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Madonna adopts kabbalah and new wave of controversy

Houston Chronicle, USA
June 26, 2004
Tara Dooley, Houston Chronicle Religion Writer
www.chron.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Saturday June 26, 2004

The Jewish Madonna?

As the Material Girl well knows from her many incarnations, the path to spiritual provocation is marked with sacred signs.

On the road with her Re-invention World Tour, Madonna seemingly has moved from the New Testament to the Hebrew Bible, incorporating signs and symbols from Judaism and kabbalah, a mystical and esoteric study of the faith.

On a recent news-magazine show, she discussed her interest in kabbalah and how she has adopted a Hebrew name, Esther. She has worn a red string on her wrist to ward off the “evil eye,” and used sacred prayer accessories and symbolic Hebrew letters in music videos and concerts.

“What Madonna is doing whether or not she wants to do it is making certain aspects of Judaism more well known in the public,” said Rabbi Barry Gelman of United Orthodox Synagogues. “She is probably the anti-Joe Lieberman.”

As Gelman sees it, Lieberman is an example of Jewish values, and his 2000 vice presidential nomination raised public awareness about Judaism, including rituals of the Sabbath and the high holy days.

For some Houston-area rabbis, Madonna’s contribution as a Jewish representative is cause for concern. There’s the history of men; there’s Britney; there’s the nudity.

“If she were a woman of valor, that might be one issue,” said Rabbi Yakov Polatsek, executive director of TORCH, Torah Outreach Resource Center of Houston. “But she is Madonna.”

Madonna is a student of the Kabbalah Centre, a worldwide education organization with a center in Houston. The center does not require students to be Jewish, and the study can be incorporated into any faith, said Robin Davis, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles-based organization.

“The aims of the center are to help people navigate through the wisdom of kabbalah and to help them understand it and embrace it and help them incorporate it into their lives so their lives can be more meaningful,” she said.

Madonna has been a serious student for more than eight years, Davis said.

“This is not a trendy thing she has picked up as a whim for the moment,” she said.

But Gelman and other local rabbis are concerned that such study is rooted less in traditional Judaism than in New Age spirituality.

Rabbi Daniel Plotkin of Congregation Beth Tikvah in the Clear Lake area is a self-described child of the 1980s and owns Madonna’s album The Immaculate Collection a remnant from a different time and faith. Of course, he has not personally peered into the pop star’s thoughts and deeds, he said, but he doubts she is working on repentance, t’shubah in Hebrew.

Her interest, however, may have a silver lining, said Plotkin, who is leaving the synagogue for St. Louis next week.

“Certainly, anything that causes a young Jewish teenager or an adult to say to his parents or rabbi or her cantor, ‘I saw this. What is it?’ that can’t hurt,” he said. “But at the same time, it is important not to cheapen the value of it.”

Here’s a guide to the Jewish Madonna.

• Esther: A very important woman in Judaism. Esther has her own book of the Bible, and her story is the basis for the holiday Purim. She was a queen of Persia who revealed her Jewish identity to save the Jews within the kingdom from a plot to exterminate them.

• Tefillin: Worn for morning prayers, usually by Orthodox and Conservative Jewish men, as a reminder of the presence of God. Tefillin consists of two black leather boxes containing four portions of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. The boxes are attached to the head and to the arm with black leather straps.

Plotkin said he is familiar with Jewish feminist artists who have used symbols such as Tefillin in their work. But to use them in a video or concert is “an odd decision, at the least,” he said. Gelman doesn’t see it only as odd. “To use that in a pop concert or any way is highly offensive,” Gelman said.

•Kabbalah: The study and practice of a form of Jewish mysticism. The origins of kabbalah are disputed, Gelman said. Many date the development of kabbalah to the 11th or 12th century, Plotkin said. It became more widespread in the 13th century, especially in Spain, he said. According to Gelman, kabbalah isa secret branch of Judaism, and those who study it are supposed to be older than 40 some say male and must have extensively studied the Torah, the Talmud and many other Jewish texts before delving into the mystical practice.

“Kabbalah outside the rooted traditions of Judaism, kabbalah in a vacuum, is not real Jewish spirituality,” Gelman said. “When you have people who are studying kabbalah who don’t know the ABCs of Judaism, you have to really wonder what they are doing.”

• 72 names of God: A concept from kabbalah, Plotkin said. There are also 70 unpronounceable names of God. Those who seriously practice kabbalah meditate on the Hebrew letters that make up the names, reciting mantras, he said. “It is something you would do in a room alone or in the woods or a desert,” Plotkin said, “not on a stage at a rock concert.”

• Red string: Protection against the evil eye. It serves as a reminder to others not to think negative thoughts about the person wearing it, lest those thoughts reverberate and become bad luck, Polatsek said. Some say it protects the negative force of ill will from others.

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