By Diana Crandall
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The former co-director of the Kabbalah Center, a spiritual group whose brand of Jewish mysticism has drawn numerous celebrity adherents but also controversy, went on trial on Tuesday in a lawsuit brought by a follower who says he groped her.
Yehuda Berg, 43, son of the late rabbi who founded the organization, was called as the first witness in the trial, testifying he struggled with drug and alcohol addiction that led to his resignation from leadership in the group in 2014.
But he denied any sexual wrongdoing.
In a lawsuit filed last year in Los Angeles Superior Court, Jena Scaccetti accused Berg of inviting her to his mother's apartment in 2012, plying her with alcohol and narcotic painkillers and making an unwanted sexual advance that included hugging her and fondling her leg.
"It was an attempt to get her drunk and render her unable to make an informed decision," her lawyer, Alin Bonavida, said in opening statements to jurors on Tuesday.
According to the lawsuit, Berg, who is married, reacted to Scaccetti's look of shock by threatening to kill her if she told anyone about his behavior, and she left the apartment.
Berg's attorney John Cline acknowledged that his client, believing Scaccetti might be attracted to him, had invited her to the apartment for a drink but denied that he forced himself on her.
"It turned out that Ms. Scaccetti had no interest at all in having sex with Mr. Berg," Cline told jurors. "She told him, 'no,' and he stopped."
The lawsuit seeks tens of millions of dollars in damages from Berg and the Kabbalah Center for battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence.
The case marks the latest controversy faced over the years by the Kabbalah Center, a non-profit founded in 1965 by Berg's father, an ordained rabbi who espoused teachings rooted in metaphysical principles of Jewish belief.
The mystical leanings of the center have attracted the likes of Madonna and Lindsay Lohan, seen with the red-string wrist bracelets many followers wear as a talisman. Berg himself officiated the 2005 wedding of actors Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore.
Critics in mainstream Judaism have accused the Kabbalah movement of corrupting the ancient, esoteric mystic traditions of Jewish faith by taking them out of context and repackaging them as a popular new-age form of superstition.
(Reporting by Diana Crandall, Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Steve Gorman and Tom Brown)