Hidden away in a room in a former insurance office behind London’s Oxford Street, a woman is listening, head bowed, as she takes religious instruction from a rabbi.
The woman is addressed by the cleric only as ‘Esther’, but closer inspection reveals an unmistakable profile.
Madonna, the Queen of Pop, her hair scraped back in a ponytail and her face devoid of makeup, is having her weekly lesson in the ancient Hebrew teachings of Kabbalah.
The singer has become so immersed in this branch of Judaism, described as ‘a divine system of wisdom’, that she has embraced the new name given to her by her teachers and credits Kabbalah with changing her life.
But now, as she prepares for her Reinvention world tour, which kicks off later this month, Madonna is facing awkward questions over her role as ‘celebrity recruiting sergeant’ in the movement some claim is becoming a dangerous cult.
More seriously, there are concerns, privately expressed for the first time by the singer’s friends, that her marriage to British film director Guy Ritchie is under threat because of their shared obsession with Kabbalah. And, as we shall discover, Ritchie’s own blind adherence to the strictures of the controversial ideology has exacted a toll on his onceglittering career.
If that were not enough, there are claims that the much-hyped children’s novel penned by Madonna, The English Roses, is being used to fund a front for the Kabbalah movement which is, allegedly, aimed at brainwashing youngsters.
The accusations follow dark rumours about the indoctrination of the cult’s followers, along with questions about its moneymaking schemes.
So why, when many respected figures in the religious world have begun to ring alarm bells about some aspects of Kabbalah, does Madonna ignore them?
The answer, say those close to the singer who have become frustrated by her reliance on the secretive sect, is to be found in her belief that it can bring her the third child for whom she longs.
Whatever the truth, a leading cult expert claims that Madonna, the onetime Material Girl, has become little more than a celebrity mouthpiece for an organisation motivated primarily by profit.
‘Madonna is a glove-puppet for the family that controls the Kabbalah movement,’ says Rick Ross, founder of the U.S. based Institute For The Study Of Destructive Cults, who has spent several years investigating the sect’s activities.
‘They have become rich thanks to her propaganda. Madonna, Guy and the other celebrities involved in Kabbalah are cocooned by this sect because their money and fame is useful to the leaders, but I have met many people whose lives have been destroyed by this organisation.’ Former members of the sect, which dates back 4,000 years, claim Madonna has been kept in the dark about a group of the cult’s workers known as the ‘chevra’. Some of these lowly conscripts have complained of being brainwashed, forced to hand over what little money they had and being put to work on slave wages.
It has to be said that, for an intelligent and famously controlling woman who was raised a Roman Catholic, a cursory inspection of the wilder claims of the Kabbalah leadership should have raised suspicions.
They variously assert that through the ‘positive flow of energy’ believers can heal themselves and stop the ageing process – a claim which may appeal to Madonna, who is 45.
More bizarre still is their declaration that negative energy can be absorbed by swinging a chicken above the head.
However, the path to what the organisation’s leaders call the ‘Divine Light’ comes at a cost.
The Kabbalah Centre in London, housed in a Grade II-listed building, was paid for by a Pounds 3.65 million donation from Madonna, and is just yards from her opulent home. Visitors are asked to pay an initial Pounds 151 for instruction, but critics claim the bill soon rises. Serious worshippers can soon find themselves out of pocket.
As well as instructional books, they are offered ‘blessed, restoring’ face cream at Pounds 78 and eye cream at Pounds 91.
The Kabbalah trademark red string bracelet, as worn by Madonna and a growing band of showbusiness devotees, including Naomi Campbell and Elizabeth Taylor, is priced at Pounds 18.
On offer in the gift shop at the centre this week, and next to a sign bearing the word ‘Healing’, was Kabbalah Mountain Spring Water. Personally blessed by the movement’s charismatic American leader, Philip Berg, it claims to possess ‘centuries of wisdom in every drop’.
At Pounds 2.80 a bottle, the water is said to have undergone an ‘exclusive Kabbalistic process’ called Quantum-Resonance Technology, making it ‘a spiritual tool’.
