On/File: A Continuing Record of Groups, Movements, People, and Events Impacting Religion

Bnei Baruch emerged from a small circle of students of the Kabbalah in Israel in the 1990s to become one of Israel’s largest new religious movements that is taking on a global expression. The movement, numbering 50,000 participants in Israel and 150,000 worldwide, takes a pragmatic approach to the mystical Jewish texts known as the Kabbalah, teaching that these spiritual teachings should be accessible to non-Jews and applied to society. Participants claim that Bnei Baruch is more a spirituality than a religion, though they daily gather together for “night teachings” in sex-segregated groups to study Kabbalistic texts under the charismatic leadership of its founder Michael Laitman. The movement is similar in some ways to the more publicized Kabbalah Center, which has had a special appeal to celebrities for its popularization of Kabbalistic teachings, especially in the way it has used the media and the Internet to expand.

The group teaches a spiritualized version of “communism” that sees the world moving toward greater altruism, and members have even started a small Israeli political party. Even the relatively low-key approach of Laitman has drawn criticism and controversy from Israel’s fledgling anti-cult movement (led by ultra-Orthodox Jews). A small group of ex-members claim the group is authoritarian and abusive, although there have been few reports of actual criminal misdoings. New religious movement specialist Massimo Introvigne argues that the opposition more likely stems from rival groups and interpretations of the Kabbalah that stress its Jewish or purely scholarly nature. (Source: Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, Vol 13, Article 2; http://www.religjournal.com)