Finding fulfillment

Eitan Yardeni seeks to impart how Kabbala can help us make significant changes.

Madonna at Kabbala lecture 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Madonna at Kabbala lecture 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Enlightenment is wonderful if you’re one of the enlightened ones. If not, it’s like you’re on the outside of a particularly hilarious inside joke.
The hundreds of people making their way into the luxurious Kabbalah Center in Tel Aviv on Sunday night are figuratively holding their bellies from laughing so loud. Stylishly dressed and coiffed, the predominantly 25- to 45-year-old crowd of shiny, happy and excited mostly Ashkenazi Israelis could be mistaken for upscale theater-goers.
But the theater they’re attending has nothing to do with entertainment and everything to do with why they seem to buzzing at a slightly different level than the rest of us. Rabbi Eitan Yardeni, maybe the world’s best known teacher of Kabbala, is about to give a free, public lecture.
“I’m here because a friend who has studied here told me about it and it sounded interesting,” says Rina Kahan, a middle-aged Herzliya resident who runs a non-profit organization that supports girlfriends of fallen soldiers. “I haven’t heard much about Kabbala, but I’m interested in what he [Yardeni] has to say. I’m sitting near the exit though, in case I want to leave in the middle.”
An hour earlier, next to the inactive Agam Fountain in grimy Dizengoff Circle, a couple of clean-cut young people are handing out flyers advertising the upcoming lecture. “Kabbala lecture tonight,” they call out. Yardeni’s words of wisdom, begin descending on the Kabbalah Center over a half hour before his lecture is slated to begin. When was the last time you heard about Israelis arriving early to an event?
THE CENTER, within shouting distance of Dizengoff Circle, is an impressive structure from the outside – modern and cultivated in an area that’s unkempt and dilapidated.
Inside, it’s clear that some serious money has been spent to furbish the surroundings.
A spacious bookstore and sitting room boasts oversized, plush leather couches and handsome wood paneling along the walls. On display and for sale are books written by Yehuda and Michael Berg, the sons of Kabbalah Center founders Philip and Karen Berg. Among them are titles like Spiritual Rules of Engagement, True Prosperity and parsha (Torah portion) by parsha volumes of The Kabbalist Bible. Visitors can also buy accessories like jewelry, some in the motif of Kabbala’s “72 Names of God.” There are necklaces, rings and bracelets that have tags saying “Made in Israel/Dipped in Kabbala Water.” And, of course, there is lots of red string – the roite bindele popularized by Hollywood celebrities but is a kabbalistic tradition that’s often worn as a bracelet on the left wrist to ward off the evil eye.
A couple of hours before the lecture, the cheery, also-buzzing center staff are busy preparing for the influx of visitors, setting up information stands and easels with posters and spraying lavender scent throughout the foyer and book store. Outside, clumps of blue balloons have been hung to spell out 2012 – signifying to visitors that it’s going to be not a time of disaster, but of celebration.
The 46-year-old Yardeni walks into a conference room down the corridor from the bookstore. Svelte and sporting a black kippa, horned-rimmed glasses and a trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, the native of Kiryat Ono could pass for an unassuming head of a yeshiva, not the international charismatic kabbalah teacher who mentors A-listers like Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow in the secrets of Jewish mysticism. Another loyal student, Israeli TV personality and actress Tzofit Grant (the wife of soccer coach Avram Grant) claims while introducing Yardeni to the audience that he “saved my life” when she met him while living in England where her husband has coached since 2007.
“Every teacher has his own way to attract people to relate to them and I don’t know if I have any special attraction,” says the soft-spoken Yardeni, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and five children. “In fact, when I studied public speaking in the army, I almost failed the course. But I’m working at it and trying to become better all the time.”
Yardeni’s attributes, rather, seem to be the ability to explain the complexities and mysteries of Kabbala, which was codified in Safed in the 1500s by Rabbi Isaac Luria and popularized by the hassidim of the 1800s in a way that spirituality-seekers – Jewish and gentile alike – can understand and embrace.
