This week, Madonna revealed that she has changed her name to ‘Esther’ as part of her involvement in the Kabbalah sect. Here, in an open letter to the star, another Esther – Esther Rantzen – describes how her own daughter was drawn into Kabbalah, and makes a heartfelt plea for caution.
Dear Madonna (or may I call you ‘Esther’?)
Firstly may I say how flattered I am that you have chosen as your new Kabbalah name one of the great heroines in Jewish history, Queen Esther. She was quite a girl. Although she was born a commoner, she became Queen by winning a beauty contest for Eligible Virgins, held in 478 BC.
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Having got the job, she used it to save her people, the Jews, from being slaughtered by one of the evil courtiers. Hers is one of the more exciting and entertaining books in the Old Testament, and since there are hardly any Esthers around these days, I’ve always been drawn to her as a role model.
Perhaps you have, too, and that’s why you chose to take her name.
Perhaps you also believe that through your conversion to Kabbalah, the new, star-studded sect which is a mysterious offshoot of Judaism, you too can save your people – not just other celebrities who live extraordinary luxurious isolated lives like your own, the ‘material girls’, but also your millions of fans who enjoy your music and admire you for your independence.
Where you go, they will follow you, because there can be no doubt that you pack quite a clout. Surveys reveal that you are the woman many other women most respect as a role model; you wield considerable influence. That’s why I beg you to be careful.
We have more in common than just a name. We are both mothers, and we both have daughters.
My elder daughter, Emily, admires you greatly, and has a collection of your albums which she listens to and loves.
That may well be why, when she started out a few years ago on a pilgrimage through the world’s religions, as many young people do, she decided to try out Kabbalah.
It was not her first stop on her spiritual tour.
She had already tried Judaism, but she told me it felt too remote and archaic, and that the rituals had little spiritual meaning for her. She tried Christianity, but believing in the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth demands a huge leap of faith, and she said she couldn’t shut her eyes, turn off her intellect and jump.
Then, one day, she suggested that I should go with her to the Kabbalah Centre in London’s West End. She told me of your involvement and she said that your attitude to life, and your music, had changed and deepened when you discovered Kabbalah.
Emily sounded curious, and so was I.
The London Kabbalah Centre is in a tall, 18thcentury house which is attractive, in one of the smartest parts of London, and no doubt cost a considerable sum of money to purchase, but it’s not luxurious.
We went on an Open Day, a sizzling hot summer afternoon, and every hallway and staircase was buzzing with visitors. We were shown into a room which was crammed with chairs, every seat was taken by potential converts.
As a bearded lecturer began to tell us about Kabbalah, the heat rose. I felt my head loll and Emily dig my ribs, and although I struggled to keep my eyes open, I failed. So I slept peacefully while Emily listened. She went back and signed up for a course of lectures. I didn’t.
Almost at once, I noticed a change come over her, and at first it was a change for the better.
She explained that there is a philosophy behind Kabbalah which deliberately sets itself in opposition to the greed and trivia in our lives.
THE idea is that if you have good fortune you must be generous with it. The commandment is that we should all ‘receive to share’, Emily explained. She put it into practice in our lives together, looking for ways in which she could help me, and as my life is fairly chaotic and strewn with obstacles, I was very grateful.
Emily is extremely kind and giving anyway, and as Kabbalah encouraged her and gave her confidence, she seemed to me to be strengthened by what she learnt.
Then, as she continued to study, she began to describe oddities, like irrational ceremonies, strange beliefs, and peculiar religious objects which made me uneasy and suspicious.
The services she described had some absurd moments, for instance when they all had to wave their hands in the air to ‘cleanse’ Chernobyl.
Her description of meditation sessions also left me perplexed. Hebrew language has a mystic significance to followers of Kabbalah and there are 72 names for God which they meditate on.
The combinations of letters are meaningless, but followers are told that doesn’t matter, because just looking at the Hebrew characters will somehow ‘change the DNA of their souls’ and ‘bring them closer to the light’, which is what they all seek.
The red string bracelet she began to sport, which costs Pounds 6, similar to the one worn by David Beckham, would have been fine if it had just been a badge of allegiance, but it too is supposed to have a mystic quality. It’s supposed to be an umbilical cord linking the wearer directly to another Biblical heroine, Rachel.
Kabbalah staff are equally eager to sell bottles of special holy water which is blessed and is supposed to have healing properties.
