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A Jewish Madonna? Is That a Mystery?

New York Times, USA
June 18, 2004
Joseph Berger
www.nytimes.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Friday June 18, 2004

So on the one hand, she wears a Jewish star, says she attends synagogue, performs with a version of the prayer accessory known as tefillin and with Hebrew letters flashing across a screen, and has let it be known that she won’t have concerts on the Jewish Sabbath; Madison Square Garden will be dark tonight and tomorrow.

But on the other hand, Madonna is not Jewish. And her name is the least of the problem, although she appears to be addressing that issue as well. In an ABC interview that will be broadcast tonight, she says she has taken on the Hebrew name Esther. But Liz Rosenberg, her spokeswoman, denied that she was dropping the name Madonna. “Sometimes people have their secret name, a dream name,” said Ms. Rosenberg, adding: “If someone calls her Esther she wouldn’t turn around.”

Given this apparent contradiction, what then, Talmudic dialectic aside, is one to make of Madonna and her infatuation with Judaism, which is on brassy display in her current traveling show, the “Re-Invention World Tour”? Its opening on the West Coast in May was described by Kelefa Sanneh in The New York Times as “a dense, dizzying, often incoherent, sometimes exhilarating night.” The show began a six-night stand at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday and continues on Sunday.

For one thing, Madonna is just the latest in a great tradition of stars who have been beguiled by Judaism. For Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, marriage may have been the motive, to Eddie Fisher and Arthur Miller, respectively. But for Sammy Davis Jr. it was not. In the case of Madonna, who was born Roman Catholic, her fascination with Jewish images flows mostly out of her attraction to something that she calls cabala but that many dismiss as a distillation of New Age notions about the genuine cabala.

Cabala, which means “that which is received,” is a name for the arcane works of Jewish mysticism that were first set down in the Middle Ages and collected in 13th-century Spain. Its theoretical content is regarded as profound, if esoteric, but its practical applications border on the magical. Even very observant Jews seldom dip in.

Of course, Madonna’s appropriations make a hash of Judaism, of whatever flavor, as well as cabala. In cabala, Hebrew letters are said to have enormous power, with some writers believing that God created the universe out of the energy in words and that words contain the secrets of creation. According to one of her cabala advisers, Michael Berg, the Hebrew letters Madonna displays, lamed, aleph, vov roughly equivalent to L, A, V form one of the 72 names of God and denote a diminishing of the ego to connect with joy and fulfillment. But an observant Jew would never flash a name of God across the screen in so frivolous a forum as a rock concert, nor imprint the letters as tattoos, as Madonna sometimes does, since tattoos are regarded as pagan.

Madonna wore tefillin in a music video of “Die Another Day.” Mr. Berg said that donning tefillin the sacred assemblage of leather boxes and straps worn during weekday morning prayer represents diminution of the desire to receive and a strengthening of the desire to share. But for a woman to don tefillin is still not a common practice, and for a gentile to wear tefillin might be regarded by some Jews as sacrilege.

For some Jews, even Orthodox Jews, cabala is something reserved for over-40 male scholars who have mastered Torah and Talmud. The Kabbalah Centre, a 50-branch organization whose beliefs Madonna adheres to, essentially takes cabala out of Judaism and preaches that its teaching should be available to everyone.

“If this wisdom is powerful, why would the Creator not want everybody to have access to it?” Mr. Berg asked.

But Dr. Arthur Green, professor of Jewish thought at Brandeis University, said: “This contemporary pop cabala is superficial in the sense that it doesn’t require real Hebrew learning. You can meditate on a single letter without knowing what it means.”

Still, Madonna’s flirtation with things Jewish may have positive aspects for Judaism. Samuel Heilman, the Proshansky professor in Jewish studies and sociology at the City University of New York, says that Madonna’s enthusiasm is another sign of how conventional a spice in the American stew Jews have become, despite being a rarefied 2 percent of the population. It is, he said, just as telling as Joseph I. Lieberman’s presidential run, the heartland popularity of a show like “Seinfeld” or the widespread comfort of Christians with their children marrying Jews. Christians have been adopting Jewish practices like bar mitzvahs for their teenagers or attending seders.