Long restricted to married men over the age of 40 due to the maturity required to understand the subtle concepts involved, the study of Kabbala has dripped down to the everyman through the Kabbalah Center’s efforts, and Yardeni’s seductive elevator pitch defining Kabbala and the Zohar, the foundational text for kabbalistic thought, helps explain why.
“Kabbala is the ancient universal teaching that helps us to understand the purpose and the meaning of life, and gives us practical tools for pure and lasting fulfillment.” Perhaps, it’s that New Age essence that has raised the hackles of members of the Jewish establishment who over the years have criticized the Bergs and the Kabbalah Center, which boasts over 50 locations around the world, for creating a “McDonald’s” version of Kabbala.
Karen Berg, when interviewed by The Jerusalem Post in 2009, accepted the criticism but justified opening up Kabbala study to the masses.
“At the beginning, when you come to your first classes, you don’t become a master. Like when you learn yoga, you don’t become a yogi right away,” she said.
Yardeni became a yogi much quicker than most, since attending his first Kabbala class in 1981 with Philip Berg when he was 17. Brought up in a devoutly secular household, Yardeni says he was always nagged by questions about life and purpose.
“I always felt there was something I was lacking, and felt instant connection with Kabbala,” he says.
Yardeni’s service in the Israel Air Force interrupted his studies, as did his participation in the 1982 Lebanon War. But when became a Hawk missile trainer during his final year of service he was able to find time to resume his studies, learning in private sessions with Berg at 4 a.m. twice a week and volunteering at the center in the evening. “When I finished the army, I knew it wasn’t a question of what to do. I knew this is what I’m here for.”
Only five months out of the army in 1985, Yardeni was sent by Berg to New York as a Kabbala emissary to begin recruiting and teaching students at the Kabbalah Center there and, in the ensuing years, helped establish centers in Toronto and Miami, before settling in Los Angeles. Yardeni explains the explosion in Kabbala’s popularity as being connected to disenchantment with organized religion.
“There are people who are no longer satisfied with belonging to a religion,” he says. “It’s an age when people are asking questions of self-awareness – ‘Am I fulfilled? Am I happy?’ I don’t think 80 years ago people were asking themselves those questions. This process started in the ’60s; The universe is pushing us to ask
questions and pushing us toward change and transformation. That’s why the whole idea of self-help became so popular.”
KABBALA’S NICHE in the self-help world has received a huge boost from the influx of celebrity students in the US, including Madonna, Donna Karan, Roseanne Barr, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, among many more. Yardeni, while welcoming the students, says he’s not interested in celebrities or the trappings of fame they bring with them.
“I had heard of Madonna but had never seen her before,” he says, recalling the first time the Material Girl showed up for a class at the Los Angeles center.
“One of my students told me that she was going to bring her to a session in my Kabbalah 1 introductory course. I was happy for the opportunity for her to connect, but I didn’t know what would come of it.”
It turned out that Madonna became a model student, taking courses as well as engaging in individual study with Yardeni, a setup she continues today. Yardeni says he’s pleased, but not surprised.
“Our goal is not just to teach, but to have students continue and follow through and, as a result, see changes in their lives. She went through a process like every student, but she’s consistent, that’s her strength. She comes to regular classes with everybody and like with other students, we meet privately.” Explaining why celebrities are attracted to Kabbala, Yardeni returns to the theme of fulfillment.
“I think that the celebrities who are honest with themselves reach their level of fame and success, and know more than others that something is missing – it’s not enough,” he says. “They have the money and recognition but still a big part of them is empty and unfulfilled. That’s where spirituality comes in.”
As to whether the celebrity element has contributed to the cheapening of Kabbala, Yardeni says that, on the contrary, it has opened the door enabling more people to be exposed to the benefits of study.
“Everything happens for a reason – we didn’t pursue celebrities, they came to us. It was part of the process of making Kabbala more available, with more people knowing about it. It’s made the teachings of Kabbala more available to everyone, so I do think it was a positive development.”
