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Madonna in mystical mode dismays Orthodox Jews

The Guardian, UK
Sep. 20, 2004
Chris McGreal in Jerusalem • Tuesday September 21, 2004

The cross and the diamond-studded bodice have gone, and she now announces herself to the world under the Hebrew name Ha-Malkah Esther – Queen Esther.

But that did Madonna little good with the Orthodox at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall in the early hours of yesterday.

As her convoy stopped near Judaism’s holiest site, Orthodox men chanted shabbos – sabbath in Yiddish – while others shouted at her to go home and accused her of desecrating their religion.

The pop diva is visiting the Holy Land for a gathering of about 2,000 followers of Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism, and to celebrate the Jewish New Year.

Kabbalah is fashionable among some wealthy young Israelis but some Orthodox rabbis say Madonna has debased Judaism’s deepest mystical tradition.

Kabbalah means “received wisdom” in Hebrew, and its study has traditionally been the preserve of men.

An American rabbi, Philip Berg, popularised the texts in the 60s.

Today they draw adherents such as Britney Spears, Demi Moore and Roseanne Barr.

Madonna has been spotted at the Kabbalah conference with her wrist adorned with red string to ward off the evil eye, and the designer Donna Karan and Marla Maples, an ex-wife of Donald Trump, in tow. Her husband, the British film director Guy Ritchie, was seen dancing with a Torah scroll.

“This is entertainment, not Judaism,” said Uri Orbach, a popular Israeli talk-radio host.

Some of Madonna’s religious critics have not forgiven her for her “Die Another Day” video, in which she bound phylacteries to her arm, a Jewish custom usually reserved for men, and ran from an electric chair on which God’s name appeared in Hebrew.

But the Roman Catholic who shocked the Pope with her raunchy use of religious icons has striven to be more restrained in Israel.

Last night, at a gala event, she said she had been hesitant to visit Israel “after seeing so many news reports about terror attacks”, Associated Press reported.

“I realise now that it is no more dangerous to be here than it is to be in New York,” she said.

Madonna said the people she had met during her five-day Holy Land trip “have one thing in common – we want to create peace in the world”.

At her behest the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre, which organised the conference, has insisted that reporters covering her visit wear white and not take notes on the Jewish high holidays.

No such demands were made of the dozens of policemen present as Madonna made a midnight pilgrimage to the grave of a Kabbalist sage, Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag the night before, spending more than an hour praying and chanting.

The Israeli tourism minister, Gidon Ezra, presented the singer with an oil lamp and coin from the Byzantine period yesterday.

“Madonna’s visit to Israel has great significance for promoting tourism in Israel,” he said.

Madonna declined to talk directly to the press, but the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv ferreted out some of those who spoke to her at the Kabbalah conference. Among them was a businesswoman, Galia Albin, who said: “Madonna told me that if she had known nine years ago what she knows today, she would have lived differently.”

Protesters have rallied outside the singer’s hotel to object to her visit to Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank, without meeting the neighbouring Palestinian communities behind the controversial “security” wall.

They sang “Don’t cry for me Palestina”, and a version of Madonna’s hit song Holiday. “While you’re on your holiday, take some time to educate,” they sang.

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