Kabbalah adherents can this week add a black armband to their red string bracelets. Philip Berg, the founder of the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles, who drew several major celebrities to his new-age brand of ancient Jewish mysticism, has died. Most famously, the spiritual organisation counted Madonna among its followers, and in 2005 the actors Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher were married at the Kabbalah headquarters on Robertson Boulevard.
The Centre announced Berg’s death on its website on Monday, saying the Rabbi (Rav in Hebrew) was 86 – though the Los Angeles Times reported that public records show he was 84. In a statement, it said: “Throughout the Rav’s 86 years, he created a path for millions to learn and live Kabbalah. The Rav has left us with incredible knowledge through thousands of hours of teaching, examples of courage we will never forget, and the comfort of a Kabbalah Centre we can all call home.”
Berg was born Shraga Feivel Gruberger in New York, and established the Kabbalah Centre there in 1969. He repackaged Kabbalah, a strain of Jewish mysticism dating to at least the 13th century, with new-age ideas, and became known for drawing comparisons between biblical stories and the struggles of modern life. However, orthodox Jewish leaders criticised him for offering a superficial version of their privileged wisdom to a popular audience.
After these attacks, Berg relocated to Los Angeles in 1993, where his teachings attracted celebrities including Britney Spears and Gwyneth Paltrow. But it was Madonna’s involvement that made Kabbalah world famous, not to mention the red string bracelets worn by its adherents, and “blessed” water sold by the Centre.
The non-profit organisation, which is now thought to have assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars, was until recently the subject of a tax-evasion investigation by the US authorities, though the current status of the case is not public. After the controversy became public in 2011, Madonna cut ties between the Centre and her charity, Raising Malawi. At the time, the organisation acknowledged tax authorities were looking into its wider finances, but denied wrongdoing.
Since Berg suffered a stroke nine years ago, the Centre has been led by his wife Karen and their sons Yehuda and Michael.