Religion & Beliefs

Why Madonna’s Kabbalah is the True Kabbalah

The professional Jews and rabbis are at it again. In the Israeli press and across American cable television, bearded Jewish academics and keypaued scholars have savaged Madonna’s continuing foray into Jewish mysticism. In fact, popular culture – especially within the … Read More

By / October 24, 2008

The professional Jews and rabbis are at it again.

In the Israeli press and across American cable television, bearded Jewish academics and keypaued scholars have savaged Madonna’s continuing foray into Jewish mysticism. In fact, popular culture – especially within the columns of snarky entertainment guides and the opening minutes of paranormal documentaries – has conflated the words Kabbalah and Madonna. For bespectacled Jews in book-lined offices, this was produced anger and derision.

What fueled their apoplectic jeroboams a few years ago was Madonna’s CD, Confessions on a Dance Floor, which included "Isaac," a song devoted to the sixteenth-century kabbalist Rabbi Itzhak Luria.

Rabbi Rafael Cohen of Safed warned that "divine retribution" may follow from such an abomination. "Jewish law forbids the use of the name of the holy rabbi for profit," he explained. Another guardian of holy Jewish ethics, Rabbi Israel Deri told Maariv that Madonna "brings great sin on the Kabbalah."

American-Jewish commentators have expressed similar – if slightly less menacing – admonitions against Madonna’s Practical Kabbalistic beliefs. Others have issued sardonic blogs against the Material Girl’s Pop Kabbalah adviser, Rabbi Philip Berg, and her Hollywood co-cultists, Brittany Spears, Demi Moore, Rosanne, and Sandra Bernhard.

The logic of the Jewish fundamentalists has been consistent since Madonna first donned tefillin in 1988 and joined Berg’s World Centre for Kabbalah. After all, Jewish religious authorities have reiterated the standard rules for kabbalistic study: adherents must be:

1) authentically Jewish 2) male 3) over forty and married 4) educated in traditional Jewish law and Biblical exegesis 5) fluent in the ancient languages of Jewish mystical texts 6) working under the supervision of a recognized kabbalistic master or vunderrebbe.

According to the rabbis, Madonna fulfills none of these basic requirements. Therefore, her public embrace of Kabbalah is invalid, sacrilegious, cultish, or patently ridiculous. It is nothing less than an ersatz and vulgar New Age theft from a pure and non-commercial religious past.

Little do the protectors of Prophetic Judaism know that Madonna and Berg’s notion of Kabbalah is older and was more widely observed than their restrictive versions. The most illustrious rabbinical authority, Rashi, who lived during the time of the First Crusade, issued few proclamations that separated female from male prayer in his devotional rites. Rashi’s daughter wrapped tellifin around her left arm and forehead just as the master’s male students did.

After the expulsion of Jews from Iberia in the 1490s, kabbalistic scholars found willing and enthusiastic patrons in Christian Italy and France. Aristocratic Gentiles funded the Spanish Jews’ esoteric activities and learned Practical Kabbalah from them. Ecstatic prayer, ritual crying, the blending of perfumes from "Adamic scents," magical recitations from sacred Hebraic-Aramaic texts ("Abracadabra"), and the occult transposition of letters and numbers (gematria) quickly leaked into the popular Gentile imagination. Modern astrology, palmistry, phrenology, and other forms of fortune telling were soon associated with Jewish wisdom and symbology.

In 1532, Giulio Camillo, an Italian contemporary of Leonardo and Nostradamus, built a 49-stage Memory Theatre for François I in Paris. It utilized 180 archetypal images from the Sefar Yeseriah and The Zohar, the two most revered books from the Spanish kabbalistic canon. Erasmus’ disciple, Gilberto Cousino, was especially taken with the image of the naked Girl Whose Hair Points to the Sun. He called Camillo’s Kabbalistic Project, "the Eighth Wonder of the World."

For centuries, both Christian peasants and intellectuals relied on Renaissance Jewish mystical techniques and teachings for spiritual uplift. These offered a supplement or reinterpretation to their more conventional religious instruction. From Vilna to Jassy, itinerant Jewish Kabbalists hawked amulets against the evil eye, magic potions that transformed enemies into friends, and Zoharistic spells, accompanied with supernatural gestures (where twisted fingers formed Hebrew letters). Many a Jewish boy preferred the traveling life of the kabbalistic mendicant to the musty and claustrophobic backrooms of the shul. This was a Jewish cottage industry that lasted well into the nineteenth century.

Edicts against this commercial form of Jewish mysticism were wide spread and draconian but largely ineffective. The rabbis and Czarist police could suppress and delimit the belief in Practical Kabbalah but not destroy it. Its roots in the popular European imagination were far too seductive and historically deep.

In a way, Berg and Madonna have merely resurrected a 500 year-old tradition – a legitimate Jewish-Gentile tradition that predates the contemporary rabbis’ statutes by many hundreds of years.

Practical Kabbalah

Kabbalah is a Hebrew word that is usually defined as "received wisdom" and refers to the secret Gnostic teachings passed down by rabbis from the beginnings of the Jewish Diaspora. In Muslim and Christian Spain during the fourteenth century, Jewish mystical writers began to formalize kabbalist texts and magical ceremonies into a more coherent system of belief. For over two hundred years, they sought to uncover cryptic and existential meanings buried within the Torah and to make contact with the Ain-Sof (The Creator, or That Which Has No End).

Normally kabbalistic regimen involved two methodologies: kabbalah iyunit, or "Contemplative Kabbalah," which parsed the Great Mysteries through intellectual and meditative techniques, and kabbalah ma’asit, or "Practical Kabbalah," which sought to influence or alter reality through ritual means.

When the bulk of the Jewish population was expelled from Spain in 1492, after decades of forced conversions and public executions, Jewish theologians had to explicate why God had once again forsaken His People. At first, Divine Punishment could be explained in only two ways: either the Jews had brought this catastrophe upon themselves through improper behavior or the Holy One was indifferent to Jewish suffering. The Kabbalists offered a third possibility: the Ain-Sof was not omniscient, even weak, and had gone into hiding – like the Marannos themselves. The Sacred Name needed ten days to perfect Creation but only took six. It was, therefore, the duty of the Jews to assist God through tikkun haolam (repair of the world) and kabbalistic pursuits.

Practical Kabbalah gave form and significance to newly invented Jewish rituals. To a large degree, it was antinomian and opposed traditional clerical points of view and control. Practical Kabbalah adapted many classical Greek, pagan, Muslim, and Catholic concepts – like the Virgin Mary as the Perfect Woman, or Shekinah, who intercedes for the Jewish people in heaven, and who appears exactly at midnight each Friday night during conjugal intercourse.

Much of what we know about popular kabbalist activities comes from obscure Jewish chapbooks and little-known memoirs. A typical example is Chaim Aronson’s autobiography. In his picturesque life story, penned in Hebrew, Aronson describes his apprenticeship during the 1830s in Vilna with Eliezer the Kabbalist. Runaway yeshiva-bukhers like Aronson were taught the Hebraic arts of amulet-making, recitation of spells and curses, even the evocation of Noah’s Flood (through the manipulation of splinters and threads from antique coffins and shrouds). According to Aronson, Eliezer could conjure up whole meals through kabbalist sleight-of-hand.

One aspect of Eliezer’s magical instruction stayed with Aronson decades later when he became a renown medical authority: the kabbalistic ability to read symptoms of disease from facial tics and other signs of physical deformity.

If we are to believe Aronson’s story, beneath Practical Kabbalah’s bizarre and much maligned history were fragments of modern science and an authentic capability to diagnose illness from the emanations of the mysterious human mind.