Madonna and Kabbalah

Madawna? She loves us!

In case it wasn’t already apparent, it is now officially official – Judaism is so hot right now.

Madonna, the queen of hot-right-now, has announced herself an “ambassador of Judaism,” to Shimon Peres, no less.

Oy, what would Golda Meir think?

Madonna — excuse me, Esther — has been into Kabbalah for years now, and was in Israel for a Jewish mysticism conference. She brought along the rest of her mystical crew, too, including fellow celebrity Kabbalists Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, Rosie O’Donnell and Donna Karan (actually Jewish I believe), and of course Madonna’s hubby, film director Guy Ritchie, known for making spiritual British comedies like “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.”

Public opinion is still out on the age-old question, is it good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?
And is Madonna an ambassador we want?

I say, sure, why not? First of all, we could do far worse than Madonna. From a pure marketing standpoint, anyone who can popularize the wearing of cone-shaped bras is someone you want on your side.

Were I a Kabbalist I might be feel differently. I might be concerned about the watering down of Kabbalah. But I’m not. Growing up as a strongly affiliated Jew, I was always taught the whole only-Torah-scholars-over-forty learn Kabbalah song and dance, and that its mystical teachings have little to do with the mundane practice of Judaism. And that’s been okay for me. But for many other Jews these days, especially for those who are not as strongly affiliated, Kabbalah is a way in, a way to connect. And that’s the point. Anyone concerned with the future of Judaism and the Jewish people should agree that drawing more Jews into the fold -– or one of the many folds in the fabric of Jewish life — is a good thing. And the danger of the entirety of Judaism turning into merely a bastardized version of Kabbalah is slim to none.

Besides, Hollywood’s newish obsession with Kabbalah has less to do with Judaism and more to do with the Hollywood: As Madonna told Peres in their tête-à-tête, “You don’t know how popular the Book of Splendor is among Hollywood actors. . . . Everyone I meet talks to me only about that.” (Perhaps she may bore of it sooner than we think).

Thus the more pressing question — is all this spirituality good for celebrities or bad for celebrities? Well, Ashton Kutcher claims Kabbalah has made him a better actor (from “Punk’d” to purified?), but imagine all the pressure the average Hollywood actor must be feeling: Do I now have to become spiritual? Will studying Kabbalah make me a better actor, too? Will I be seen as somehow “less-then” if I do not visit a Middle Eastern country?

It can be daunting, but oh so fulfilling, even for Madonna who seems to have done it all. Said the former Material Girl to Shimon Peres, “I can’t believe that I’m celebrating the new year with you in Israel. . . .It’s a dream come true.”

And scene.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman

14 comments on “Madonna and Kabbalah

  1. Eve Coulson on

    I wasn’t sure why the occasional Madonna bashing relative to her interest in Kabbalah and Judaism bothered me so much until I read yours, and decided to really try to figure it out. It comes down to this…who has the right to question the sincerity of her interest? How can one, and should we even be in the business of judging the authenticity of anyone’s passion for any aspect of Judaism, especially if its the internal, spiritual aspect? It almost seems that both anti-semitism and philo-semitism are being tarred with the same brush, and frankly, I don’t get it. Aren’t we better off in a world where people fall in love with Judaism and aren’t afraid to express it? Or should they, as Larry David would say, CURB THEIR ENTHUSIASM if they aren’t born Jews? Perhaps you simply feel that Madonna’s enthusiasm is false, but really, how is anyone to judge another’s interior life?

    Just before sitting down to write this to you, I received the following statement from Karen Kushner, of Project Welcome in San Francisco. It expresses what I am trying to convey in a slightly different way. I hope you will take the time to read it.
    Dear Friends,

    I studied a wonderful piece from Maimonides (a 12th century Jewish physician and Talmudist from Spain who ended up being the doctor to the sultan in Egypt) again during Sukkot that I found so important I decided to send it out to the listserv again. For those who studied this with me before, I hope you will agree that it is still important. For those who have not seen it, I hope you will decide to take on this commandment this year. . Here is what the Talmud says:

    The joy a person feels in the performance of a mitzvah and in loving God who gave the commandment is a high form of service. And someone who holds himself back from such joy deserves to be punished. As it is said, because you did not serve the lord your god with joy and gladness of heart (Deuteronomy 28:47) And anyone who is arrogant and apportions honor for himself and thinks only of his own self-esteem on such occasions, is both a sinner and a fool…

    Isn’t it interesting that since the time of the Talmud, we have had to be reminded to be joyful in observing the commandments? You don’t write laws and rules like this for folks who have no trouble being joyful. The laws are commanded to keep people from falling into a pattern of obeying the commandments in a regimented, dutiful way without any joy.

    What I thought was: Why are some Jews tempted to deny themselves opportunities to be joyful? Why do some have to be commanded to feel joy?? Why do some of us restrict ourselves to weddings and bar mitzvahs to let our hair down and really celebrate? Why do some of us hold ourselves back from celebrating each mitzvah the way we could? Are we too busy trying to look good? What do you think?

    And if we are truthful, don’t we sometimes even feel disdain for people who do the commandments with joy? “He sings too loud!” we whisper to each other. “She is such a fool, the way she sways when she prays!”

    Is this a remnant of trying to always distinguish ourselves from the people around us? Italians who eat with gusto, Irish who sing in the streets, French who kiss in public?

    Then I realized that the Jews I know who express the most joy are often Jews by Choice! They have the enthusiasm, the passion for Judaism that expresses itself in pure joy. How much they have to teach us!! Truly they are a gift from God to the Jewish people to teach us what it means to do the commandments with a good heart, a full heart. God willing, they will continue to provide an example of serving God with joy and the whole community will be known for the delight with which we celebrate.

