Toronto singer Daniela Nardi has always been something of a spiritual seeker. Raised Roman Catholic, she has dabbled at various times in Buddhism, Scientology, Islam and, most recently, Kabbalah, the ancient world of Jewish mysticism.
Intrigued by the praise lavished on it by celebrities such as Madonna and Demi Moore, Ms. Nardi joined Toronto's Kabbalah Centre a few years ago, but the experience was ultimately disappointing.
"I took a couple of classes, and found it interesting but too simple," Ms. Nardi says. "And when I told them I wanted to learn more, go deeper, they told me I was not ready. They wanted me to buy the $800 edition of the Zohar [the 13th-century Ur text of Kabbalah]and when I said I didn't have the money, they told me I wasn't investing in my spirituality. It's a huge marketing machine, but where is the substance?"
The Kabbalah Centre eventually lost Ms. Nardi, but it is gaining other proponents. Once located on a dreary stretch in a Jewish neighbourhood in Downsview, the organization has recently opened a spiffy second venue on tony Hazelton Avenue.
And instead of peddling the conventional Yorkville line of bespoke suits or couturier dresses, the centre offers a different kind of tailoring, selling what it boldly calls "technology for the soul."
Putting a decidedly New Age spin on the esoteric practices of Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah Centre dispenses pay-as-you-go solutions to Jew and non-Jew alike. You can meditate, learn how to find your soul mate, increase your intuition, and create miracles -- a line of work normally reserved for divinity.
The technology, of course, comes heavily accessorized. In addition to candles, stones, key chains, calendars and healing water ($4.50 a bottle), you can buy $14 red strings (you tie these on your left wrist, ostensibly to ward off the evil eye), $800 editions of the Zohar (in Aramaic), other books and tapes, as well as framed posters bearing the 72 names of God.
The outreach-cum-merchandising campaign appears to be paying dividends. The Hazelton venue is now part of a fast-growing business empire of about 60 centres, run out of a $3-million (U.S.) building in Los Angeles by Rabbi Phillip Berg (born Feivel Gruberger), 75, a former insurance salesman, his wife, Karen, and sons, Yehuda and Michael. Backed by expensive marketing initiatives and endorsements from high-profile celebrities -- including Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Ashton Kutcher -- the Kabbalists have set up recruitment digs on some pricey real estate in New York (East 48th Street), London (Mayfair), Paris (near the Eiffel Tower) and elsewhere.
Inevitably, its increased visibility is now sparking increased scrutiny. Requests for an interview with someone from the Kabbalah Centre in Toronto were referred to Kaballah headquarters in Los Angeles, but a spokesperson there would comment only if granted permission to approve the article first, which was unacceptable to The Globe and Mail.
But there are legions of disciples who defend the Kabbalah Centre teachings as a practical, easy-to-digest regimen that neatly synthesizes the messages of other world faiths, from Buddhism to Scientology. "The fact of the matter is they have introduced more people to Judaism than anyone else," maintains Syd Kessler, a retired Toronto advertising executive and long-time member of the Kabbalah Centre. "Yes, they're largely teaching the elemental stuff, but it's a gateway. It's the smell of the bouquet and that's better than nothing. If you want to go deeper, you can."
Its critics, no less numerous and far more vocal, call it a frothy exercise in McWisdom or McKabbalah, having almost nothing in common with its historic origins in medieval Spain. Then, and for several hundred years afterward, genuine Kabbalah was the exclusive preserve of Orthodox Jewish men over 40 -- no one else was deemed mature enough to probe its esoteric secrets. At the Kabbalah Centre, the teachings are open to anyone.
"By their own admission," notes Toronto Rabbi Immanuel Schochet, an acknowledged Kabbalist scholar and author of several books on Jewish mysticism, "many of their own teachers don't know Hebrew. It's . . . a distortion of Jewish mysticism. They practise things that are contrary to Judaism."
For his outspoken views, Dr. Schochet is still fighting a $4.5-million (U.S.) slander and defamation suit filed by the Bergs in 1993.
He and other critics do concede that the organization's brand of feel-good, let-the-light-shine-in religion may help some people. But they reject as preposterous the claims that devotees can ward off negativity by wearing red threads, heal illness by drinking its water , or absorb positive energy simply by scanning the Aramaic letters of the Zohar. All of this, Dr. Schochet insists, is "snake oil."
Then there's the money issue. When I dropped into the Hazelton centre this week for the free introductory lecture -- other classes are still held at the Downsview location -- I told teacher Isaac Friedin that my knowledge of Hebrew was a little rusty. "It doesn't matter," he said. "I don't speak it either. The eyes are the window of the soul. You can benefit just by scanning the letters."
He distilled the essence of Kabbalist philosophy to three phrases: to rid oneself of ego, shed negativity and learn "the importance of tithing." In other words, he said, you can't really learn how to receive until you learn how to give -- implicitly to the Kabbalah Centre. There's no coercion, of course, but the centre recommends you donate 10 per cent of your salary.
Synagogues and other Jewish institutions charge membership fees, explains Dr. Friedin, a former dentist. But he earns no salary, he insists -- subsisting on a modest stipend that covers room and board.
Ms. Nardi, the singer, says she was frequently pressured to give 10 per cent of her income. "I said, 'Why do I have to give it here? Why can't I give it to the Catholic Church?' They said, 'You're here, so give it here.' It was another red flag."
She may have been lucky. Other members have effectively pledged the value of their houses to the centre and, when they realized the consequences and tried to renege, were forced to take their cases to the Bet Din, a Jewish communal court that arbitrates business conflicts.
Others say devotion to the Kabbalah Centre led to the breakup of families. A Toronto woman who declined to be identified says her former husband, an orthodontist, became so involved with the group that it led to divorce. "It was all he could talk about. We were married for 25 years, but he became a complete stranger. Eventually, he left me for another woman, also in the centre, and she was married with four children. "
But Mr. Kessler, the author of two books on the subject, insists that the skeptics are wrong. "The rabbis are losing their power," he maintains. "That's what's driving this. They're threatened by it. But believe me, there's a whole science behind it. It's all quantum mechanics, electrons, protons and neutrons. One is to give and the other is to take and the other is to balance. That whole technology is very powerful."