Rabbi Philip Berg, the founder of the Kabbalah Centre, which attracted celebrity followers and controversy with its New Age and financially lucrative presentation of ancient Jewish mysticism, has died.
The Los Angeles-based spiritual organization announced the death of Berg -- known to followers as the Rav -- on its website Monday. Berg had been in ill health since 2004 when he suffered a stroke. The center said he was 86; public records indicate he was 84.
In a statement, the center praised Berg for popularizing kabbalah, saying he “created a path for millions to learn and live” a field of study previously reserved for an elite circle of orthodox Jewish men.
“Today we believe the Rav has begun to share with us from above, and we will all happily remain connected to and inspired by the Rav’s soul and his vision,” the statement read in part.
Known for an impassioned teaching style in which he used aspects of modern life to make the struggles of biblical figures more relatable, Berg ran afoul of orthodox leaders angry that he was teaching what they considered an inauthentic brand of kabbalah to an unsuitable audience. After they publicly condemned him, he moved the center’s headquarters to Los Angeles.
It was at the synagogue he set up in an old church on Robertson Boulevard that he began drawing celebrities, including Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Britney Spears and his most famous adherent, Madonna. Her embrace of the teachings made the center famous around the world and its red strings and special blessed water pop-culture phenomenons. Their sales and the center’s emphasis on cash donations by members filled its coffers. Its assets are now believed to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Berg’s widow, Karen, and two sons, Yehuda and Michael, have led the center since his stroke. Their stewardship has been accompanied by controversy. After questions arose about the nonprofit center’s substantial assets, the IRS and federal prosecutors in New York opened a tax evasion investigation. Madonna subsequently removed her African charity from the center’s control, and another nonprofit under government scrutiny abruptly shut down. Agents were still gathering evidence last year, but the government has declined to discuss its case and the current status of the investigation is not known.
Center representatives did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
A full obituary will appear Tuesday.