Kabbalah chameleon

Madonna's latest reinvention delves into the mystical offshoot of Judaism

The Courier-Journal/August 14, 2004
By Tamara Ikenberg

Madonna has become entranced with the study of Kabbalah. She gradually has recruited her famous friends and is throwing her support to the controversial Kabbalah Centre.

But you didn't hear much about it in the mainstream media until about six years ago, when Madonna became entranced with the study. She gradually began recruiting famous friends and started giving tons of cash to the controversial Kabbalah Centre, which hawks pure Kabbalah water and red string bracelets to ward off the evil eye.

Last week, she announced that she's spending more than $20 million to open a Kabbalah grade school in New York in December. To attend The Kabbalist Grammar School for Children, already fashionably abbreviated as "The K School," you must pay $3,600 a semester and follow the Kabbalah. It's not known if Kabbalah water will be available in the cafeteria.

At this point, maybe it's time to reveal the facts behind the phenomenon, because to most people, "Kabbalah" is still just a silly word with no real meaning beyond Madge.

Kabbalah is an esoteric, mystical offshoot of Judaism that supposedly holds the keys to the universe, lets studiers in on the oral law handed down from God to Moses, and was originally intended to be explored by a select group of mature scholars highly educated in Jewish tradition.

Madonna's brand of Kabbalah, which is taught at the controversial Kabbalah Centre, headed by Philip Berg, who is in no way endorsed or recognized by the mainstream Jewish community, seems to be touchy-feely Kabbalah Lite with a major concentration on merchandising.

"The Berg family has put together a composite version themselves of what Kabbalah is," says Rick Ross, head of The Rick A. Ross Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups and Movements in New Jersey. "The Kabbalah has never been separated out in the way Berg has done."

Serious Kabbalists contend that everything in the complex system relies on context and history. It can't just be picked apart and pasted together haphazardly for mass consumption.

"She's misrepresenting Judaism. It's a real watered-down distortion; a trendy, new-agey magic thing. The whole thing is nuts," says Peter Anik of the Jewish Community Federation of Louisville.

"You've got to have a real strong foundation before you even entertain the thought of Kabbalah. (Madonna's version) is kind of like crystals - it has that smell."

Lately, Kabbalah seems to be getting nearly as much publicity as the presidential campaign. Is it a beautiful way to get to know God, or a flock of pretentious fancy-pants followers, Hollywood tabloid heavyweights Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore and Britney Spears among them, desperately seeking something to believe in?

The Jewish community is divided on the modern Kabbalah resurgence.

"Kabbalah as practiced by Madonna and Co. has little to do with Judaism," says Daniel Frank, director of Judaic Studies at the University of Kentucky. "The trouble with this movement is that it's ripped out of any historical context."

Frank is kind compared to other critics.

"What Madonna is doing is sacrilegious. She's not Jewish, so she has no idea," says Sara Reguer, chair of the department of Jewish Studies at Brooklyn College, which offers classes in Kabbalah. "It's got nothing to do with Judaism."

What is it?

A traditional Jewish education does not include Kabbalah study. Instead, it focuses on the Torah, the first five books of Moses, and sometimes, the Talmud, a collection of laws and Torah interpretations.

Many Jews have no clue about Kabbalah.

"Kabbalah is on the edge of Judaism," says Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport, a senior rabbi at The Temple in Louisville.

Rapport is a descendant of Isaac Luria, one of history's most influential Kabbalists, who lived in the 1500s.

Unlike his contemporaries, Rapport isn't particularly irked by the current Kabbalah craze. It's not "dangerous or damaging, just superficial," he says.

Kabbalah is more than a book, but there is a central text, known as the Zohar. The Zohar is sprinkled with interpretations of scripture. Kabbalah has had many champions throughout the ages, and dozens of variations have been taught.

Kabbalah is not a book, but there is a central text, known as the Zohar. Originally written in Aramaic and Hebrew, it's mostly based on Jewish scripture, including the Torah and Talmud and the book of Ezekiel.

The Zohar is sprinkled with thoughts and interpretations of scripture, instruction on meditation and much more, all with an underlying, puzzle-like pattern that when mastered, can supposedly impart the secrets of God.

"Jewish mysticism is very text-based," Rapport says. "It's a study of layer upon layer of text."

Literal, metaphoric, symbolic and secret meanings can be gleaned from close Kabbalah study, he says.

The most popular belief is that the Zohar was written in Spain in the 13th century, although some Kabbalists believe it was written as long as 2,000 years ago.

The figures supposedly telling the stories in the Zohar lived in the older era, but Frank maintains that was a literary device.

"In order to get a hearing, it presented itself as something old and authentic," he says. A 20th-century scholar, Gershom Scholem, is credited with determining that the texts were written in the 13th century.

Two aspects of Kabbalah that have come under scrutiny are numerology and astrology.

"All that is part of this investigation into the universe. Kabbalists believed the movement of the planets and sky could affect their lives," Rapport says. "They believed they could move the planets. They saw themselves as something larger than themselves."

As for numerology, it's true that all Hebrew letters are assigned numerical values. Alef, the Hebrew A, equals 1, Bet, the Hebrew B, equals 2, and so on. Kabbalists play with the numerical values of words to draw connections within the text and come closer to the hidden meanings.

Plus, "all Hebrew names have meaning," Rapport says. For instance, Adam is derived from both adama, the Hebrew word for earth, and dam, the Hebrew word for blood. Eve comes from hava, meaning "life."

"Those little hints tell you there's a story below," he says.

Kabbalah also has a lot to do with the concept of light.

"Every deed that you do gathers a spark of light that helps bring us closer to the Messianic age," Rapport says. At its highest level, Kabbalistic learning can be used to heal one's self and, eventually, the world, through "mitzvot," or good deeds.

But that kind of power and comprehension isn't supposed to come easily.

Madonna's used to getting what she wants. But if she had wanted to study Kabbalah before today's trendy times, she would've felt like a Catholic club kid left out in the cold.

According to tradition, it was not recommended to delve into Kabbalah unless you were male, at least 40, and already entrenched in Jewish knowledge.

"These are the higher mysteries," Frank says. "Don't do this too soon."

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