Is Madonna Jewish? (WSJ 8/4/11)
Is Madonna Jewish?
The material girl’s professed faith has little to do with classical Jewish mysticismIn 1941, Gershom Scholem published “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism,” a groundbreaking study of Kabbalah’s murky origins, complicated texts and arcane ideas. Scholem, who died in 1982, concluded the book with a vague prediction: “Under what aspects this invisible stream of Jewish mysticism will again come to surface we cannot tell.” Chances are he didn’t have Madonna in mind.
But the pop superstar has since the mid-’90s been Kabbalah’s most prominent enthusiast, incorporating Kabbalah-inspired themes into her music and even donating $18 million to the Kabbalah Centre, a controversial organization led by a New York-born former insurance salesman turned rabbi named Philip Berg. Now 81, Mr. Berg (known within the movement as “the Rav”) runs the enterprise—more than 60 centers and study groups around the world—with his wife Karen and two children Michael and Yehuda.
It may seem odd that Madonna, who is not Jewish, is the public face of Kabbalah. It was the Berg family that repackaged an esoteric body of Jewish thought—”the secret life of Judaism,” in Scholem’s words—into a universal self-help theosophy open to Jew and Gentile alike. In the process, the Centre stripped Kabbalah of much of its Jewishness. The website states it plainly: “Kabbalah is not a religion.” Yehuda Berg, though himself a rabbi, has said that he doesn’t consider himself Jewish, and in a cover blurb for his 2002 book, “The Power of Kabbalah,” Madonna underscores this point, writing that Kabbalah has “nothing to do with religious dogma.”
So what does the Kabbalah Centre have to do with classical Jewish mysticism? Not much, according to critics. The great Talmudic scholar Adin Steinsaltz has likened the connection to “the relationship between pornography and love.” Allan Nadler, a professor of Jewish Studies at Drew University, is even less charitable: “The Bergs hijacked an ancient, highly secretive Jewish tradition and popularized it as pseudo-mystical, New Age nonsense.”
It may seem odd that Madonna, who is not Jewish, is the public face of Kabbalah.
.The Kabbalah Centre preaches a nebulous spiritualism that blends kabbalistic ideas with astrology, secular science and a large dose of pop psychology. The literature is laden with words like “energy,” “chaos,” and, most central, “Light”—”the Infinite source of Goodness, the Divine Force, the Creator.” Much of it seems vague and harmless. The Centre counsels adherents to let go of “anger, jealousy, and other reactive behaviors in favor of patience, empathy, and compassion.” Who can argue with that? At times, however, the Centre’s ideas veer from glib to offensive. Philip Berg has argued that violence against Jews, including the Holocaust, could have been averted if only more Jews had studied Kabbalah.
Classical Kabbalah emerged along with its canonical text, the Zohar, a 13th-century collection of commentaries on the Five Books of Moses, the Song of Songs, and the Book of Ruth. A complex mix of cosmology, symbology, theology and magic, Kabbalah has long existed on the periphery of Jewish life—a series of small, superstitious offshoots from the more rational, legalistic mainstream of Judaism. Indeed, the Zohar has at times been regarded as a dangerous book, its contents restricted to an elite of learned and married Jewish men over 40 who commit themselves to an ascetic lifestyle.
Not so the Berg family. Commodifying Kabbalah has apparently been good business. According to a report in Newsweek this week, the family lives lavishly—Beverly Hills mansions, luxury cars, first-class travel—all of it bankrolled by the Centre. The glamorous lifestyle accords with the Centre’s celebrity-based marketing strategy. Like Scientology, the Berg brand has benefited immensely from its ties to the rich and famous, including Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan.
Then there’s the Centre’s penchant for over-the-top salesmanship. Among the items available for purchase: red string to ward off the evil eye ($26), a 23-volume English translation of the Zohar ($415), and a bevy of books, DVDs and CDs by the Bergs (titles include “Becoming Like God” and “Divine Sex”). The Kabbalah Centre does encourage members to perform acts of charity, but the Centre itself often seems to be the beneficiary.
So what would Gershom Scholem make of the Bergs and the Kabbalah Centre? Would he be surprised by their success? Probably not. Jewish mysticism has had its share of unsavory gurus. Scholem even wrote a book about the most infamous one, the 17th-century false messiah Shabtai Tzvi. In short, notes David Biale, a professor of Jewish history at the University of California at Davis, Scholem “had a very sharp nose for charlatans.”
Mr. Goldstein is the editor of Arts & Letters Daily and an editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education.