts of our life should be “corrected” by moving from egoism and selfishness to altruism. This is a long and complicate journey, and also includes a social dimension. Throughout the centuries, new opportunities of correction have arisen. Moving from egoism to altruism is at the heart of Ashlag’s practical Kabbalah. Not only does it ensure that knowledge, the fourth desire, is used for the best but it makes fulfillment of spirituality, the fifth desire, possible. And this is also the key to both happiness for individuals and peace for society.

Yehuda Ashlag’s Posterity

Yehuda Ashlag passed away on Yom Kippur Day in 1954. As it often happens in spiritual organizations, the unity of his group did not survive his death. A number of disciples followed Yehuda’s son, Rav Baruch Shalom HaLevi Ashlag (1907-1991), known as the Rabash, whom the elder Ashlag had designated as his successor. Others, however, followed one of Yehuda Ashlag’s close associates, Rav Yehuda Tzvi Brandwein (1904-1969), who established a separate branch. 

Rav Brandwein’s branch was further divided at his death in 1969. Some accepted the leadership of his son, Rav Abraham Brandwein (1945-2013), while others followed Rav Feivel S. Gruberger (1927-2013), better known as Rabbi Philip Shagra Berg, who had married a niece of the elder Brandwein, although he will eventually divorce her in 1971. Berg’s branch, currently directed by his widow Karen and two sons, acquired an international following as the Kabbalah Center. 

The branch led by Baruch Ashlag continued to spread Yehuda Ashlag’s teachings independently from the Brandwein branch. At the death of Baruch, most of his disciples recognized Michael Laitman as his designated successor, a claim endorsed by Baruch’s widow, Feiga. Other claimants, with smaller organizations, include Rav Fievel Okowita of the Kabbalah Institute of America, who studied with Baruch for some years in Israel before moving to the United States.

Laitman was born in Vitebsk, in present-day Belarus, on August 31, 1946. He is referred to as Rav or Rabbi by his disciples as an honorific title, as he is not an ordained rabbi and in fact does not act as one by leading religious services. In fact, his background is not in religion but in science. He held positions in various scientific laboratories in Russia, but grew increasingly dissatisfied with the answers contemporary science has to offer to the deepest questions about the meaning of life. He managed to move to Israel in 1974, and in 1979 became a disciple of Baruch Ashlag, eventually emerging as his closest associate. The twelve years Laitman spent in daily contact with Baruch oriented all his subsequent activities and teachings. He also kept an interest in science, and maintains a cooperation with the leading Hungarian philosopher of science Ervin László. To Laitman, Kabbalah and science are not separate fields, and in fact Kabbalah is the ultimate level of science for our time.

Bnei Baruch

Although media mention more often the Bergs’ Kabbalah Center, mostly because of the involvement of pop singer Madonna and other celebrities, in fact Laitman’s Bnei Baruch is the largest group of practical Kabbalah both in Israel and internationally. It is also the most active group in spreading Rav Yehuda Ashlag’s original writings and teachings, and proposing his doctrinal system, including Ashlag’s theory of desires as outlined above.

Bnei Baruch (“Sons of Baruch”, with reference to Baruch Ashlag) started in 1991, after the younger Ashlag’s death, as a modest study group in Laitman’s apartment in Bnei Braq, an Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv. In fact, however, most of Laitman’s followers were not Orthodox Jews. Many were Israeli Jews of Russian origin, a population where the percentage of Orthodox is historically low. Nonetheless, they tried to adapt to life in Bnei Braq. Their number grew, as more expressed the desire of learning about the elder Ashlag and his son through such a close disciple of the latter as Laitman was. The breakthrough came in 1997, with the Internet first and live radio broadcasts later. The systematic use of new technologies transformed a local group into an international movement. Headquarters were moved from Bnei Braq to Petah Tiqvah, in the North-East of the Tel Aviv area. Expansion through the use of technology continued in 2007, with a TV program by Bnei Baruch broadcasted through Israeli television. In 2008, Bnei Baruch acquired its own channel, Channel 66, popularly known as “the Kabbalah channel”. Two Internet television channels called Kab.tv (which broadcasts the TV channel) and Open TV, a television production company known as Kabbalah Television, and the Web sites www.kabbalah.info and www.kabbalahmedia.info, the latter a mammoth archive of documents and texts, remain to this day essential tools for Bnei Baruch’s dissemination of Kabbalistic teachings.

