Leading rabbis have expressed astonishment that the leader of the London branch of the controversial Kabbalah Centre has been invited to speak at Limmud.
Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, of Mill Hill Synagogue, this week urged Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and other United Synagogue colleagues to pull out of the event if Limmud did not cancel two scheduled talks by Marcus Weston, a trustee of the London branch.
Another United Synagogue rabbi, Barry Marcus, backed Rabbi Schochet saying that Limmud had “made a grave error because they have now opened the door to other cults”.
Rabbi Marcus, of London’s Central Synagogue, added that Limmud’s decision “would give the centre the credibility they are looking for”.
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler of the independent Progressive Belsize Square Synagogue was “astonished” by the invitation.
He said that the Centre “has nothing to do with authentic Kabbalah and is not worthy of providing any forum at all for its unacceptable agenda and rip-off of Jewish tradition and practice.”
In a blog post, Rabbi Schochet wrote that there was “little difference between the Kabbalah Centre and Jews for Jesus. Both essentially look to lure the Jew into a belief that has nothing to do with Judaism per se.”
Critics of the Kabbalah Centre — which was made famous by the patronage of Madonna and other celebrities — also complain that it sells products such as red-string bracelets to ward off the evil eye and that it encourages people to buy Zohar, the esoteric kabbalistic commentary on the Torah, as “protection”, even if they cannot read a word of Hebrew.
Its Los Angeles-based headquarters is embroiled in a legal dispute with former followers who claim that it misused more than $1 million.
Rabbis across the spectrum lined up to express concern about the centre, while stopping short of urging a withdrawal of the invitation.
Rabbi Mark Goldsmith, of the North-Western Reform Synagogue in London, said that the presence of the Kabbalah Centre was “confusing — I would prefer if it wasn’t there”.
The problem with the centre, he explained, was that it taught Jewish mysticism “without basing it in the wholeness of Judaism. Limmud is about that wholeness so the Kabbalah Centre is not a great place to learn from at Britain’s biggest Jewish learning experience.”
Rabbi Aaron Goldstein, of Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue, said: the centre was “not my cup of tea and I have a problem with it as an institution. I have experience of too many people parting with too much money and I am not convinced of the long-term benefits.”
But he added that Limmud was “a place of all Jewish viewpoints and perspectives. To bar Jewish institutions would do a disservice to the Jewish community.”
Other rabbis took a more relaxed approach to Mr Weston’s inclusion on the programme.
Rabbi Marcia Plumb, a former Reform congregational rabbi in London, who is travelling from the USA to speak at the conference, said that Limmud’s strength lay in “its high-quality programme and its pluralism. If a speaker can respect the true diversity of Limmud, and doesn’t try to ‘convert’ anyone or do harm to anyone then they are as welcome at Limmud as anyone else. Radical views don’t worry me. Fortunately, Limmud participants are thoughtful and sensible.”
Reform Rabbi Larry Tabick, who has taught Kabbalah for many years, said that although “not happy” with a lot of what the Kabbalah Centre taught, nevertheless it had sometimes acted as a “way back to Judaism” for some people. “So I wouldn’t want them to be excluded,” he said.
Neither Mr Weston nor Limmud would respond to the uproar.
The London Kabbalah Centre, which had an income of over £6 million last year, is one of more than 40 branches of a movement established by Rabbi Philip Berg, a former insurance salesman known as Feivel Gruberger who died earlier this year, and his family.
According to the London centre’s website ,Kabbalah is not a religion but a universal system “given to all humanity” which can help people “achieve more success” in life.
In 2005, an undercover reporter for the BBC’s Panorama, who was suffering from cancer, was invited to spend hundreds of pounds buying cases of so-called Kabbalah Water at the London Centre, which he was told had curative powers.