THE POPULARIZATION of Kabbala and the Kabbalah Center’s notoriety has had its drawbacks, however. The IRS is investigating the Bergs, amid claims by former employees over use of contributions to fund a lavish lifestyle. A recent two-part series in The Los Angeles Times suggested the center was more of a celebrity cult rather than a legitimate religious institution.
According to the Times, “an inner circle of very wealthy donors – the ‘close people’ as they were known at the center – gave hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of dollars in tax-deductible tithes and donations. Big donors were rewarded with seats at the Bergs’ table at Sabbath meal, invitations to intimate prayer services and personal conversations. Those who grumbled were chastised by officials or other students.
“‘When you brought up something about the family, they would tell you it clearly shows you have an opening in your consciousness for Satan,’ said a former longtime member who grew disillusioned and left the center but did not want to be named because relatives are still members. ‘Clearly you are not doing enough to get the light.’”
Yardeni doesn’t want to comment on the investigation or the articles but vehemently defends the Bergs against any wrongdoing.
“There’s no question that everything that’s been done has been conducted with pure and right intentions,” he says. “We’re confident that everything will turn out fine. Like anything that becomes big, some people begin to judge you. Anything true and meaningful will be judged.”
The crowd gathering outside doesn’t care about the IRS or investigative articles; they’re hungry for the words of Yardeni, who leaves the conference room to prepare for his lecture. As the doors to the Kabbalah Center’s auditorium open and they being trickling in, staff members approach each person, write down their name and phone numbers, ask them how they heard about the lecture and paste a name tag on their shirts.
Orna, a Tel Aviv housewife, is here with her husband. They’ve been studying at the center for 12 years, and every other person that walks by stops to greet her with a hug.
“Since I started learning Kabbala, only good things have happened to me,” she says, describing herself and her husband, one of the few men in the crowd sporting a kippa, as masorti (traditional).
“It’s improved my relationships – with my husband and my family. It’s lifted me up and given me a better life. It’s taught me that we’re all going toward the same destination, we’re just arriving at the point from different paths.”
Within minutes the room is packed, and workers begin carrying in extra chairs from other rooms. Still, as Tzofit Grant walks up to the podium, there are people standing all around the back of the hall. The boisterous crowd descends to a hush as the colorful TV star gives an impassioned 10-minute speech explaining how Kabbala changed her life.
“When I get up in the morning, I can’t wait to say the tefilat shahar [morning prayer] and when I can’t, my day is incomplete,” she said to a rousing round of applause from the predominantly secularlooking audience. When she introduced Yardeni, the crowd welcomed him like a conquering hero.
“What tonight is about is opening our eyes to realize a certain direction and place to where the universe is pushing us. As 2012 approaches, the choices are becoming even more extreme. We’ve seen political revolution and social revolution, the pace that things are happening is so fast,” he says with a backdrop of Daphni Leef speaking at one of last summer’s social protests.
“What I want to tell you is that we have a choice – we don’t have to wait for bad things to happen in 2012. We’re at a junction where we can create change and avoid much chaos, pain and suffering. In business, when markets or real estate fluctuates, there’s some corrections or adjustments that need to be made. In life too, when there’s too much imbalance, selfishness and chaos, some corrections will need to take place. Do we have to wait for the chaos to take place to correct ourselves, or is there something we can do practically to change the situation?”
THE REST of Yardeni’s talk, punctuated by applause, relates to how Kabbala study can provide the tools to make those changes and urges the audience to sign up for courses at the center. Earlier he estimated that about 60 percent of the audience was likely to be people being exposed to Kabbala for the first time.
Rina Kahan, who didn’t leave in the middle of the lecture, said afterwards that she enjoyed it but that it didn’t push her to explore the subject more closely.
“It was in ways similar to other motivational lectures I’ve heard in the past, designed to increase awareness. We’re always hearing about it – sometimes it’s called light, sometimes success, but it’s all really the same thing. Anyway, I’m not really searching for anything.”
Other attendees apparently are. They grab the course brochures that are prominent at every exit, and some will undoubtedly take the plunge to enter the murky seas of Kabbala. After all, if you had the chance to be in on the joke, wouldn’t you want to? ■