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Pop-kabbala in a time of shahids

Ha'arezt, Israel
July 14, 2004
Eliahu Salpeter
www.haaretz.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Wednesday July 14, 2004

A Google search turns up 17 American Web sites dedicated to kabbala – a trend that owes a significant debt to Madonna, the pop star. In her recent concert tour, for instance, she wore a T-shirt with the legend “Kabbalists do it better.” In the background of the stage are Hebrew letters and the young dancers around the star wear black straps that look like tefillin. At $317 per ticket, the audience is left to guess just what it is that “kabbalists” do better.

In any event, the concerts have been getting headlines from Variety to The New York Times. But it would be a mistake to think the publicity goes only one way. The kabbala – the blend of Judaism and mysticism – gains Madonna no less publicity, perhaps, than the singer is giving kabbala. Many Jews in America are or course asking, as usual, “is it good for the Jews?”

True kabbala is far from being an exact science, but the connection between it and the “kabbala” of Madonna and the dubious characters associated with it is about the same as the connection between astrology and astronomy. Or a one American rabbi put it, like the difference between “Barney” and a prehistoric dinosaur.

The commercialization of the kabbala – “pop-kabbala” as the American press sometimes has it – is the child of an odd couple. The fashion for all things Jewish, which goes back almost 50 years, has mated with a revival of the 1960s craving for Eastern mysticism, now familiar in the art and entertainment worlds. Pop-kabbala has become one of the most popular branches of the New Age movement, along with cults devoted to Indian gurus.

The Jewish branch began to evolve in the last 20 years of the previous century when Rabbi Philip Berg – a former insurance agent named Feivel Gruberger – founded “The Kabbalah Centre” in Hollywood for anyone who wanted to join, Jew or non-Jew, and went on to establish branches throughout the United States, and beyond. But the glory years of the movement only started when it began to enlist well-known followers from the film and music world.

Berg had “married into the business” by marrying the niece of the founder of the network. He went on to have eight children and founded somewhere between 50 (according to The New York Times) and 100 (according to the Jewish press) branches.

At these branches, they not only “teach kabbala” a la Rabbi Berg, but also help believers buy essential “kabbala ritual objects,” mainly to ward off the evil eye. There’s a candle that helps “soothe away anxiety over unrealistic expectations” ($20 a piece), “profound and progressive books” that impart spiritual knowledge and “authentic” books of the Zohar at tens to hundreds of times the price in an ordinary Jewish bookstore.

There is a box of white powder that cleanses the atmosphere of the house, going for only ten bucks. A bottle of mineral water that contains “the wisdom of generations” can be had for $15.

A polo shirt with “kabbala letters” is priced at $26-80. The best seller is a red string – the indispensable adornment for the wrist of every believing man and woman, for $26. According to recently released data, the annual income of The Kabbalah Centre is $5.5 million and its assets are estimated at $14.5 million. Madonna’s spokeswoman recently announced that Madonna had changed her name. Madonna – the holy virgin, the mother of Jesus – would henceforth be known as Esther, but only in her own heart. Other famous hassids of the movement include Demi Moore, Roseanne Barr, Britney Spears, Mike Tyson, Barbra Streisand, and old-time convert Elizabeth Taylor.

The arts and entertainment crowd has always been attracted to mystical teachers of all stripes – Jews, Indians, Buddhists, and so on. Numerous psychological explanations have been put forth, mainly that it is a search for spiritual meaning when one’s professional life is missing a focus of lasting values.

Pop-kabbala is not the only expression of the fashion for all things Jewish among America’s glitterati and not-so-glittering. Parents of an increasing number of non-Jewish boys and girls are holding bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah parties for them – at the children’s request – when they turn 12 or 13. No blessing is recited over a Torah.

As the young people have explained, they were very impressed by the bar mitzvah celebrations of their Jewish friends. Many adults, especially kabbala adherents, are in the practice of visiting Jewish houses of worship, usually Reform temples.

Jewish motifs have also found their way into the wedding ceremonies of non-Jews. A woman from Los Angeles who produces handwritten ketubahs – Jewish marriage contracts – told a Jewish newspaper she has been getting commissions for ketubahs from Christian couples who found it romantic, and even from one Buddhist couple.

Many Jews feel uncomfortable with what they see as vulgarization of Judaism. Rabbi Avi Shafran, a columnist in the Jewish press, is concerned that it generates a watering down of Jewish identity and will become another factor contributing to assimilation. Religious Jews are infuriated at the cheapening of the tradition, as with using tefillin as an accessory at a rock concert, or making the kabbala into a pop movement.

Others view it as part of the wave of superstitions, from Feng Shui to pseudo-Hindu cults that fill what they consider to be a spiritual vacuum in America today.

Still others explain it as parallel to an upwelling of irrationality among followers of the traditional religions – born again Protestants, the shahids of Islamic Jihad, Jewish believers convinced the Lubavicher Rebbe is the messiah and still secretly alive.

However, there is another side to the pop-kabbala phenomenon. It is an indication of just how deeply Jews have been absorbed into American society and culture to a degree unseen in any other diaspora. This may be ascribed to the start of American history, when the founding fathers proposed that Hebrew should be the official language of the new state.

It would be hard to imagine the American literature, sciences and economy of the 20th century without the part contributed by Jews. And it is only recently that the dominant influence of Jews in the entertainment industry – particularly Hollywood – has been given its proper due. This involvement shaped and continues to shape the concepts and values of American culture.

Today, it is good to be a Jew in America – they want you as a neighbor, are pleased if their daughter marries your son, and seek you out as an employee, employer or business partner. From the nether region of blood libels – yes, American history had that too – the Jews have now achieved the popularity of Jewish mysticism at a price everyone can afford.

One well-known American rabbi used to say during the Cold War, which threatened a nuclear holocaust, that the popularity of Jewish authors stemmed from the fact that Jews were considered survival artists and everyone wanted to learn from them.

Now the Cold War is behind us, and the global threat is Islamic terror. Yet it is doubtful that the pop-kabbala of Madonna and Demi Moore can provide an answer to the new threat.

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