“I wouldn’t call it philo-Semitism, but we’re in the family, and there’s a curiosity about the family that wasn’t there before,” Mr. Heilman said. “I don’t think it’s a love of Judaism, but given all the other kinds of immigrant groups that come here, Jews suddenly seem American.”

In the Hollywood area, where Madonna’s record label, Maverick, is based, the pervasive Jewish influence in the entertainment industry, no longer disguised, only makes Judaism that much more congenial. It is not surprising that the Los Angeles area is the headquarters of the Kabbalah Centre, whose leader, Rabbi Philip Berg, a former insurance agent originally named Feivel Gruberger and the father of Michael Berg, has been Madonna’s guru, even as some critics have dismissed him as a charlatan and his movement as a cult. The organization has also attracted Demi Moore, Britney Spears, Winona Ryder, Mick Jagger and Barbra Streisand.

With 50 branches around the world, the center runs classes that profess to open the storehouse of Jewish mysticism to everybody, non-Jews included. But it also offers such bromides as inner peace, better sex and reduced stress that traditional Jewish cabala does not. Along the way, it peddles bottles of blessed Kabbalah mountain spring water at $2.50 a liter, blessed face cream and red string bracelets to ward off the evil eye. Not incidentally, the center invites high-earning devotees like Madonna to tithe.

“What the Kabbalah Centre is, is equal parts of nonmystical and traditional Jewish wisdom and one part snake oil and hokum,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, chairman of Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and an Orthodox rabbi who has taught classes in cabala. “The infatuation with it is L.A. at its worst the tendency to want it now, to want it without effort and to want it by right rather than doing the hard work.”

Rabbi Adlerstein said that he respected the search for meaning of those who join the Kabbalah Centre but that many exhibited “the laziness of people wanting fast-food answers to gourmet questions.” He said that Mr. Berg was not a genuine cabalist because he tells his acolytes that if they don’t understand the Zohar the central cabalistic text written in Aramaic they can absorb its meaning simply by scanning the text with their fingertips.

Of course, with the protean Madonna, who has reinvented herself from Material Girl to erotic icon to domestic supermom, the new, more cerebral figure of cabalist is a daring twist, and there are those who admire her ingenuity as an aging artist (though perhaps a T-shirt during a California performance on the tour that read “Kabbalists Do It Better” went a little far). Rodger Kamenetz, author of “Stalking Elijah: Adventures With Today’s Jewish Mystic Masters” and a professor of religion at Louisiana State University, said that Madonna was playing artistically provocative tricks with Jewish rituals by displaying Hebrew tattoos or donning tefillin.

“It vibrates with piety and blasphemy, a great combination,” he said. “There’s a sense of violation and a sense of homage, and that’s complex.”

Madonna, who will be 46 in August, would not comment for this article but, in an interview with Larry King two years ago, she explained her attraction to cabala. “I was looking for something,” she said. “I mean, I’d begun practicing yoga and, you know, I was looking for the answers to life. Why am I here? What am I doing here? What is my purpose? How do I fit into the big picture? I know there’s more to life than making lots of money and being successful and even getting married and having a family.”

But even if she has written one cabala-based book, “The English Roses,” and plans a second called “Yakov and the Seven Thieves,” her mangling of Judaism can strike a nerve. Jews, though, are comfortable enough in America to analyze it less with paranoia than with irony and tolerance.

Besides, celebrities have generally been good P.R. for religion. Scientology is proud of what Tom Cruise and John Travolta have done for spreading its message. Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, director of the National Jewish Outreach Program in Manhattan, said some Jewish leaders think Madonna’s enthusiasm may inspire lapsed Jews to investigate their Judaism.

“If the biggest rabbis in the United States said you should keep kosher, nobody will pay attention,” he said, “but Madonna . . .” It was a statement that, with cabalistic mystery, he didn’t have to finish.

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