Blonde ambition drives the immaterial girl to the Holy Land

Scotland on Sunday/September 19, 2004
By Marina Benjamin

For the past few days Israel had no less a favoured guest in its midst than Madonna. At least, she was favoured by the popular press, which plastered her face all over its feature pages, photographed her hotel suite and detailed the food she will eat this weekend. And she is being fawned over by a tourist industry desperate to shake off an image of 'beaches and suicide bombers'. Indeed, this weekend tourist minister Gideon Ezra is expected to present the pop star with an ancient oil lamp and a Byzantine-era coin.

But Madonna is not in Israel on any kind of mercy mission. Neither is she there to perform. Rather, her quest is spiritual: along with some 2,000 fellow believers in Kabbalah - including Donna Karan and Marla Maples - she's on a pilgrimage to visit a series of ancient shrines and tombs in the Holy Land. And in case you were wondering, she's brought along her own security detail.

Madonna was introduced to the mystical byways of Kabbalah (by alternative comedienne Sandra Bernhard, according to some) in the late 1990s, and since then she has become one of the movement's most prominent advocates. She's even recruited a raft of other celebrities to the fold, including Britney Spears, Winona Ryder, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher.

The depth of her involvement is such that she has now adopted the Hebrew name Esther and apparently refuses to perform unless the venue has first been blessed by a Kabbalah leader. What's more, she'll only drink blessed water (even in cocktails), and she won't perform on Fridays so that she can properly observe the Sabbath. None of this has dented her humour, however: last spring she was photographed leaving the Kabbalah centre in Los Angeles wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Cult Member".

In public, Madonna has been coy about exactly what her new faith has brought her, other than commending its ego-shrinking properties - and what celebrity wouldn't benefit from a good dose of that? But what exactly is Kabbalah?

According to believers, it is a mystical offshoot of the Jewish faith, elaborated in an encyclopedic set of medieval tomes called the Zohar. But according to its detractors, Kabbalah reduces these sacred books to hocus-pocus, substituting McMysticism for spiritual complexity.

On the Kabbalah Centre's website, there's a lot of talk about shining the light of wisdom on your soul and of Kabbalah being the "ultimate instrument for generating endless miracles". Kabbalah also claims to have a totalising grip on the world, promising to reveal the spiritual and physical laws that govern the cosmos and the human soul. I guess you could sum up its operating principles in three words: illumination, transformation and understanding.

Most importantly, like the best established religions, Kabbalah aims to be pragmatic: "It answers questions. It provides solutions. It unravels puzzles. It deciphers codes. It gives you practical tools to effect change. And it creates order out of chaos." Kabbalah clearly rocks.

At least you can see how it would appeal to celebrities who appear in the span of a few years to have achieved everything (and more) that most of us strive for in a lifetime, and who then find themselves asking whether there's anything more that life has to offer them - providing, of course, it doesn't involve real study.

Perhaps, too, these are people who are so interviewed out, they're groping for something profound to say about themselves. After you've been probed and prodded and photographed to death, it's hardly surprising to find yourself interested in an exchange that goes a little deeper than the usual voyeurism.

In more cynical vein, I can't help feeling that faddish religions offer celebrities a handy fig leaf. Richard Gere, for example, has far more to say about Buddhism these days than about his flagging acting career, and in championing the exiled Dalai Lama's grievances against Chinese oppression, he has found a cause that will carry him happily into retirement, the way ordinary people take up gardening or go on cruises.

Or take Tom Cruise, who cannily deflects unwanted speculation about his private life by droning endlessly on about the eye-opening benefits of Scientology. Perhaps Madonna should take note and make more rather than less noise about her commitment to Kabbalah.

Which is precisely what she appears to be planning with her new Reinvention tour, where she will be setting up Kabbalah stands in each concert venue to sell copies of The 72 Names of God: Technology for the Soul, the seminal Kabbalah book written by the movement's founder, Rabbi Yehuda Berg, as well as the red string bracelets she's taken to wearing to protect her against the evil eye.

Given all the mutual back-scratching going on, it's hard to say who is the greater beneficiary, Madonna or the Kabbalah Centre? I wouldn't be at all surprised if the whole religious pilgrimage caboodle was an elaborate PR stunt, cunningly plotted out by a wily consultant who sensed that Madonna could do no better than to launch her new tour with a high-profile controversy about her dubious pilferings from Judaism.

Then again, Kabbalah leaders must be rubbing their hands together in glee at the amount of free advertising Madonna has brought their way. How many more devotees, I wonder, has her sponsorship attracted to the fold? And in more mercenary terms: how many spiritual dilettantes have purchased red string bracelets from the Kabbalah's online store - a bargain at $26? Or copies of the Zohar, which costs $415 for the full volume edition?

When it comes to out-publicising the competition, Madonna and the Kabbalah movement deserve each other. Both are glossy, superficial productions, offering the illusion of depth for the price of a CD - or red yarn bracelet. They deal not in truths but in icons and shibboleths, and they thrive on the oxygen of publicity.

In spite of the trip to Israel, the visits to ancient tombs and the mystical twaddle that passes for faith, Madonna seems unlikely to persuade the world of her spiritual credentials - reinvented on not. In my opinion, she could do a lot worse that go back to her roots and reincarnate the material girl.

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