The systematic use of technology notwithstanding, Bnei Baruch still relies primarily on the personal interaction of Laitman with his followers. He teaches daily, except when he travels, at 3 a.m. in the Petah Tiqvah international center. The unusual schedule has raised eyebrows among critics, who insist on its inconvenience for those to have to work next morning. Bnei Baruch answers that teaching at night is not unprecedented in Kabbalistic schools, and was practiced by Baruch Ashlag himself. In fact, the practice also exists in monastic traditions of different religions. An annual convention in Israel gathers in Petah Tiqvah some 6,000 followers. In addition, there are local study groups in 107 countries, with approximately 50,000 regular participants in Israel and some 150,000 worldwide, participating either physically or through streaming (the figure of two million is often quoted and refers to visitors of the Web site). Local conventions have been organized in such diverse places as Mexico, Romania, the United States, and Russia. Conventions and courses are organized through a non-profit association know as Kabbalah Laam (Kabbalah for the People). Israeli media often use the name Kabbalah Laam as a synonymous for Bnei Baruch.

Bnei Baruch’s teachings follow the general scheme of Rav Yehuda Ashlag. The group insists that Kabbalah is not a religion, nor is it part of a religion. If anything, in the course of the process going from the father of modern Kabbalah, Isaac Luria (1534-1572), to Ashlag to Laitman, it has acquired the status of a science. It is a coherent system offering practical solutions. And these are offered to all, irrespective of their religion. Non-Jews who attend the lectures and follow the courses are not invited to convert to Judaism.

While the general scheme of human history and the emergence of the fifth level of desire is derived from the elder Ashlag, Bnei Baruch goes on to explain that we are in the middle of an especially serious international crisis, which included the 2008 financial troubles and entered into a new phase in 2011. The crisis affected the Middle East through the so called Arab Springs, as well as Israel. It required a sustained effort to offer Kabbalah not only to individuals but also to society. Thus, a social activist branch of Bnei Baruch called Arvut (Mutual Responsibility) was established in 2011. Arvut is not a political party but operates through a number of community projects aimed at defusing tension in Israeli society, promoting the values of mutual responsibility, assist the elderly and the poor, and support gifted youths to achieve success in school and university.

Controversies

Among the most studied topics in the social scientific study of religious movements are the so called “cult wars” of the 1970s and 1980s, when a societal reaction developed against the success in the West of new religious movements, either imported from Asia or domestic. Parents and the media did not understand why youths might be willing to sacrifice their careers in order to spend their lives in an exotic religious organization. A handful of psychologists imported from Cold War American propaganda against Communism the notion of “brainwashing”, arguing that these youths did not join the groups voluntarily but were manipulated by sinister “gurus” using mysterious mind control techniques. These therapists and their supporters labeled the groups allegedly using “brainwashing” as “cults”. Lawsuits were instituted against “cults” for the assumed use of “brainwashing” and anti-cult laws were proposed in several U.S. states.

Sociologists and other social scientists reacted against the “brainwashing” theories, claiming that they were not part of accepted science and were used as a simple tool to deny religious liberty to unpopular groups labeled as “cults”. The argument, they claimed, was circular: we know that certain groups are “cults” because they use “brainwashing”, and we know that they use “brainwashing” because, rather than persuading young people to embrace “reasonable” spiritual teachings, they spread bizarre forms of belief, i.e. they are “cults”. Anti-cult activists and therapists countered that public opinion and governments should not believe academic social scientists, who were often “cult apologists” or “hired guns” for the “cults”, but the “victims”. The latter were the disgruntled ex-members who had left the “cults”, either spontaneously or after the forcible intervention, called “deprogramming”, of self-styled “counselors” who kidnapped the “cultists”, kept them confined, and submitted them to an intense counter-indoctrination.

A good deal of name-calling went on between the vast majority of the academics and the anti-cult movement during the so called “cult wars”. In the end, a massive number of studies proved that “cults” accused of using the so called “brainwashing” techniques obtained a very low percentage of conversions, proving that these techniques, if they existed at all, were not very successful. Scholars also explained why “apostates”, i.e. ex-members who left a group and had a score to settle, were not the most reliable witnesses about what happened in their former organizations. They added that only a few ex-members became “apostates”, i.e. militant opponents of the groups they had left. Most ex-members quietly pursued other interests and, when interviewed, remembered their past experience with no particular ill feelings. Since, however, only apostates contacted the media, their point of view was wrongly regarded as representative of the average ex-members, while in fact it reflected the views of a minority only. It should be added that, particularly after the studies of David Bromley, “apostate” is used by sociologists as a technical term and does not imply any derogatory judgement.

