Madonna and the meaning of life 29, 2004
By Shiri Lev-Ari

Eitan Yardeni, Madonna's first kabbala teacher, says that working in Hollywood helped him to understand the illusion - `what everyone is looking for outside that leaves them empty'

Anyone in the vicinity of Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv on a Friday night or a Saturday can see them - happy people, dressed in white, celebrating. And this month, because of Madonna's visit to Israel, the Tel Aviv branch of the Kabbalah Centre, which promotes the teachings of Rabbi Philip Shraga Berg, drew international attention. Thanks to her, there is endless discussion of the concealed dimension of the Torah, known as the kabbala. In the United States, kabbala even made it to the Jay Leno show, which featured a scene from the popular sitcom "Will and Grace," poking fun at kabbala study.

Why is studying the hidden principles of Jewish mysticism so popular now? How did the Kabbalah Centre, which started as a small branch in Tel Aviv, become a thriving conglomerate that attracts hundreds of thousands of activists worldwide, including musicians, movie stars, designers, and athletes? Why do pop icons like Madonna, Donna Karan, Brittney Spears, Demi Moore, David and Victoria Beckham, Mick Jagger, and Jerry Hall wear a red string around their wrists to ward off the evil eye, and donate funds to support the center's goals?

Many are ambivalent about the center's success. On the one hand, critics say, it reduces the profound wisdom of the kabbala into slogans printed on T-shirts. Supporters say, on the other hand, that it increases interest in Judaism and promotes its status around the globe. Critics say that the profit-driven organization charges NIS 4,000 for tickets to Rosh Hashanah prayer services. Supporters say it provides worshipers with a deep, religious experience. For example, worshipers are invited to attend a moving mass Tashlich service at the beach. (Tashlich prayers include certain chapters of Psalms, known as Selichot, which are traditionally said near a body of water on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.)

The world of Zohar

Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag founded the Kabbalah Centre in Israel In 1922. Ashlag, the most important kabbala scholar of the 20th Century, immigrated to Israel from Poland in the 1920s. He attracted a group of students who became important kabbala scholars in their own right. Ashlag also wrote several books of commentary on the work of the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the central figure of kabbala, and on the Book of Zohar, the most important work of kabbala. His interpretations of these texts are now considered to be innovative, original, and even revolutionary. Madonna visited his grave in Jerusalem on Saturday night before leaving the conference.

"Rabbi Ashlag tried to integrate the kabbala and modernity," says Dr. Boaz Huss of the Jew ish Philosophy Department at Ben-Gurion University. "Rabbi Kook tried to do similar things, but he combined nationalist attitudes with kabbala. Rabbi Ashlag, on the other hand, opposed nationalism and integrated kabbala with socialist and even communist ideas. He called his system `altruistic communism.' They said that even in his youth, as an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, he participated in First of May demonstrations. His ideal, an international, communist society, led to the universalist trend at the [Kabbalah] Centre."

Rabbi Ashlag tended to oppose the Jewish tradition that maintained that kabbala may be taught only by a few privileged scholars. He even translated the Book of Zohar from Aramaic to Hebrew in an attempt to teach kabbala to secular Jews.

Simply stated, the mystical school of thought called kabbala (literally, "reception" in Hebrew) maintains that the world is composed of two elements, the desire to give, which is identified with God, and man's natural desire to receive. Altruism versus egoism.

"According to kabbala, we humans are aware of the difference between ourselves and God. We can therefore make changes to bring us closer to God by turning our desire to receive into a desire to give," Huss explains. "This is completely in keeping with the communist idea in which every man strives to meet the needs of others, and others strive to meet his needs, so that a perfect society is created."

Rabbi Ashlag, says Huss, met with leaders of the Labor movement, including David Ben-Gurio n. His celebrated student, Rabbi Yehudah Tzvi Brandwein, became the head of the Religion Department of the Histadrut. Rabbi Philip Shraga Berg was one of Rabbi Brandwein's pupils.

Rabbi Berg, born in New York, began studying Judaism in Israel but became active in the U. S. in the 1960s. He was appointed head of the Kabbalah Centre in 1969. His unique strength lies in his ability to simplify the complex knowledge of kabbala. He wrote books outlining Ashlag's thinking in simple language, and developed a system of study of kabbala for individuals who did not come from a religious or academic background.

