Madonna's interest in Kabbalah has guaranteed regular coverage -- if not always of Kabbalah itself, then at least of how it affects this celebrity's life. The latest bulletins: Madonna has allowed a distance to develop with her longtime best friend, actress Debbi Mazar; and though Madonna will perform on Sundays in the U.K. during her worldwide Re-Invention tour, she's declining to perform on Friday evenings, in observance of Shabbat.
A belief system that actually affects one's daily life? If Madonna keeps this up, she may eventually behave as though her body is something other than a commodity.
Not many reports on Madonna shed much light on what Kabbalah teaches or expects of its adherents. Slate offered some straightforward answers in an explainer titled "What Is Kabbalah, Anyway?" The closing sentence: "Traditional scholars of the field are careful not to slam the new centers too hard, but the experts do argue that Madonna's new-age spiritualism has little in common with the traditional scholarly mysticism of Jewish Kabbalah."
In an informative report for Salon, Steven Kotler explains how the Berg family -- former rabbi Philip Berg, his second wife, Karen, and his son, rabbi Yehuda Berg -- helped give a pop spin to Kabbalah through their Kabbalah Centre International:
One of the first things they figured out is that no one really cares about forbidden fruit if they can't use it to bake a pie. So instead of having classes about God, the center has classes about the much more practical task of finding your soul mate. Along the way, what they teach might show you a thing or two about God, but their version offers some serious personal change without putting in all that time on the hard cold floors of the monastery. No fasting, no thorny path. According to Berg, all you need for change is a bit of prayer and a bit of meditation.
If this sounds a little ethereal, well, it is. This is mysticism after all -- served quick and easy: You sign up, take a few classes, and suddenly, shazam: happiness, true love, career fulfillment -- whatever you want on the menu is yours courtesy of a beneficent creator. Welcome one and all to the McDonald's of Jewish mysticism.
Benyamin Cohen of Jewsweek continues the McDonald's theme by referring to Kabbalah as "McMysticism."
By most accounts, Kabbalah's awkward journey from profound philosophy of Judaism to celebrity-driven self-help sideshow hasn't done much to promote the overall seriousness of a Jewish lifestyle. That and the fact that there are books like A Wish Can Change Your Life: How to Use the Ancient Wisdom of the Kabbalah to Make Your Dreams Come True, which explores the Kabbalah's 10-limbed symbolism to explore trees as a source for wish fulfillment. Yes, wish fulfillment. It begs the question of whether this can really be good at all for Judaism. Pop Kabbalah has been fused with Hinduism and New Age eco-spirituality, but to what end? Self-help pipe dreams of having your wishes fulfilled and your dreams made true hardly seem like the stuff of genuine religious devotion.