In 1990, in the case U.S. v. Fishman, a federal court in California concluded that “brainwashing” was not a scientific concept and that testimony about “cults” based on the brainwashing theory was not admissible in American courts of law. Fishman was the beginning of the end for the American anti-cult movement’s social relevance, and proposals for anti-cult or anti-brainwashing statutes were quietly dropped by their proponents. By the end of the 20th century, they had disappeared completely throughout the United States. Deprogramming was considered illegal in most court cases, and some deprogrammers went to jail.

“Brainwashing” theories and anti-cultism remained, however, popular in other countries. Similar academic criticism prevented, however, anti-cult laws from being passed in most countries of the world. One exception was the French About-Picard law of 2001, but, once passed, it was rarely applied. In the second decade of the 21st century, anti-cult laws based on the theory of brainwashing are still proposed, but this happens mostly in countries, including Argentina and most recently Israel, which had remained somewhat peripheral with respect to the international scholarly debate that developed in the years of the “cult wars”.

Bnei Baruch is based in Israel, and it has been involved in recent controversies about “cults”, which, seen from abroad, appears as a curious remake of the “cult wars” we normally regard as a thing of the past in the United States and Europe. Particularly vocal against Bnei Baruch in the Israeli media have been four former students, a father of a former student, a former wife of a student, and the leader of the largest Israeli anti-cult organization. They offered depositions in a civil case involving one of them, wrote to politicians, and published hostile articles both in printed media and Web sites. As happened for other groups during the “cult wars”, a small number of apostates, hardly typical of the majority of students who left the group harboring no particular grievance against it, were promoted by the moral entrepreneurs of the anti-cult movement, were mistaken for typical ex-members, and received a disproportionate attention by certain media.

Bnei Baruch has been accused of a personality cult of its leader, of creating a climate where students disconnect from their families and surrender work and career opportunities, of a strict control of its students and of separating them from the larger society, with arguments reminiscent of the old “brainwashing” theories. Critics also claim that the group is exploiting members by requiring exaggerate monetary contributions. It has also been accused of causing potential harm to children, inter alia by asking them to participate in the 3 a.m. daily meetings, although in fact a group of women who came to the gatherings with their children were told that their behavior was wrong and ultimately banned from participating.

These arguments are not original and in fact are part and parcel of the standard anti-cult treatment of countless groups labeled as “cults” and attacked by using apostates as a main source. A large majority of social scientists who have studied new religious movements reject these clichés as stereotypes and do not believe that “cult” or “brainwashing” are valid categories. Even if one accepted the standard notion of “cult” proposed by anti-cultists, however, Bnei Baruch would hardly fit. It is not a religious group, it does not claim to be defined as a religion, nor does it try to convert students from one religion to another. A number of its students regard themselves as secular.

Most, if not all, of Bnei Baruch’s materials and lessons are disseminated free of charge. Its main source of income is tithing. This practice has been criticized but is quite common among groups of both Jewish and Christian origin. In fact, it exists in traditional Judaism. Tithing is a time-honored practice in many Protestant churches and is a core practice in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon Church. Mitt Romney, the 2012 U.S. presidential candidate for the Republican Party, let it be known that he was a “full tithe payer” in the Mormon Church. Nobody accused him of being a “brainwashed cultist”.

In all spiritual groups, leaders, and particularly founders, are considered with great reverence. I did not find, however, in Bnei Baruch any extravagant personality cult of the leader, typical of certain Far Eastern new religious movements. “Guru” is an honorific title attributed to spiritual masters in India. Anti-cultists normally use it to designate a spiritual leader who exerts a totalitarian control on the life of his or her followers. The use of the word “guru” outside its Oriental context is questionable, and the label has now become merely polemical. As such, scholars tend to avoid it.

Contrary to the claims of the handful of apostates who interact with the anti-cult movements and the media, in fact students deny that Laitman dictate their choices in matters such as work, marriage, and divorce. In particular, they emphatically deny that he invites them to leave work in order to devote their lives solely to Bnei Baruch. Laitman’s writings actually emphasize the value of work. He argues that a person who does not work and thus is incapable to provide for his or her family, is in fact harming his or her spiritual path. Students are asked to be active members of society, pay taxes, serve in the army, pursue a career, and invest in their families. Additionally, Laitman’s teaching style constantly calls the attention on what he calls the “method” rather than on himself or his teachers. I found no evidence that he claims to have supernatural powers, as argued by anti-cultists, although he is certainly revered by students as a very advanced scholar of Kabbalah and the legitimate successor of such great Kabbalists as Yehuda and Baruch Ashlag.