Berg, according to Huss, came of age in the heyday of `60s America and has his finger on the cultural pulse of the New Age. The Kabbalah Centre began to gain strength in the `80s, and reached a new peak in the `90s with the help of several Hollywood actors and rock stars who were attracted to the field. Roseanne Barr, Sandra Bernhardt, Naomi Campbell, and Mick Jagger were among those to spearhead the trend. The center now has 50 branches located in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, Central America, and North America. The four branches in Israel are located in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tiberias. On Shabbat, 300 to 600 worshipers attend services at the Tel Aviv branch.

The branches operate in a communal system. They share a common coffer used to pay the rent of members' apartments, their bills, their National Insurance payments, their payments to HMOs, and the cost of their common dining rooms. (Men and women live and pray separately.) Center members volunteer for various activities, like building maintenance, assistance to students who require extra attention, book and product sales, and involvement in special projects.

Spiritualism, McDonald's-style

It comes as no surprise that the Kabbalah Centre draws fire, arousing antagonism amo ng religious and secular Jews alike. Orthodox rabbis condemn the center despite its affiliation with the Orthodox stream of Judaism. They claim it trivializes the concealed wisdom of kabbala and turns its teachings into superficial slogans. According to these rabbis, the center desecrates the sanctity of the kabbala, and promotes egotism in the individual.

"We view the activities of the Kabbalah Centre with a broken heart. It has become a New Age symbol, and a major force in separating man from his responsibility for his own life," says Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, head of the Petah Tikva Yeshiva. "I don't begrudge them, but I am instinctively wary of a place of influence which is gaining power. Power corrupts."

Many Orthodox Jews are wary of the center's growing power, the number of its activists, and the property it has amassed. An investigative article in Britain's Daily Mail claims that the center uses Madonna to raise donations, and that the singer contributed 3.65 million pounds sterling to the construction of the branch in London. Many of the center's critics claim that it created a "religion of the rich" because active participation is so costly. The products the center markets are also quite dear. A red string to deflect the evil eye, for example, sells on the Internet for $26, and an anti-stress candle costs $20. However, the center's founders claim that it is a non-profit organization that is supported by donations, lecture fees, tuition for courses, and book sales.

"Money is particularly important to groups that seek to gain power," Dr. Huss says. "The center's success in the U.S. nearly erases Ashlag's communist principle, and Rabbi Berg's American background plays a central role. They embrace capitalist values. The money issue becomes a target for attack, but they don't see anything wrong with making money. No religious movement can function without financial resources. The thing about them is that they are not ashamed. In addition, they do invest a great deal on distribution, advertising, and the Internet site. They have a special project in which they freely distribute the Book of Zohar in English to settlers and Arabs in the territories."

The Kabbalah Centre is considered by some to be a postmodern phenomenon. Huss, who calls it the "McDonaldization of the kabbala," explains, "The center is part of a larger international trend in the Western world which integrates spiritualism and capitalist-style merchandising. Berg's marketing style is very blunt and direct. That is, perhaps, what raises everyone's wrath. But he just does with religion what others do in other fields. The center even gives a course on business and the kabbala."

According to Huss, one can identify another postmodern element in the center's activities: It has a practical approach that emphasizes the power of healing inherent in the secret teachings of the kabbalah and the Book of Zohar.

"Is there a problem in the world? Do you want to cure a disease? Are you single and looking for a match? Just say a few of the 72 names of God," Huss says. "This knowledge is less theoretical and more practical because the postmodern world is less interested in big ideas than the question, `Does it work?' Superficiality is completely legitimate."

Scientific explanations

What do they say about the blossoming success and all this attention at the Kabbalah Centre? Students there are not anxious to be interviewed. They have difficulty articulating their individual religious experience. Rabbi Shaul Yudkevitch, one of the organization's more charismatic figures and director of the Kabbalah Centre in Israel, says that the center "is mainly active with the non-ultra-Orthodox public, from knitted kippa types to members of Hashomer Hatzair [a leftist youth movement]."

What makes prayer at the center special?

"It's all live. People come and it isn't strange to them, because the intention of the prayer and what you do at every stage is explained in the context of the prayers. An individual undergoes an energetic experience here that renews his connection to himself and to others. He connects to the community and the values. It gives him vision. They get complete explanations of scientific, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the world. People easily connect to their Jewish identity. No one watches them to see whether or not they are observing religious commandments. Everyone follows their own individual process. In addition, we work on improving Midot [in kabbala, attributes of God]. Not everyone can stand the atmosphere at the center because there is a great deal of peer pressure to change."

