VIDEO - Rabbi Philip Berg could not have asked for a better setting for his funeral: Against the background of the hills of Safed, surrounded by thousands of his loved ones and followers – family members and students dressed in white – the Kabbalah Center leader was laid to rest at the ancient synagogue of Safed in northern Israel, several hours before the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
Video courtesy of jn1.tv
The funeral was attended by many celebrities, including American fashion designer Donna Karan and Hollywood actors Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis. Kutcher is known to have close ties with the Kabbalah Center and has visited its Israeli branch during his various trips to the Jewish state.
Rabbi Berg's coffin arrived on a flight from Los Angeles early Wednesday, along with many students and followers who asked to pay their last respects to their teacher at 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.
Over the years he created a revolution in Kabbalah studies around the world, turning them into a new age trend, attracting many celebrities who would wear a red string on their wrist. He was known as the spiritual guide of Madonna, Ashton Kutcher and many others.
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.
Pre-funeral buffet (Photo: Maor Buchnik)
The ancient synagogue in Safed is not used to such sights: Men and women, Jews and non-Jews, dressed in white and holding the book of Zohar, gathering around a pre-funeral buffet. The participants included thousands of people from England, Russia, the United States and Israel, including Environment Minister Amir Peretz.
Thousands attend funeral (Photo: Muhammad Shinawi)
The tough security arrangements ensured that only family members stood in the first circle, while the rest of the participants were pressed under the hot sun. The relatives embraced each other around the rabbi's body before he was laid to rest, and his son read Psalms in a choked voice.
Ashton Kutcher at funeral (Photo: Muhammad Shinawi)
"Father, help us, we are facing a test, there are several difficulties on the way," one of Berg's sons said. "God wants to do great things, because the business is a great thing.
"Father, you promised to help us and support us, even if we don't deserve it. 'Illusion,' you shouted, but we are not there. Give us the strength, father. You promised you would help us complete the job. You are the great light of our generation."
'You don't have to be Jewish to study Kabbalah'
Keren from Afula met Rabbi Berg 15 years ago. "Someone suggested I visit his center, and I have been there ever since," she says.
Addressing the criticism voiced against the distribution of the Kabbalah doctrine around the world, even among those who are not close to the world of Torah or Judaism, she states: "Kabbalah is for 70 peoples, and we are the chosen people. There will always be criticism. It's okay, you don't have to be Jewish to study in the Kabbalah Center."
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."
Late Rabbi Berg with his student Madonna (Photo: Peter Halmagyi)
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.'"
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,'" said one of the Kabbalah Center's students.
"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."
Shay Arzuan contributed to this report