This Madonna is not so much credible as credulous

Financial Times/January 14, 2005
By Robert Shrimsley

It must presumably be the case that all religions started out as cults: one bloke who says he's got the number of God's private cellphone, a handful of dedicated followers widely scorned by everyone else, a bit of money and somewhere to preach.

Over time, though, the successful ones secure enough followers and credibility to move up a league from cult to accepted faith and so on until one day - hey presto - they are one of the great religions of the world. (Incidentally, how does a faith get to be a "great religion"? More good works? Play-offs in the lower divisions? Does Buddhism have a real promotion hope this year?)

On that basis, and in the spirit of love and tolerance that has long been my hallmark, one should approach all cults with an open mind. There are, however, certain rules of thumb. Chief of these is that any group whose leader has homes in more than one continent and that relies for its credibility on the enthusiastic support of a US celebrity is probably not among the most scripturally rigorous outfits.

In fairness, the last religion to place a Madonna at the centre of its appeal went on to do jolly well. But one senses that the Kabbalah Centre may not have quite the same staying power.

Having worked from the starting point that anything to do with Madonna was likely to be on the funny side of the street, I had never given the Kabbalah Centre much thought. If rich idiots wanted to pour away their money on some New Age nonsense, that was, after all, their business. It was, it seemed, just another outfit specialising in diseases of the rich; you know, boredom, self-absorption and so on.

Alas, the truth is rather more pernicious, as a BBC2 exposé last night pretty thoroughly demonstrated. The Centre was the first target of a new series by the journalist John Sweeney, cunningly entitled Sweeney Investigates. (Sweeney - geddit?)

Sweeney is a rather engaging and winning reporter, even if he does at times seem a little in love with himself, and it was hard not to be seduced by his witty demolition job.

He began by separating the Centre from its supposed roots in Jewish mysticism, with learned rabbis explaining how far removed the teachings of its founder Philip Berg, a former insurance salesman, were from anything that rabbinical scholars might recognise as orthodoxy. The Bergs founded the movement in Israel, where they were in effect door-to-door salesmen peddling their own holy book. They now have centres across the world and are - who'd have thought it - fabulously wealthy.

From there, and via a series of infiltrators secreted inside the organisation, Sweeney moved swiftly through the Centre's increasingly questionable activities. First there was the Kabbalah water, which goes at more than £4 a bottle. A cancer sufferer was prescribed three bottles a day. The water, it turns out, comes from a bog-standard bottling plant near Lake Ontario, in Grafton, Canada, where it is sold, unlabelled, to lots of other outfits as well.

Then there are the Zohars - the key script of Kabbalah - sold in the original Aramaic at a few hundreds of pounds a go. It doesn't matter if you can't read it. Enlightenment comes just from scanning your fingers over the words. Or the famous red strings ostentatiously sported by devotees to ward off evil. These sell for £18 each and are supposedly taken from Rachel's tomb on the West Bank. But when Sweeney visited the tomb itself, traditional orthodox Jews were giving them out for free.

Of course, a fool and his money are soon parted, but this is just the tip of the Centre's curious practices. Like many cults, it gets youthful enthusiasts, houses them in tiny dormitories and squeezes them for every penny they have. They are pulled away from their families and friends and turned into little more than drones for the cause.

They are fed such delightful views as that the Holocaust occurred because Jews turned away from the Kabbalah, and that a child killed in a car crash brought it upon himself.

The climax of the programme came when Sweeney and his crew infiltrated a get-together in Tel Aviv, for which followers had paid £900 on the promise of seeing the blessed Berg.

Berg didn't bother to show up, though Madonna arrived (she wasn't giving interviews). At this event disciples lost themselves in frenzies of belief, chanting "Cheeeernobyl" to cure Russia of radiation poisoning.

Incidentally, the Centre has been raising money for victims of the tsunami. Its website carries pictures from hospitals of kids with red strings. The money was used to send the survivors Zohars, which I'm sure came in very handy.

The Centre barely bothered to defend itself, offering only a pretty lame statement in its defence. One can only hope this excellent investigation shows all over the world - and in all of Madonna's homes.

An altogether different lost faith can be seen in the public attitude to politicians and it was supposedly to address this that ITV commissioned Vote for Me -a potentially smart idea in which the Pop Idol format was transplanted on to the search for a new MP. The winner would stand somewhere at the next election as an independent. Professional MPs were initially rather worried that all the publicity gleaned by the winner might unseat them. They need not have worried, for ITV has so little faith in its own programme that it has run at 11pm each night and will be finished by the weekend. So there will be no momentum and little audience, and by the time anyone realises it was on, it will all be over.

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