The pop world's most unusual partnership may be over. Madonna and Kabbalah, the once obscure sect she championed - and upon which she has lavished millions of dollars - appear to be on the verge of separation. Close friends say the singer has talked of loosening her red Kabbalah wristband and is wearying of the mystical Jewish belief system. She has decided to give it up, they say, having tired of the financial burden and the effect her strong beliefs have had on her relationship with husband Guy Ritchie.
Madonna is also said to be concerned that following Kabbalah separates her children from more conventional customs such as Christmas, which they do not currently celebrate.
If true, it would mark an extraordinary end to Madonna's high-profile crusade on behalf of the cause she adopted the best part of a decade ago - and a serious financial blow to the organisation that promotes it, the Kabbalah Centre. Madonna has recruited other wealthy stars to the cause, most recently the actress Lindsey Lohan, and has bought a multi-million pound base for the sect close to her home in London.
The announcement would also come out of the blue. Madonna has arranged for tickets to be set aside for Kabbalah leaders at dates on her current world tour. She was photographed leaving the Kabbalah Centre in New York on Friday with her family. Ritchie is said to be making a documentary about Kabbalah, but it is unclear whether this will be critical or positive.
Yesterday a spokeswoman for Madonna, when asked about her support for Kabbalah waning, said: "As far as I am aware, it is completely untrue." The singer's links to the version of Kabbalah that she follows are so intimate now - personally and financially - that withdrawal would be difficult, complicated and initially kept very private. The departure of Esther - the adopted Hebrew name by which she is known to fellow believers - would almost certainly provoke lengthy and expensive legal wrangling.
Madonna was born and raised a Catholic but developed an interest in Kabbalah after being introduced to it by her friend, the comedian and actress Sandra Bernhard, in 1997. Followers wear a red string around their wrist to ward off the "evil eye" and believe the path to spiritual enlightenment lies in a mix of Orthodox Jewish tradition and positive thinking. They are also advised to drink blessed water (left), which can cost nearly £4 a bottle.
Madonna's kind of a Kabbalah is a new presentation of ancient Hebrew beliefs. Her spiritual guru is Rabbi Philip Berg, who founded the first branch of the Kabbalah Centre in Jerusalem in 1969. His organisation boasts nearly 60 centres around the world, which offer ways for followers to become rich, find true love and cure illnesses.
Madonna, 47, used her interest in the Kabbalah teachings as the inspiration for her series of children's books, which were launched in 2003 and include The English Roses and Mr Peabody's Apples. Each of the tales has a strong moral tone, and they warn against such evils as greed and envy.
Investigative journalists have claimed that followers are pressured into donating large sums of money and invest in spiritual products, but Madonna has been a staunch defender, saying that those who attack Kabbalah do not understand it. "It frightens people," she has said. "So they try to denigrate it or trivialise it so that it makes more sense."
Madonna's involvement with Kabbalah has raised its profile around the world. The best known of around 3.5 million followers globally, she devotes several million pounds to the sect each year, as well as buying the venue for the London organisation at a cost of more than £3.6m.
The singer has also shown her devotion by paying £12m for a Kabbalah Centre school in New York. She is said to divert a chunk of her touring profits to the organisation.
There is also a Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles, close to Hollywood. Others who have followed Madonna's lead have included Britney Spears, although the younger singer has now ended her links, concentrating on motherhood. Demi Moore is another devotee.
In 2004, Madonna joined forces with Moore to host a £40,000 party for Rabbi Berg when he came to the UK to promote a new book. Guests at the event included stars such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Donatella Versace, who were served blessed water.
Madonna's alignment with a Jewish faith caused shockwaves when it became public because she had drawn on her Catholic roots throughout her career. This included draping herself with crucifixes and famously kissing a black Jesus in the video for her No 1 single "Like A Prayer". She gave a credit to the Kabbalah Centre for its "creative guidance" when she released her 1998 album Ray of Light and has spoken in interviews about how studying the teachings had "changed my whole outlook on life".