Another area of criticism concerns women. Bnei Baruch has been accused of patriarchal attitudes and of discriminating against women, a criticism also heard against other Kabbalah groups, Hasidic Judaism, and Orthodox Judaism in general. Admittedly, the vision of the woman in the classics of Kabbalah, including the works of Yehuda Ashlag, is somewhat traditional. This, however, is occasionally reduced to a mere caricature in interviews given by some apostate ex-members. They claim that husbands are encouraged by Laitman to devote to their wives “no more than seven minutes of attention per day”. This is regarded as ridiculous by members of Bnei Baruch. Works by Laitman emphasize the value of marriage, family, healthy relationship between husbands and wives. Laitman compiled a series of teachings in the spirit of the Ashlags about the importance of a loving relationship between spouses, and this is indeed a recurring theme in his lectures. They are certainly far away from feminism as understood in 21st century liberal culture. But they do not promote abuse or discrimination of women.

In this, as in other fields, claims by disgruntled ex-members should be evaluated against testimonies by ex-members who left the group quietly and did not engage in a militant criticism of it, as well as of actual members in various countries. It is certainly both unacceptable for a social scientist and unethical for a reporter to come to conclusions about a movement involving thousands of students based on the opinions of five or ten apostate ex-members only.

Interestingly, as far as I know no criminal cases have been filed against Bnei Baruch for the alleged wrongdoings mentioned in the anti-cult campaigns, although the movement is involved in civil lawsuits about copyright and other matters. The experience of the “cult wars” shows how important it is that serious charges against spiritual movements be investigated by the proper authorities and examined by courts of law. When media substitute themselves to courts, they poison the well of a fruitful societal debate about spirituality and create a climate of intolerance.

Criticism of Bnei Baruch should be partially understood as part of the recent Israeli remake of the “cult wars”. But it is not less part of the struggle for the Kabbalah. Who owns Kabbalah? Who has the social authority to define what Kabbalah is, or is not? Religionists who pretend that they have the sole authority to define Kabbalah as part of Judaism see in the anti-cult climate now prevailing in Israel an opportunity to reinforce their position by labeling as a “cult” non-religious practical Kabbalah, of which Bnei Baruch is the most successful example. Academic historians of Kabbalah, who have little sympathy for practical systems, may contribute the occasional negative comment. Even specific esoteric groups have a vested interest in disqualifying practical Kabbalah as a competition to their own brands of Kabbalistic teachings.

It would be naïve to see this controversy as motivated by purely theoretical or philosophical reasons. The attempt to “own” Kabbalah is largely a struggle for power. Religious and, to some extent, academic and esoteric definitions of Kabbalah are promoted by groups that have an interest in affirming their power, by proving that public opinion at large accepts their self-assumed role as the sole custodians of an “authentic” definition of what Kabbalah is. Religious liberty and freedom of opinion require, on the other hand, that competing definitions and practices of Kabbalah be allowed to co-exist. They serve different constituencies, who have a right to live the spirituality of their choice, without being harassed by groups labeling them as “cults” in order to assert a monopoly in defining what Kabbalah “truly” is. Who owns Kabbalah? The most reasonable, and democratic, answer is: nobody does.

 

* Massimo Introvigne is professor of Sociology of Religions at Pontifical Salesian University in Torino, Italy, and founder and managing director of CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions. He is the author of some sixty books on new religious movements, sociology of religions, and esotericism, and of more than one hundred articles in peer reviewed journals and chapters of collective books in several languages. In 2011, he served as the Representative for Combating Racism, Xenophobia, and Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians and Members of Other Religions of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). In 2012, he was appointed by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as chairperson of the National Observatory of Religious Liberty. In the second edition (2009) of his authoritative Nuovo manuale di sociologia della religione (New Manual of Sociology of Religion), Roberto Cipriani, former president of AIS (Italian Association of Sociology) and one of Italy’s leading sociologists, called Introvigne “one of the Italian sociologists of religion most well-known abroad, and among the world’s leading scholars of new religious movements”.