Kabbalah Stirs Critics

Madonna, et al have watered down Jewish mysticism, scholars charge

Louisville Courier-Journal/August 26, 2004
By Tamara Ikenberg

Kabbalah, a mysterious, multilayered system of Jewish mysticism, has been around for at least 1,000 years.

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.

She has announced that she will spend 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.

Kabbalah is an esoteric, mystical offshoot of Judaism that supposedly holds the keys to the universe, lets students 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."

The Torah comprises the first five books of the Bible and is a cornerstone of the Kabbalah, says Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport of Louisville.

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 (Madonna) 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."

"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."

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