ONE former Kabbalah member says she was advised that drinking the water could cure her father after he suffered a heart attack. Madonna claims it cured husband Guy’s verrucas.
Consequently, the water is now the only drink Madonna will allow to pass her lips.
An expert in the ancient teachings, who is unconnected with the Kabbalah Centre, told the Mail how he was recently contacted by the management of a Cologne hotel. The hotel staff were in a panic as they tried to buy cases of the water after Madonna’s management said she would not check in unless she was served the holy H2O.
A number of former high-profile converts to Kabbalah have gone public with their unease at the techniques employed for extracting money from well-heeled devotees.
Model Jerry Hall, who turned to the faith in an attempt to save her marriage to Mick Jagger, complained last year about the movement’s ‘tithing’ of its followers – asking each one to hand over ten per cent of their earnings to the sect.
She also said she was made to feel uncomfortable by the insistence that she should ask her friends to hand over money.
‘They always talked about giving in order to receive, but I didn’t really realise that in order to go through a door of miracles you had to give ten per cent of your income,’ she said.
Madonna’s haranguing of her friends to donate cash has also reportedly caused a rift with fashion designer Stella McCartney.
They are said to have fallen out after Stella was persuaded by Madonna that Kabbalah could help her and husband Alasdhair Willis conceive.
Such concerns have not stopped a stream of celebrity names, including Roseanne Barr, Courtney Love and Goldie Hawn, from becoming followers.
They are, it seems, attracted by the less than taxing approach of the religion to the pursuit of spiritual fulfilment.
Followers are actively encouraged to pamper themselves. Even the understanding of the 12th-century manuscript, called the Zohar, on which modern Kabbalah teaching is based, is made surprisingly user- friendly.
According to the Zohar, the Old Testament can be read as a blueprint for man’s destiny using mathematics, philosophy, numerology and astrology.
It was said to be too advanced for even the most eminent Jewish scholars.
However, the Zohar, insist rabbis at the Kabbalah Centre, can now be understood merely by running the hands over the text.
This way, it seems, the once unfathomable complexities of the Zohar (copies of which are on sale for Pounds 350) have become fully accessible to the likes of 21-year-old pop princess Britney Spears, another of Madonna’s famous converts.
It has led to Kabbalah, once a respected part of the Jewish teachings, being derided as ‘McMysticism’ on Jewish websites in the U.S.
Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, has publicly disassociated the Jewish faith from the London Kabbalah Centre because of the claims of abuse and profiteering.
While the origins of Kabbalah are a sacred part of Judaism, the founding of the worldwide network of Kabbalah Centres has been shrouded in mystery.
In fact, Rabbi Philip Berg, the selfstyled ‘world’s foremost authority on the Kabbalah’, who installed himself as its chief in 1969, was born Feivel Gruberger in Brooklyn, New York. He was an insurance salesman before leaving his wife and children to become a spiritual leader.
Berg and his second wife Karen, with whom he runs the ‘not-for- profit’ empire, are said to be millionaires with a home in Beverly Hills. Their network of charities declared assets of more than $23 million in 2002.
Madonna, who is believed to have been introduced to the sect by her friend, the American comedienne Sandra Bernhardt, first revealed her devotion to Kabbalah when she credited Berg with ‘creative guidance’ on her album Ray of Light four years ago.
She also used the teachings of Kabbalah as the basis for her children’s novel, The English Roses, published last year.
Proceeds from the book are paid into the coffers of a charity called Spirituality For Kids – a direct offshoot of Rabbi Berg’s organisation.
Cult expert Rick Ross says: ‘Madonna’s books are no more than a propaganda tool. The children who go to these day-care centres, including Madonna’s daughter Lourdes, are part of the indoctrination process. I consider this aspect of the organisation to be one of the most concerning.’ Madonna’s friends, her daughter and her son Rocco are all immersed in this strange religion. But what of Mr Madonna, Guy Ritchie?