Emily was desperately ill with ME for seven years and, during that time, saw enough nonsense written about supposedly magical healing food to be sceptical, so she never brought any bottles of water home. But she did spend an hour ironing for Kaballah staff, which puzzled me, as it is not one of her talents.
It was an evening you will remember, Madonna, because the Centre’s founder, the man they call ‘the Rav’, was visiting from Los Angeles.
Depending on which account you prefer, the Rav is either a great spiritual leader, or a former Brooklyn insurance salesman named Feivel Gruberger who now lives in considerable splendour in Manhattan and L.A.
YOU, too, were due to attend the meeting.
And before you arrived, the place, which is run mainly by volunteers, was buzzing like a beehive, so Emily offered to help.
She emptied waste bins in the loos and when the staff asked her to iron their clothes – a couple of shirts, a vest, some trousers – she did her best.
That night the centre’s leaders must have looked pretty crumpled.
During the service, in which, according to the most Orthodox Jewish tradition, men sit in the centre of the room, while the women sit subserviently at the side, you were at the very front of the congregation. No doubt you could see and hear everything that was going on.
But Emily was nowhere near ‘the Rav’, and as he didn’t speak at all, she has no idea if he is a great holy man. The staff always say how humble he is, but they treat him as if he is sacred, with enormous deference (hardly surprising, since, according to the Kabbalah website, the Rav is the reincarnation of Moses).
Everyone was expected to stand up when he entered the room, but they were told this was not because they revere him, but just so that they could absorb the spiritual energy generated by his presence there, among them.
You, too, Madonna, were treated like visiting royalty. The staff at the centre live very simply, so it’s not that they are secretly quaffing champagne and strawberries while their slaves polish their shoes.
But to me the way they treated Emily was not like an equal partner. It sounded like control, and submission, and I found it distasteful.
A little way into her spiritual quest, Emily discovered that one of her friends who had signed up for a second Kabbalah course was told that the only way she could make positive changes in her life would be to pay them a tithe – a tenth of her income each year.
At this point, Emily, too, became uneasy. There is a routine which all cults use to bind their followers to them. At first, the cords are light and loose, just a collection of appealing ideas.
Next, the new recruits are asked to buy religious objects, like the fake relics that were widely on sale in medieval times, a good way of raising money, and binding the disciples more tightly.
For instance, to make any progress in Kabbalah, you are urged to buy the holy book, the Zohar, which is 23 volumes written in Aramaic, translated into incomprehensible English, and costs Pounds 289.
New recruits are reassured that they don’t need to understand it, because even if they can only run their eyes over the pages of Hebrew script, its mystic power will transform their lives.
As proof of its power, they told Emily about a warehouse in Iran which was filled with copies of the Zohar, and was directly in the path of a devastating earthquake. But when the earthquake reached the warehouse, the path split to avoid it, and the warehouse was unharmed.
The way to solve the world’s problems, they say, is to send copies of the Zohar straight to the trouble spots. Emily is canny with her savings. She decided to buy a cheap book of extracts from the Zohar written in English.
She remains untransformed. But the more she discovered, the less I liked the sound of it. The Kabbalah website has a chat page in the ‘community section’.
It contains much more detail about their beliefs, for example, that dogs are good to have in your house but if you stare into the eyes of a cat you will lose your memory, and that dinosaurs were alive at the time of Adam and Eve, when humans were enormously tall.
You don’t have to be a die-hard Darwinian cynic to doubt such claims. You can buy other ‘spiritual’ products from the Kabbalah website, like candles, incense and oils, to protect your home from evil spirits, and supposedly improve your sex life.
Emily had signed up for a second course, but as her doubts mounted, she decided to cancel. She rang up and asked for the money she had paid – Pounds 113 for a ten-week course, the special student rate – to be refunded. At the third attempt, they gave it back to her.
I’m relieved that she isn’t going to the Centre any more. I felt, as many parents do when their children get involved in a cult, that the nonsense had opened up a gap between us. Now she is free, Emily tells me “I still love their basic philosophy, but I’m not going to give them money for string and water,” which sounds a sensible solution.
I worry for other impressionable young people, though. You, Madonna, have a tough, strong mind. Others are more vulnerable. Cults can separate children from families, friends from friends.
You have great influence over the sect, you can use it to ensure that they don’t take advantage of their power to abuse and exploit people, and fill their heads with rubbish.
That’s what I’m asking you, as one mother to another, as one Esther to another.