Monday, January 08, 2007

The Dagenham code*: review of Yehuda Berg's The Power of Kabbalah

Some modern systems of belief are explicitly new: Scientology was created by L. Ron Hubbard; others claim continuity with past traditions, such as the wicce. Yehuda Berg places Kabbalah somewhere in between: he presents its teachings as a body a secret knowledge which has been the preserve of a tiny obscure and misunderstood Judaic sect for at least 2,000 years, but which has only recently been publicised to the wider world as a tool for personal growth, accompanied by the contemporary trappings of bookshops, specially endorsed substances and products, and celebrity advocates like Madonna, her husband Guy Ritchie and her onetime lover Sandra Bernhardt. The book is written in a lively and clear style, and starts with a section debunking the misconceptions that have accumulated about Kabbalah, before looking at the drivers of human behaviour. There follow sections on Kabbalist cosmology, cross-referenced to contemporary scientific theories which parallel or confirm its model, a section on meditation and the power and meaning of the Hebrew alphabet, and a series of appendixes including a history of Kabbalah. Although the book is probably not designed to produce this effect, it creates in the reader a shift from neutral acceptance towards increasing skepticism and irritation. The first principle he cites is that there should be no coercion in spirituality, and he hopes that the accuracy of his depiction of the world should convince the reader of the validity of the cosmological model underlying it, which is a good place to start, although this obscures the extent to which his views are reliant on authority and revelation as their source.

Understanding oneself
The key argument in Berg's analysis of behaviour is that most people live humdrum lives only rarely reaching transcendence: he argues that these moments of transcendence are a connection with another realm of being, and occur when we act in line with our core identity. He suggests that the reason many people feel dissatisfied is because they misunderstand their nature and desires, becoming focused on the wrong goals (for example stating their goal as "becoming a millionaire" rather than "being financially secure": the former becomes a treadmill, possibly doomed to unfulfilment; the latter is a state of mind and could be achieved by anyone). He gives some good advice here about how to achieve a better state of mind while living in the world by changing one's attitude. He firmly discourages the culture of blame or guilt: it is a person's own responsibility to sort out their life. More questionable is his attitude to rational thought: his advice is to go with intuitions and to distrust rationality. I am unconvinced that people in general, or particularly people with problems, are over-reliant on thought, and his testimony from scientists which is supposed to support his argument fails to do so, since what is recounted is a series of cases where the scientists, having rationally defined a problem, have then intuited a solution, subsequently confirmed by rational thought. This is not a transferable model for personal lives, whatever he says. Perhaps more dangerously, he also says that when in times of doubt, trust in the certainty of Kabbalah is the best response; he presents a complex and unconvincing example of a businessman who suspects he is being defrauded by one of his salesmen: he denies all the apparent evidence, and is rewarded by it not being as bad as others feared. The danger here is that Berg is giving licence to anyone who gets into a state of denial that they are right, not wrong.

Science proves Kabbalah right
Berg likes science, or at least he appeals to it often as a source of credibility, although he is sometimes naive, saying for example that "a burning candle emits no light against the backdrop of a brilliant sunlit day" (p. 68), a piece of reasoning on a par with the lodgings landlady who closed the curtains on bright winter days because the sunshine put the coal fire out. Similarly, he uses the term 'selfish gene' (p. 111) to mean a gene that makes people selfish, a complete misunderstanding of Dawkins' concept. This becomes a serious problem when he cherry-picks scintific theories to demonstrate that Kabbalah got it right:

  • he is happy to parallel Kaballah's creation with scientific Big Bang, although the newer concept of a steady state universe of cycles of Big Bangs and Big Crunches doesn't fit at all

  • he is happy to say that matter is of dual nature like electrons and protons, ignoring the existence of neutrons which undermine such an argument

  • he is happy to link the 10 'dimensions' of the Kabbalah universe with the 10-dimensional space of superstring theory, but igonres other string theory elements proposing 11 or 46 dimensions, or the metatheory M theory that proposes 4 branes and 11 dimensions (not that I'd claim to know what this means)

It would therefore be unwise to argue that modern science has confirmed Kabbalah's cosmology: the most that could be claimed is that some modern theories fit some interpretations of Kabbalah.