According to friends, he is as committed to the movement as his wife. The couple even retook their wedding vows in a Kabbalah ceremony.
Initially, Guy, the writer and director of the highly successful 1998 British gangster film Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, was less than enthusiastic.
Indeed, a friend of Ritchie, who despite being public-school educated feigns a Cockney accent, told the Mail this week: ‘Guy delighted in putting on his best Mockney and calling the whole thing: “A load of Kabbalahs.”
‘He was very dismissive about what Madonna was doing and it was a huge joke to him, although he was careful to make fun of her behind her back.’ But Ritchie’s new-found devotion to the cause is alltoo- apparent. Dressed in the white uniform that the Kabbalah hierarchy insist men must wear, he has been photographed with his family outside the sect’s Los Angeles HQ.
Guy’s ‘conversion’ has led to friction with friends who feel edged out of the couple’s lives because of their scepticism over their religious fervour.
It has also resulted in Guy, 35, giving up his hobby of shooting.
His decision, prompted by the Kabbalah teaching that the souls of dead pheasants might come back to haunt him, has caused him to cool his friendship with former footballer Vinnie Jones, who was one of the stars of Lock, Stock.
Jones, the Mail learned this week, has privately complained that Guy has turned his back on the group of friends who would have regular shoots at the Ritchies’ Pounds 9 million country estate – Ashcombe House, in Wiltshire. In fact, the almost unrivalled shooting facilities were the main reason for Guy and Madonna buying it in 2001.
Madonna tried shooting – but soon gave it up.
One of Ritchie’s former friends said: ‘Guy used to be one of the boys, but when Madonna refused to shoot any more, he just stopped.
‘Some of his friends think he just caved in to her, but he had also become really committed to Kabbalah. He is the last person you would think would get involved in this type of claptrap. I know it sounds overdramatic, but it’s as if his mind has been taken over.’ Paradoxically, despite the couple’s shared obedience to their new faith, it has not had a beneficial effect on their marriage, say friends.
Some point to a shift in the balance of power between them as a result of what they see as Guy’s acquiescence.
‘Guy’s conversion to Kabbalah has signified a change in their relationship,’ said one.
‘When they first met, Guy was the bright young thing of cinema. Madonna was very attracted to his success and the way he treated her as an equal.
Their relationship has always been a sparring match between two large egos. But this Kabbalah thing is not Guy at all. Since he bought into it he appears visibly to have weakened.
‘He was once her match, but he’s starting to look like her puppy. The last time I saw them he had started to call her “Mother”. It was, quite frankly, sick-making.’
Another close friend maintains that Madonna has a habit of ‘trying to control people, but soon loses respect for them once she has got her way’.
The friend adds: ‘Their marriage is in danger of losing its centre of gravity because of this nonsense. I think they had some sort of couple’s counselling when Guy first joined the group and I know they have been under pressure because they want another baby.
‘But I don’t believe their marriage is being helped by this craze. The sooner they extract themselves from the claws of these charlatans the better.’ That, however, is unlikely to be any time soon. Ritchie’s fervour for his new religion is such that he has been attempting to get major backing for a film based on a Kabbalah storyline called 49th Gate. He is reported to have been accompanied by a rabbi at studio meetings to discuss the project.
However, after the initial success of Lock, Stock in America, Guy’s weight in Hollywood has diminished after the critical mauling of Swept Away, the film he directed starring his wife. It went straight to video in Britain.
Guy’s religious zeal is also said to have forced a wedge between him and Matthew Vaughn, his collaborator on his name-making gangster film.
Vaughn, who was Ritchie’s joint best man at his December 2000 wedding and who is credited as a major driving force behind his meteoric rise, is playing no part in 49th Gate.
Will he, like several others who have expressed their doubts about Kabbalah, soon find himself out of favour?
For the moment, Madonna, whose sell- out tour reaches Britain in August, remains a staunch defender of Kabbalah and her mentors.
But the question an increasing number of her friends are now asking is whether her latest reinvention could finally prove to be her undoing.