The Kabbalah of Madonna
Madonna‘s upcoming pilgrimage to Israel for a Kabbalah spiritual retreat has raised questions over the nature of her faith – has the self-proclaimed Material Girl really embraced the traditions of ancient Jewish mysticism or is this simply the latest glitterati self-help fad?
In a bid to shed something of her former raunchy image, the US pop diva in 1997 began looking into Kabbalah – or at least a modern version of it – rapidly becoming one of its most high-profile faces.
Symbols of Madonna’s deepening “faith” are readily apparent – religious Jewish symbols and Hebrew letters feature in many of her more recent pop videos and she is rarely seen without the trademark red string around her wrist to ward off the evil eye.
Two months ago, she changed her name to Esther and is now reportedly observing the Jewish sabbath.
Madonna‘s conversion came about after she came into contact with the Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre which, according to its website, offers a path to spiritual enlightenment through an eclectic mix of Orthodox Jewish tradition, visualisation and positive thinking.
Through meditation on the “cosmic energy” emitted by the Hebrew alphabet, the site says, adherents can gain “inner peace, financial prosperity, power and pleasure”, amongst other things.
Despite its obvious Jewish character, this westernised version of Kabbalah has attracted a panopoly of non-Jewish celebrities, such as Britney Spears, Demi Moore, Elizabeth Taylor and Mick Jagger.
And now Madonna‘s spiritual odyssey looks set to bring her and several thousand others to Israel in mid-September over the Jewish New Year.
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Not everyone is happy with Madge’s attachment to Jewish mysticism, with religious scholars at pains to point out that this ‘popularised’ version of Kabbalah is a far cry from the Orthodox spirituality prescribed by the sages of old.
An esoteric offshoot of Judaism, Kabbalah’s origins can be traced back to the 12th and 13th centuries when its central text, the Zohar, was penned.
Taught only to a select few – namely, pious Jewish males over the age of 40 who had spent a lifetime immersed in the study of Hebrew texts – study of Kabbalah required arduous meditation and a strictly ascetic lifestyle.
Little wonder then that the Kabbalah Centre’s scented candles for banishing depression or improving your sex life, not to mention its specially-blessed Kabbalah spring water, has been greeted with ill-disguised contempt by many Orthodox Jews.
If the 45-year-old singer was hoping to use her upcoming visit to Israel to swap notes with Rabbi Yitzhak Keduri, one of Israel’s most venerated adherents of Kabbalah, she is set to be disappointed.
“I don’t know her, I don’t know of her and I won’t see her,” Keduri told the Maariv daily recently, pointing out that the study of Kabbalah was not open to women nor to non-Jews.
“Kabbalah is an added mystical tier to Judaism which comes after there is a total acceptance of a religious lifestyle and a religious value system,” Rabbi Shlomo Rifkin told AFP.
The traditional idea is that anyone studying Kabbalah must first be a mature, practising Jew, explained Rifkin, chief rabbi of the Efrat settlement in the southern West Bank.
“Maturity is important because some people can get wrapped up in the esoteric spirituality which can sometimes be cheapened into general love fests, or debauchery,” he warned.
“In the Hollywood sense, the people who are accepting Kabbalah with such alacrity, such as Madonna, are taking many of the mystical concepts but not necessarily the unique lifestyle.”
Jerusalem-based rabbi Yehoshua Engelman believes the upsurge in popularity of Kabbalah is part of a growing interest across the globe in the deeper meaning of life.
“Just as in the past 30 or 40 years, Buddhism and other religions have become popularised, so a similar thing has happened with Sufism and Kabbalah,” Engelman said.
“People are looking for a greater depth and spirituality than they were a hundred years ago. I imagine Madonna is searching for something meaningful in life and that search has to be encouraged.”
But Rifkin is not convinced.
“As an actress and a singer, if the quality of her shows has changed fundamentally since she’s found Kabbalah, and if sex is not paraded publicly then I would say its positive,” he surmised.
“If it hasn’t influenced these things, then it’s just a Hollywood fad that is meaningless in terms of Judaism.”