Yudkevitch did not let his Orthodox opponents have the last word. "Their system doesn't work. They are directly responsible for the downfall of Judaism that we see today. Ask anyone in the street what he thinks of Judaism, of yeshivas, of the rabbinic establishment. You'll get harsh replies. We have finally begun to arouse respect for Judaism, for its universalist ideas, and they are still arguing about which rabbi sits in the sukkah and for how long, and whether one is permitted to wear a `type-a' wig or a `type-b' wig. Who could ever identify with something like that? It is clear why they are annoyed that we attract masses of people."

What about oversimplification of the kabbala?

"You have to bring people closer and talk to them on their level instead of rolling your eyes toward heaven and talking in the style of the repentant newly-religious Jew," Rabbi Yudkevitch says.

What about the vast sums the center collects from its membership?

"Do you know how much it costs to produce an event with 3,000 participants - to rent the David Intercontinental reception hall, and dining-reception halls in the area for 10 days? Why can't Judaism have style? Why do streets in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods have to look like a garbage can? Why are the graves of righteous rabbis in Israel such a mess? We don't take one agora from taxes, and we support projects with this money. And, by the way, we don't charge money in donations from people who are honored by an invitation to come up to the Torah at Shabbat services, like most synagogues do."

Fame is not enough

Eight years ago, in the middle of an ongoing kabbala course, Madonna came in to a lesson. She was pregnant then with her first daughter. "She was skeptical. She looked at everything with a jaded eye," says her teacher, Eitan Yardeni. Yardeni, an Israeli living in Los Angeles for the last eight years, attended the recent kabbala conference in Israel. "At the end of the lesson, I took her to my room and gave her a small Book of Zohar [the most important work of kabbala] for her pregnancy and for the coming child. After a few weeks, she called and said that she wanted to meet and study for the birth."

Since then, Madonna has been studying kabbala, at first in private lessons with Yardeni, and later in courses with Rabbi Shraga Berg at the Kabbalah Centre which he founded. What is it about kabbala that attracts Madonna?

"Exactly what attracts everybody else, except that in her case more than in others, she has already achieved all the things that others assume would make them happy - fame, money, success," says Yardeni. "The difference is that she absolutely knows that those things do not fulfill her. She felt that something was missing and she looked for it in other places, but she didn't connect. She connected here.".

Yardeni considers Madonna's enrollment at the Kabbalah Centre to be part of a cosmic plan. "We didn't plan it," he explains in Hebrew with a faint American accent. "Madonna is a vessel to arouse consciousness in the world. Kabbala is not Madonna. She creates an opening for people, and our job is to spread this knowledge."

Yardeni, 39, has been studying kabbala since 1986. He was raised in a secular family in Kiryat Ono and followed his brother, who is also a kabbala teacher, when he began studying kabbala at age 17. He traveled to New York in 1985 to study at the Kabbalah Centre there, and then attended conferences led by Rabbi Berg around the world. He went to Canada, Mexico, Florida, Brazil, and finally, Los Angeles where he decided to settle. He is married and the father of five children.

How did working in Hollywood influence you?

"All the work in Hollywood, not only the work with Madonna, helped me to attain a deeper understanding of the power of illusion - of what everyone is looking for outside that leaves them completely empty. The bigger a man is and the more important he is in the eyes of others, if he has no spiritualism in his heart, the more insecure he is. Working in Hollywood allowed me to see that."

Pop seekers

Every few years, pop and movie stars find a new way to fill their lives with significance. More than a few spiritual trends have come and gone since the Beatles became enchanted by transcendental meditation in the style of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of Rishikesh, India. George Harrison later developed an interest in the Hinduist Hare Krishna cult. Cat Stevens converted to Islam, and Boy George became a Buddhist. The newest hot spiritual trend is the study of kabbala, popularized by Madonna. However, she's not the only one to express an interest. Designer Donna Karan, rock star Mick Jagger, and others have followed suit.

Rabbi Yehuda Berg, 32-year-old son of Rabbi Shraga Berg, says that interest in the kabbala has grown since September 11. Berg told a Toronto Star reporter that the number of students enrolled at the Kabbalah Centre has doubled and even tripled since those events took place.

Richard Gere discovered Tibetan Buddhism a few years ago. So did Keanu Reeves and Leonard Cohen. Sting, Tina Turner, and comedienne Ruby Wax, on the other hand, follow Zen Buddhism.

Scientology, based on the principles of Ron L. Hubbard, also gained ground in the 1990s. Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and Lisa Marie Presley joined the ranks of what is considered to be this "independent" religion in the U.S.

Judaism and Eastern religions are not the only faiths to blossom in the current environment. Mel Gibson and Nicole Kidman returned to Catholicism in recent years, and many rap musicians, led by Ice Cube, show an interest in Islam.

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