June 20, 2004 — The latest reinvented version of Madonna hit Manhattan last week, struggling to sell tickets and peddling $120 T-shirts at her Garden concerts. She’s also reportedly adopted the name Esther in adherence to kabbalah, the mystical Jewish “technology” that she and husband Guy Ritchie follow religiously — and that Ritchie flatly denies is a cult out to rip off celebrities, Simon Mills reports.
‘I was intrigued but skeptical and very, very suspicious,” says Guy Ritchie, “because I thought they were targeting my wife for the simple reason that she was rich and they wanted her money.”
The director of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” — and husband of one of the most famous women on the planet — is talking about his first encounter with Rabbi Philip Berg, the former New York insurance agent who founded the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre — and recruited Madonna and her husband into the mysterious world of kabbalah.
The religion, usually described (inaccurately, according to Ritchie) as “Jewish mysticism,” has been characterized by critics as merely the latest lifestyle cult of the rich and famous, patronized by everyone from Demi Moore and Mick Jagger to Britney Spears and Posh Spice.
Now Ritchie wants to take on the cynics. Speaking publicly for the first time about his beliefs, he wants to explain what kabbalah means to him and Madonna; how it has changed them both; and why even he doubts the motives of some of the movement’s celebrity adherents.
Madonna first heard about kabbalah when “a friend of a friend of hers told her about this man [Berg] who could provide answers that no other religions he had come across before ever had.”
Ritchie agreed to meet Berg and “I bombarded him with questions and lambasted his opinions. But I soon realized that he had this vast wealth of knowledge and scientific wisdom.”
In time Ritchie says he discovered that “kabbalah is simply an extension of the way most us try to live our lives. It’s just about being a decent person.”
Kabbalah is said to date back to the second century and to have been studied by, among others, Plato and Sir Isaac Newton.
Some aspects of the kabbalah “technology” — Ritchie explains that this term is preferred to “religion” or “philosophy” — run parallel to Judaism. But instead of directly relying on traditional Jewish texts, followers of kabbalah embrace the Zohar (or the Book of Splendor), a 15-volume interpretation of them written in the 13th century by a Spanish rabbi in Granada.
Ritchie says kabbalah has made him a better husband and a more caring father.
“We delude ourselves as human beings,” he says. “Even when we do seemingly selfless things, like playing with our kids, we are still actually acting selfishly.”
Ritchie, who met Madonna in 1998 at a dinner party thrown by Sting, was born into the Church of England; his wife had a Catholic background.
But neither of those traditions held a great deal of appeal for them. With kabbalah, “there is no mindless observation of meaningless traditions.”
Of course it is the religion’s celebrity connections — and the famous $26 red-string bracelets that publicly identify its followers — that have brought it to prominence.
The movement’s white uniforms, as worn by the likes of Ashton Kutcher, the actor boyfriend of Demi Moore, are meant to attract the positive energy that men particularly need to combat outsized egos.
Friends describe Ritchie, a black belt in karate and judo, as “powerfully charismatic.”
Kabbalah advocates the “spiritual supremacy of women over men.” It’s not hard to see why it appeals to Madonna.
“Kabbalah,” Madonna has said, “helped me understand that there is a bigger picture.
“I was raised to believe that the privilege of being American means you can be whatever you want. But the question is, to what end? What’s the point of reaching the top?”
Not everyone is convinced that kabbalah is anything more than a fashionable cult.
Rabbi Barry Marcus, of the respected Central London Synagogue, says: “Kabbalah is not what it appears to be.
“They are using techniques found in cults to suck people in. Their centers are in rich areas to attract people with money. There is no spiritual dimension whatsoever.”
This is the kind of thing that leaves Ritchie “scratching my head. I can only assume that some people hate what they don’t understand.”
But is it a cult?
“Kabbalah actively encourages you to continually ask questions, so it is actually the very antithesis of a cult.”
But no serious-minded philosophy needs Britney Spears as one of its most famous exponents, right?
“They [the kabbalah] target celebrities because they want the publicity and to spread the word,” says Ritchie. “We don’t all hang out together. Some of them are very committed, others not so.”
Ritchie does admit that his wife and he have different approaches.
“She’s more into the spiritual stuff,” he says, “while I’m more interested in the scientific side of things.”
Is it true, then, that kabbalah devotees are given specially chosen alternative names? (Madonna apparently now goes by the name Esther.)
“Never heard of this alternative-name thing,” he laughs. “Next?”
How much does it cost to join? The celebs are being asked to give up large proportions of their salaries, aren’t they?
“After six years of receiving all this wisdom, she [Madonna] never received any kind of bill from anyone,” Ritchie insists. “In fact, I am completely unaware of any manipulation of anyone’s money.”