Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Madonna’s Kabbalah

Kabbalah has been in the news recently. Not the legitimate kind, but the pop culture kind embraced by Madonna and many other celebrities, both Jewish and non Jewish.

Frankly I don’t know what to make if this phenomenon. I kind of love it and hate it at the same time.

Kabbalah is the study of Nistar. The ‘hidden’ non revealed branch of Torah study that deals in spiritual truths. The revealed portion of the Torah is called Nigleh. This is what has been studied in the Yeshivos throughout the centuries. This is the Biblical and rabbinic law as passed down through the generations via the Mishnah, Talmud, and interpreted by later commentators.

Nistar is generally not studied except by certain Chasidim - most notably Chabad in the form of Tanya. This is a book on Kabbalah written by Chabad's founder Rabbi Shneur Zalman Schneerson. The most authoritative text of Kabbalah is the Zohar, believed to be written by one of the sages of the Talmudic era, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

I’ve never studied it. Never wanted to. But I’m told that there-in lies secrets of the universe. These are secrets that relate to a spiritual world, that man cannot perceive with any of the five physical senses. Among the secrets discussed are various means of achieving health, both physical and mental and a sense of well being via various inexplicable ritual formulae.

Kabbalah used to be studied prior to the days of the false Messiah Shabbsai Tzvi (1626-1676). But after he converted to Islam and lost all claim to being the Messiah, rabbinic leaders strongly discouraged its study. They attributed much of Shabbsai Tzvi’s success to the mass study of Kabbalah and the accompanying misunderstanding of it.

Only certain knowledgeable and well prepared people would attempt its study and rarely before the age of forty - at least until the advent of Tanya, when Chabad started studying it again en-masse. Except for Chabad, very few people study it today - to the best of my knowledge.

In recent years however another ‘false messiah’ has arisen by the name of Philip Berg. Well, he does not really claim to be the Messiah. But he has developed a huge following preaching the renewed study of Kabbalah by - not only all Jews but by non Jews as well. He claims that the teachings of Kabbalah are universal and any who study it will gain by it, both spiritually and physically.

Philip Berg has for the most part been condemned as a charlatan by virtually all rabbinic leaders in the entire spectrum of Orthodox Judaism as preaching a false version of Kabbalah. I don’t know what it is exactly that he teaches, but I will take their word for it.

But in spite of all that condemnation he has become wildly successful, attracting some of the biggest names in show business, the most famous and perhaps the most devout of which is Madonna.

No one in Judaism takes her seriously. Certainly she continues to be the same purveyor of sex she has always been albeit a bit toned down from her pre Kabbalah days. But it isn’t as simple as that. This is a woman who seems to be as sincere about her belief in Kabbalah as can be. This is not an act. I can think of a lot better ways of getting attention than by professing belief in ancient Jewish mysticism.

She really believes that it offers her a spirituality that she has not found in her own Catholic upbringing. She attends services at Berg’s Kabbalah Centre regularly. And she has convinced many other friends to take it seriously too - including her husband and most recently baseball superstar Alex Rodriguez who is the source of the latest attention on Kabbalah. As a result of this popularity many people mostly non Jews have looked into it and actually bought into it – at least Philip Berg’s version.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I’m not sure. I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I see it as quite a positive development. For example yesterday I saw a ‘rabbi’ from the Kabbalah Center interviewed by a national news corresponant. He looked as Charedi as could be, right down to the velvet yarmulke and trim breard. He was Maddona’s spiritual mentor.

His statements could have been made by any mainstream Orthodox rabbi. - not in any way blasphemous. And the same thing is true about the interview Madonna gave. She spoke in glowing terms about something very Jewish. True her version of Kabbalah may be very corrupted. Nonetheless - I think it is a very positive development when a pop icon like Madonna says positive things about a legitimate and identifiably Jewish discipline – even if her version of it isn’t.

When Madonna speaks, her fans listen. Millions and millions of them. I wonder how many young Jews were motivated to look into their Judaism by her, even if it started out as a question about Kabbalah to a local rabbi. And it certainly doesn’t hurt the image of Judaism to know that celebrities are so enamored of its teachings.

But there is another side. Madonna is in fact promoting a false version of Kabbalah that was founded by a charlatan. It attracts adherents via celebrity participation. And when one looks at the primary spokesperson, one sees a woman who makes her livelihood by 'selling' sex in her music and her videos. Is this the spokesperson we want selling Nister? Is this a role model for us? Hardly. It is a Chilul HaShem to say the least. God does not accept Esnan Zonah - the wages sin. Though technically she is not a Zonah, she is well within the spirit of it by the promotion of promiscuous behavior in her music.

And yet, I can’t help being fascinated by this continuing phenomenon. The bottom line – is it good or bad? I don’t know.