Meditation and the Hebrew alphabet
The recommendation of meditation as a way of improving one's sense of well-being is hardly revolutionary, any more than a doctor's prescription of more exercise and less alcohol. Clearly, the ritual of meditation (in the sense of the regular conscious application of time and thought to one's mental life) yields benefits to many. The approach recommended by Berg is in many ways simialr to the Taoist I Ching: to focus on the pictogram of a Hebrew name of God, related to a phrase or purpose, eg 'to remove egomania', with a short passage of advice. Berg might be expected to argue that such meditation makes people feel better, or perhaps evene changes them in some way to make them into better people. But he goes a step further, and argues that meditation can cause miracles. He relies on the evidence of Dr Spokojny, who recounts two cases where his use of Kabbalah has proved efficacious where his medicine hasn't. Dr Artur Spokojny is a Harvard-trained MD who now has his own Total Healing practice. He oversaw experiments on Kabbalah-blessed water:
'"We have reversed entropy and reversed the second law of thermodynamics," contended Dr. Artur Spokojny, a cardiologist who oversaw the independent lab tests [on behalf of the Kabbalah Center]'.

The full evidence for these claims, as for the ER miracles, has not yet been presented to the world.

Theology of Kabbalah
Although the 'theory' of Kabbalah is not presented clearly as a single body of belief by Berg, some elements stand out:

  • the key commandment that one should love thy neighbour as thyself

  • the 10 commandments, on the other hand, are a misunderstanding and do not apply

  • reincarnation and multiple lives happen

  • the Devil is real and the world is full of temptation and evil

History of Kabbalist thought
His brief summary of history starts with the 'Book of Abraham' written before most the Bible, a book known only to Kabbalists; Moses then wrote the Pentateuch, encoding within them Kabbalah knowledge. He then has Pythagoras as a Kabbalah devotee, although Josephus' version (97 AD) of what he says Hermippus of Smyrna says about Pythagoras is not so specific, and in general Pythagoras' number mysticism is different to that of Kabbalah and sourced from Egypt and Assyria, if anywhere. Plato and Aristotle are also roped in on the basis of what Dr Seth Pancoast says (this is the Seth Pancoast who
"extended this thinking in his Blue and Red Light: or, Light and its Rays as Medicine (1877), in which he cautioned against “light quacks” even as he claimed to have cured Master F., an eight-year-old paraplegic, after only a week under red glass, and Mrs. L., a 32-year-old widow suffering from severe sciatica, after only three sittings in a bath of blue light." (Cabinet Magazine).
The only surprising inclusion in later history is Isaac Newton, who again was interested in number mysticism and theology but is not normally included amongst followers of Kabbalah. The surprising omission is the tedious visionary Nostradamus, who Berg doesn't mention.

Authority and evidence

Regardless of the coherence of the body of belief that Berg presents, there remains a fundamental issue of epistemology. How can Berg know that there are 10 dimensions or that reincarnation happens? The answer has to be that for every belief not susceptible to direct verification by our senses or minds, we must rely on what we have been told. And so despite the initial gestures towards confirmation by experience, Kabbalah is reliant on two bodies of authority: written texts and interpretation.

As a result, Kabbalah is out of step with more modern cults, since it requires belief in Holy Writ. Berg makes many mentions of the Bible without gloss: his US readers probably read this as their Bible, although the Jewish Bible is meant; he argues against literalism in interpreting it, presumably expecting his audience to be of fundamentalist tendency. But in Kabbalah the Bible contains God's word, but encrypted. Kabbalah also requires the acceptance of two further holy works, the books of Abraham and Zohar, neither of which is known elsewhere.

Further than this, though, Kabbalah's validity relies on the work of its interpreters: if Berg and his father and their predecessors are wrong, their beliefs are wrong.

Thus the pantheistic almost godless cosmology with the individual's mind at its centre that Kabbalah appears to be at first glance is actually a scripture- and revelation-driven set of specific beliefs requiring faith in a Hebrew God and a complex interpretation of His works.

Further reading

In the course of researching this review, I came across various strange stories, including:

The Strange Case of Supernatural water (Kabbalah water proposed as a cure to citrus canker in Florida)
Red String to protect you from the evil eye
Psionic Kabbalah Manifesting Capsule
Madonna breaks bones in fall despite wearing Kabbalah bracelet
Jerry Hall renounces Kabbalah after pressure to fundraise
Celebrities linked to the Kabbalah Center

* 'Dagenham' is known to Londoners as the District Line underground station two stops beyond Barking.

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