Kabbalah Center leader Rabbi Philip Berg died Monday at the age of 86 at a hospital in Los Angeles. His funeral is expected to be held Tuesday at the ancient cemetery in Safed, Israel, known as the "city of Kabbalah."
Berg was born as Shraga Feivel Gruberger in the 1920s in New York, was ordained as a rabbi in 1951, and was appointed head of the Kabbalah Center in 1969 by his mentor, Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein, who was a student of the center's founder, the Kabbalist Rabbi Ashlag.
His famous students included Madonna, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, and other celebrities who would wear a red string on their wrist. In total, Rabbi Berg had some four million students in Kabbalah centers all over the world, and wrote more than 20 books which were translated into over 30 languages.
Many of his students flocked to the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles upon hearing the sad news, gathering outside. A small and modest ceremony was held inside the building.
Kabbalah – not just for Jews
The rabbi was known as a controversial figure, and as a revolutionist in his field, who made Kabbalah studies – which were considered throughout the generations as the top of holy studies reserved for outstanding scholars only – accessible to the masses, including non-Jews. For that he was criticized in Orthodox circles, where he was often referred to as a "sinner who causes to sin."
Students gather outside LA center upon hearing news
Rabbi Berg was boycotted for years by rabbis from all ends of the haredi public, who claimed he was engaging in the study of mysticism without any supervision. One of the reasons for the boycott was the fact that he was not strict about separating between men and women.
He was harshly attacked by prominent rabbis, who issued a halachic ruling against the book of Zohar he published, arguing that "a holy book written by a heretic must be put out of use."
"The rabbi met his wife Karen more than 30 years ago," sources in the Kabbalah Center told Ynet. "At the time very few people studied Kabbalah, and together they managed to make the Kabbalah doctrine relevant for people's lives. He made Kabbalah 'democratic.'"
Late Rabbi Berg (R), his wife Karen and son Yehuda (Photo: Shachar Friedman)
"The rabbi thought of ways to make the world a better place," one of his students says. "But only when he met Rabbi Brandwein, he found a way to fulfill his dream.
"After he met his wife Karen, she said: 'Let's make the wisdom of Kabbalah relevant to people's lives.' And since 1969 they created a new language which helped people adopt the wisdom of Kabbalah into their lives. The rabbi turned the Zohar into something any person in the world could relate to."
Empire: From Israel to Dubai
The Kabbalah Center prospered under the leadership of the Berg couple (Karen was his second wife and the mother of two of his children), and thousands of people began spending Shabbat and Jewish holidays there.
Today the empire includes 40 centers around the world, even in Dubai. Israel has Kabbalah centers in Tel Aviv and Haifa.
"Jews and non-Jews can study Kabbalah thanks to the rabbi's revolution, and today people in every corner of the world are familiar with the word 'Kabbalah,'" the student adds.
"The rabbi had a dream that the book of Zohar would be in every house, because it's a book of wisdom and light, and when you turn on the light, the darkness disappears. When people had the Zohar in their home, they could distinguish between light and darkness in the world."
Rabbi Berg suffered a stroke in 2004, which he failed to recover from until his death. He is survived by his wife Karen, who is fulfilling his role, and eight children – some of whom are involved in the various Kabbalah centers, as well as millions of students around the world.
Kobi Nachshoni contributed to this report