TEL AVIV — Pop diva Madonna was among the praying, swaying and singing masses of Kabbalah enthusiasts who made the pilgrimage to Israel for the High Holy Days, seeking spiritual transformation through a brand of Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah.
The “Material Girl” was celebrated by an Israeli public hungry for a touch of celebrity after four years of violence with the Palestinians that has scared away visitors of all stripes — famous and anonymous alike. Tourism Minister Gideon Ezra hailed her visit, which was part of a program sponsored by the controversial Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Center.
“I think it’s the best P.R. we can have,” Ezra said.
The world’s best-known student of Kabbalah, Madonna — along with her husband, film director Guy Ritchie — was among some 2,000 devotees who descended upon Israel from 22 countries, hoping to absorb the strength of what they say are extra-powerful energies emanating from the Holy Land during the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The center, which prides itself on bringing the tenets of Jewish mysticism to people of all backgrounds and religions, has been criticized by traditionalist Jews who claim it has watered down Kabbalah into a distorted, New Age form of its true teachings. Critics of varying religious stripes complain about what they describe as the center’s commercialization of the Jewish mystical tradition.
“Unfortunately, I see that some people are exchanging the Torah that was given to us at Mount Sinai with a mystical Torah that they call Kabbalah, because the Torah that was given in Sinai contains commandments, which are difficult, and mysticism provides a convenient ‘replacement,’” said Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, who heads the yeshiva at Ein Zurim, an Orthodox kibbutz. He added that “the phenomenon is part of a worldwide trend of mysticism that is occurring as a response to the huge failure of the scientific-rational pretensions to save man without involving God. This has failed miserably, and people are once again seeking God through the classic modes of paganism, turning to the dead and mysticism.”
Rabbi Yuval Sherlo, who heads a yeshiva in Petah Tikva for Orthodox soldiers, attributed the popularity of Kabbalah to “the fact that it enables the removal of personal responsibility — everything is the fault of fate, of the numbers — anything but myself.”
Boaz Huss, a Jewish mysticism expert who lectures at Ben-Gurion University, offers a more sympathetic take on the growing popularity of Kabbalah.
The Kabbalah Center, he said, represents “an innovative postmodern interpretation of Kabbalah.” He also said that the interest in its teachings reflects a broader trend of people searching alternative cultures for spiritual answers. According to Huss, Madonna is playing a key role.
“The link is Madonna,” he said. She is “one of the most influential and significant artists of the postmodern era. She shapes and is still shaping a lot of our culture and this integration” with Kabbalah “is very interesting.”
Rabbi Shaul Youdkevitch, the director of the Kabbalah Center in Israel, defended the practice of teaching Jewish mysticism to people of all faiths. He said that non-Jews have taken part in Jewish practices throughout the religion’s history. He identified human dignity and loving one’s neighbor as oneself as the main principles of Kabbalah, and said that they are universal concepts that speak especially to those who feel alienated from their surroundings.
As for Madonna, during her trip to Israel she offered a message of peace and love.
“We want to create peace in the world. We want to put an end to chaos and suffering,” Madonna told an audience at a benefit Sunday for a children’s foundation run by the Kabbalah Center. “But most of all, we want to put an end to hatred for no reason.”
Madonna has said she is serious about her belief in Jewish mysticism and is irritated by accusations that her faith is nothing more than a celebrity fad.
In Israel, the singer said she was not representing a religion. Rather, she said: “I’m here as a student of Kabbalah. A Kabbalist sees the world as a unified whole. A Kabbalist asks why.”
Early Sunday, Madonna and her husband went to the Kiryat Shaul Cemetery outside Tel Aviv to visit the grave of the Kabbalistic sage Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag. Polish-born Ashlag is the renowned author of a commentary on the core Kabbalistic text, the Zohar. He died in 1954.
Wearing jeans and a black-and-gray checkered sweater with a matching cap, Madonna spent more than an hour inside the stone mausoleum, placing candles on the tomb, praying and chanting. She also donned a large diamond encrusted letter E on a chain to symbolize her recently adopted Hebrew name — Esther. In addition to her new name, Madonna reportedly is refraining from performing on the Jewish Sabbath and often sports, on her wrist, a red string, which is a popular symbol of Kabbalism.
Led by a rabbi, Madonna and her small entourage recited blessings over food and wine, drank from small plastic cups and circled the raised stone grave. Toward the end of the ceremony, the pop star wiped tears from her eyes.
Another celebrity, Marla Maples, a model and actress best known for her famous ex-husband, real estate magnate Donald Trump, also visited the graves of rabbinical sages.
“Israel is the heartbeat of the world,” she said, holding a bottle of Kabbalah mineral water, the water marketed by the Kabbalah Center for its spiritual properties. “Because there is so much unrest in the Middle East, we felt that it would be useful for us to come here and meditate for peace.”
She said that incorporating Kabbalah teachings in her life has made a real change. “It’s helped me live without so much chaos; it’s helped me deal with anger.”