Madonna has faith on a string

USA Today/May 25, 2004
By Olivia Barker

The thread that ties Madonna to her celebrity friends is a scrap of yarn, scratchy to the touch, frayed at either end and knotted seven times.

The $26 Red String bracelet -said to deflect "envious stares and looks of ill will" - is perhaps the most visible symbol of Kabbalah, the spiritual movement rooted in Jewish mysticism that's weaving through Hollywood in a way not seen since Scientology attracted converts and controversy a decade ago.

And since Madonna first started singing Kabbalah's praises six years ago -literally, on her 1998 album Ray of Light-she has arguably become the practice's most prominent advocate.

The 45-year-old pop priestess introduced Britney Spears to the discipline last year. This month she wrapped Red Strings around the wrists of David and Victoria Beckham. And, of course, there's Madonna's director-husband, Guy Ritchie.

Madonna also apparently has spread the word to Demi Moore, who is known to have waxed Kabbalistic on the set of Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. Now Moore and boyfriend Ashton Kutcher are fixtures at the movement's headquarters, the Los Angeles Kabbalah Center, as well as in celebrity magazines, often with Kutcher photographed wearing the white uniform meant to attract the positive energy, or light, that men, more than women, need to combat outsized egos. In fact, the word "kabbalah" comes from the Hebrew "to receive."

But for all the good vibes and ego-shrinking that Madonna says she has received thanks to Kabbalah, she has courted plenty of criticism, too - namely, for preaching a practice whose ties to traditional, ancient kabbalah are tenuous at best and treacherous at worst, rabbis and scholars say. Watchdog types say the Kabbalah Center is more about merchandising -"empowered" stones, soul-cleansing water, those $26 strings -than enlightenment.

Some are more blunt. The center is "not just a cult, but a dangerous cult," says Rabbi Immanuel Schochet, a Toronto-based scholar of Jewish philosophy and mysticism. "They are distorting kabbalah ... taking some of our sacred books and reducing it to mumbo jumbo, all kinds of hocus-pocus."

Madonna archly acknowledged the critics on May 16, when she was photographed leaving the center wearing a T-shirt emblazoned "Cult Member."

No doubt this brand of modern Kabbalah will face further scrutiny with the start this week of Madonna's Reinvention tour, which won't feature Friday night performances, reportedly so the star can observe the Sabbath.

Still, Reinvention is an apt title: Madonna, who was raised Catholic, has credited Kabbalah with helping to quash her Material Girl persona and achieve spiritual clarity.

She has made "generous donations" to Kabbalah charities, confirms her longtime publicist, Liz Rosenberg, as well as giving the money earned from her children's books to the center's Spirituality for Kids organization, a Kabbalah-based program for children. She's setting up stands in each concert venue to sell copies of The 72 Names of God: Technology for the Soul ($19.95), the seminal Kabbalah book written by the center's co-director, Rabbi Yehuda Berg. Proceeds go to Spirituality for Kids.

Her tour stylist and costume designer, Arianne Phillips, says concertgoers can expect "big-picture things that incorporate Kabbalist thinking. Her spirituality has really influenced the show. It's part of who she is."

During performances, Hebrew text culled from The 72 Names of God frequently flashes in the background.

Last year, Moore told Vogue that Kabbalah helps one reveal "the value of your worth." (She wasn't talking about $12.5 million movie deals.) And Roseanne Barr says Kabbalah is the force behind her own reinvention.

Nearly a decade ago, Barr was "addicted to showbiz and all that drama," she says. "I was working on a sitcom. I was a big control freak." When she got pregnant with her fifth child, she was told, "You have to give up the fight, all that stress."

Sandra Bernhard introduced her to the L.A. center, and soon Barr says she transformed chaos into serenity as a result of Kabbalah. Bernhard "got just about everyone" in Hollywood into it, says Barr, including, supposedly, Madonna.

"(Kabbalah) helped me to totally reconfigure my entire being, the way I thought, the way I did everything," says Barr, 51, who was raised Jewish in a family of rabbis.

Today she recites Kabbalistic meditations three to five times a day for five to 10 minutes at a time, often when she's sitting in traffic. "To think about something bigger than yourself is so cool, to get out of your own ego and stuff."

Barr is happy to see Kabbalah catch on in her community, where egos loom large. "I'm glad that people in Hollywood are looking for something besides showbiz to make the world a good and better place. It's good when it's a visible person who says it's changed their lives. People can see examples."

As for whether Kabbalah's trendiness diminishes its integrity, "I do worry about it a little bit. Is it going to be something that people are going to say next year is over?" Barr says. "In one way, I'd kind of be relieved when I see that, because people that are really into changing their lives and the way they think and making peace in the world will always continue. The people who are there for other reasons won't."

In fact, Berg says, more people started studying Kabbalah after Sept. 11, 2001, than during the late '90s, when Madonna first pushed it into the headlines. Each week about 50,000 students, at least half of whom aren't Jewish, attend seminars and programs at the center's 50 branches worldwide.

"I see tens of thousands of people whose lives have improved," says Berg, 32. "I'm not talking about the guy who couldn't walk who starts walking. I'm talking about the person who couldn't talk to his father for 25 years."

Others challenge, however, how much spiritual alchemy actually occurs courtesy of Kabbalah.

"Simple answers don't grow souls. Red threads and magic bottles of water don't change the world and don't change people," says Rabbi David Wolpe of L.A.'s Conservative Sinai Temple. "To the extent that deep spiritual truths are put in a blender and served as superficial pablum -it's a disservice to a great tradition, and it is no better than spiritual snake oil."

Some of Wolpe's 5,000 or so congregants - "thoughtful people" - attend the local center: "It leaves me a bit baffled," he says. But with celebrities prone to being "swept up in the latest spiritual craze," Wolpe says, their interest in Kabbalah makes more sense. "It's a bad model from celebrities who ought to be doing better."

Berg has heard the naysayers for years; it was his parents who, over three decades, turned the center from an obscure group to an alternative-faith phenomenon.

"Guy Ritchie always says, 'The difference between Kabbalah and Catholicism is the amount of people,' " says Berg, sitting in an office at the center's New York branch. A Madonna biography stands in the bookshelf behind him. "You don't call Catholicism a cult."

And if Madonna's outreach efforts find continued success, Berg says, the critics will be quieted.

"Eventually, when there's enough people doing Kabbalah" - when there are as many people wearing Red Strings as crosses - "it won't even be an issue."

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