The Kabbalah Centre, a Los Angeles based world-wide Jewish spiritual movement, one not limited to Jews, is in the news again – once more at the center of a controversy. This one however is not, as past ones have been, about the beliefs and religious practices of a group which combines its own understanding of the Jewish mystical tradition, Kabbalah. Nor is the current controversy about the significant numbers of non-Jews, including stars like Madonna and Ashton Kutcher, who find their spiritual home in the Kabbalah Centre. The newest controversy involves potentially criminal conduct by the center.
According to a story in the Los Angeles Times, The Kabbalah Centre is the focus of a federal tax evasion investigation probing, among other things, the finances of two charities connected to Madonna, the center’s most famous adherent.
Sources familiar with the investigation said the criminal division of the IRS is looking into whether nonprofit funds were used for the personal enrichment of the Berg family, which has controlled the Kabbalah Centre for more than four decades, a period in which it expanded from one school of a little-known strain of Judaism to a global brand with assets that may top $260 million.
Of course, those who have been suspicious of the Kabbalah Centre for years are circling this story like sharks around a wounded swimmer. And while I too have reservations about some of the center’s work, it seems that this is both unfair and certainly only a small part of a much bigger story – one which says as much about us and our popular culture, as much as it does about the Bergs and the Kabbalah Centre.
To be sure, the Kabbalah Centre has been cultivating it connections to celebrities for years, often forgetting that celebrity and spirituality are not synonymous. They have often confused material excess with spiritual success in the way that many religious groups which are unafraid of affluence do. Its teachers have also regularly made promises to followers about the direct correspondence between following their teachings and assured success in life; emotionally, financially, etc. All of that, and more, is truly problematic.
On the other hand, they have been at the forefront of appreciating that Jewish teaching is not only for Jews. In fact, at no time of great Jewish spiritual development in the world has that been true. From a Bible which imagines that the world would see the Israelites as a “wise and discerning nation” (Deuteronomy 4:6), to ancient rabbis who made synagogues so popular that it was assumed there would places for the non-Jews who wanted to participate, to Maimonides in the Middle Ages, who integrated Aristotle and Islam into his understanding of what it meant to be Jewish and shared Judaism with the larger world.
The Kabbalah Centre has also brought greater purpose and meaning to at least a few thousand people in serious and ongoing ways – nothing to take lightly. Not to mention that they have made the world aware of a rich intellectual and spiritual tradition within Judaism, one in which people can take great pride.
So while there is no great surprise in this story surfacing, I take no great joy in it either. Also notable is the fact that the story is driven by more than the alleged malfeasance of the KC leadership.
The story is only a story because of our own obsession with celebrity. Would we really care if names like Madonna were not regularly associated with the Kabbalah Centre? Is our popular culture not every bit as celebrity obsessed as the center’s critics charge the center with being?
We should also not miss always popular story line of famous people making poor decisions and unwise investments. As much as we worship celebrity, we also like to see the rich and famous get their comeuppance, as may be the case in this story.
Finally, this is a story which is also driven by a fired CFO, Nicholas Vakkur, and his claim that not only was the Kabbalah Centre handling its finances inappropriately, but that he would be the one to “bring down the entire Kabbalah Centre”. In a time of 9% unemployment, who doesn’t love a tale of unfairly treated employees taking their revenge on their former employers?
Bottom line, this story reminds us that when it comes to understanding any story about religion and spirituality, among the most important place to look if we really want to know what’s going on, is the mirror.