    May you all dance with the Torah when you celebrate Simchat Torah!


    Karen Kushner, Director

    Project Welcome

    Union for Reform Judaism

    235 Montgomery St. Suite 1120

    San Francisco, CA 94104 3304

    415 392 7080 ext 18

    Fax 415 392 1182

    Toll free 888 756 8242

    Project Welcome is an outreach program welcoming interfaith families, unaffiliated Jews and seekers into Independent, Renewal, Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative synagogues. A project of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund & the Walter and Elise Haas Fund.

  2. admin on

    <p>Those are really excellent points, Eve, and I agree sometimes the vitrol towards Madonna veers towards the inexplicable. And yet…far be it for me to speak on Rebecca’s behalf–she can do that just fine–but personally, my feelings of distaste stem not from Madonna’s interest in Judaism (or one minute aspect of the whole of Judaism), nor her rampant commercialization thereof (with funds I’d rather have her use to feed starving children), but the audacity with which she assumes that this validates her as a spokeswoman for “the Jews.” I’m pretty uncomfortable with anyone characterizing him or herself as such–but if I had to find someone to speak in my name, I’d prefer someone with a profound cultural, religious and historical grasp of what Jewishness is. Kabbalah isn’t Judaism–it’s Kabbalah. And while I don’t care if Madonna or any other celebrity wants to study it–more power to them, if it enlightens them spiritually!–I don’t think it credentials them to speak on my behalf. Thank you for the reminder, though, that other people’s spiritual journeys are not much of our business–that’s vital. </p>

  3. Eve Coulson on

    Thank you, Mel, for making aware of the amusing fact that Madonna and my mother have something important in common! Let me explain.

    First of all, if it’s true that Madonna has claimed to be a “spokesperson for the Jews” then I withdraw my objection. However, the line taken from Rebecca’s blog, “I am an ambassador of Judaism” has a subtle but important difference of meaning. In context, she refers to people coming up to HER to talk about the text she has just given to Peres. Not so different from when my mother became a kind of in-house resource on all things Jewish at her midwestern workplace, when it became known that her daughter was a Jew. I have often thought that in her own small corner of the world, she did some good being thrust into this role by my choices, in that she made Judaism more accessible to some people who possibly had never met a Jew, or at least had never thought much about what it means to be a Jew. Their love for my mom, and by extension interest in and love for her daughter must surely have translated into some positive feelings, or at the very least some new understanding of Judaism. They have traveled through nearly a whole life cycle of Jewish life with us, from my wedding to birth of children (including one bris!), b’nai mitzvot, holidays, events in Israel, you name it. And they have asked my mom lots of questions about me AND Jewish practice and beliefs along the way.

    To my knowledge, neither my mother nor Madonna has made a practice of speaking FOR Jews, but they both find themselves in situations in which people outside the religion want to talk about it with them (Madonna because of her enthusiastic interest in Judaism, my mother because of mine). If you want to argue that neither is knowledgeable enough to play that role, OK, but please note the important difference between claiming to speak FOR Jews and speaking about Judaism.

  4. RHF on

    Eve –
    I’m sorry I’m responding so late, I only just noticed your comments. Thank you for making them, and thank you, Mel, for responding.

    I actually think you’re right, Eve. I certainly was having some sarcastic fun with Madonna, but I do think she’s quite serious and sincere in her interest in Jewish mysticism. And my larger argument was that I don’t think it’s bad thing that she’s an “ambassador for Judaism.”

    Actually, if you’re interested, I wrote another post on this subject that explores a bit of why people are so suspicious of Madonna’s interest in Judaism. It’s on a new blog called The Docent, which you can read here).

    My own sarcasm and fun-making are prompted not so much by Madonna’s interest in Kaballah as in her need to publicize it, and in a way to proselytize for it. In fairness, I don’t know how much of the publicity is generated by the media’s ridiculous need to know everything about celebrities lives and how much of it is driven by the celebrities’ desire to publicize themselves. But it did seem like a silly publicity stunt for Madonna to meet with Shimon Peres on Rosh Hashana to discuss Kabbalah. Silly enough that I felt obligated to make fun. But again, my sarcasm is a more a comment on celebrity culture than on Madonna’s private spiritual interests, which are — and in my opinion should remain — her own business.


    She isn’t Jewish-she is a fraud-what’s wrong Mo-you can push peoples buttons but can’t handle it when your buttons are being pushed. Never mind that you used blackmail AND YOU CONTINUE TO USE BLACKMAIL to claw your way up to the top-with such little ditties as TRUE BLUE and Cherish-

  6. Kseniya on

    Dear Louise (Madonna)
    I love and respect your creativity, dedication, hard work (the ability to always pursue their goals).
    I want to especially mention your noble deed – a child who find marital happiness.
    Previously, not solved, you write, but when learned that you are ill (anemia) is to help you.
    We have a miraculous curative decorations and juices – juices – they vylechat you quickly.
    Got that are going to Ukraine – will be happy to meet.
    We are also interested Kabbalah, even in Israel find out about this, the foundations of all faiths.
    We in Ukraine is the second largest in the world for sainthood. Not far from Donetsk. There, quietly, calmly, good, very beautiful nature. We will help in preparing for the arrival to us.
    My mom is Director of Concert Agency “Harmony”. Our dream to invite you to the concert.
    But from the beginning, we will cure you!
    We are waiting for a response.
    Goodbye. Kseniya, Marina Ryzhenko
    Our E-mail:

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