By John Baran
A researched essay written for MSC 4900. Nominated by Professor Andrew Tomasello:
“[This essay] is a superb study of Madonna’s practice of Kabbalah in her own religious development and her use of religion in her self-marketing. Mr. Baran delves into the idea of popular religion as something that might be cultic or faddish and leaves the reader questioning the nature of ‘true’ artistic expression.”
To read about how John Baran uses signposting to organize his essay and help his readers understand where he’s going next, click here.
To read about how John Baran uses direct quoting to support his argument and enliven his writing, click here.
Publicly announcing her associations with religion is nothing new for the Material Girl. Madonna has a history of expressing her spirituality throughout her career. She frequently creates a focus on the visual components of her works by using religious symbols and spiritual imagery in her videos, album covers, and stage performances. Commonly, these images appear as references to other artistic works or significant historical events. Often, the references are combined with what seem like taboo actions that prove to be controversial and commonly offend many of Madonna’s critics. But it is this controversy which plays a role in the propulsion of Madonna’s career. Throughout her early works, Madonna commonly used Catholic imagery to invoke various emotions while expressing her family upbringing. While Madonna occasionally continues to use such imagery, she no longer considers herself Catholic, and has begun to intertwine new themes from a different faith.
In 1997, Madonna started following a new spiritual school of thought. Since then, she has been seen wearing a mysterious little red string bracelet and drinking expensive blessed bottled water. She was quoting Jewish scripture in interviews, visiting Jerusalem in between touring, and using Judaic imagery in her videos and performances. Could it be that Madonna left her Catholic upbringing behind and converted to Judaism? Well, not exactly Judaism, but rather a branch of Jewish Mysticism known as Kabbalah.
If an understanding of Madonna’s attraction to Kabbalah and how it affects her art is to be obtained, an explanation of Jewish Mysticism must be acquired first. Furthermore, in order to begin understanding Jewish Mysticism and its practices, it is imperative to examine some of the historical aspects of the oral traditions of Rabbinic Judaism.
The fundamentals of Kabbalah are based on the wisdom of ancient Rabbis, and their tradition of interpreting the word of God found in the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh. Some practitioners date these traditions back to the Garden of Eden when God first spoke with Adam (Ginsburgh). However, many others argue that true Judaic oral traditions date back to the thirteenth century BCE. It is believed that the Israelites received oral teachings from God through Moses to accompany the written teachings given to him at Mount Sinai (Sherwin 135). Even though the origins of Rabbinic Judaism may not be definitively known, the earliest surviving documentation of the oral interpretations of the Tanakh did not appear until centuries later. The early practitioners of Rabbinic Judaism believed that these oral explanations should not be written down; any documentation of the tradition was forbidden, as they feared that they would take on a greater purpose than the Tanakh. However, it would soon appear that these explanations were in danger of being lost, and Judaic leaders decided to unify their teachings and document them so that they could be passed on to later generations.
After the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple in 70 CE, the Roman Empire forbade the practice of many Jewish customs as well as some mystical components of religion. As a result, with their temple destroyed, Rabbinic Judaism flourished. It was around this time when Rome determined it would be acceptable for anointed Rabbis to make new interpretations of the Tanakh and practice the oral teaching of their sacred text. Over the next five centuries, Rabbinic Judaism documented these oral interpretations of important Jewish laws in a new text, called the Talmud. According to jewishencyclopedia.com, the documentation of the oral laws “extended from the third to the fifth century CE” (Bacher). The Talmud made it possible for Judaism to be observed anywhere without the use of a temple. However, some of the mystical practices recently forbidden by Rome were omitted. The Talmud was used for centuries in Rabbinic Judaism. It was considered by most to be secondary in importance to the Tanakh, but remains to be used today as an essential part of most Jewish denominations. There are some, such as the Karaite denomination, who denounce the use of the Talmud and separated from Rabbinic Judaism circa 760 CE. On the other hand, there were some around this time who considered the oral traditions of the greatest importance, and these followers would eventually develop a new text.
The mystical aspects of Judaism forbidden by Rome and handed down from Abraham and Moses were still being observed in secrecy by many Jews. By the thirteenth century CE, the patriarch’s ancient teachings were written down by Moses de Leon and made available in a group of medieval texts known as the Zohar. While these texts are said to have been divinely revealed to de Leon, they are suspiciously similar to the writings of a second century scholar Simeon bar Yochai. Both de Leon and Yochai made claims that there are hidden meanings in the arrangement and combinations of letters and words in the Torah, the first five books of Moses. The Zohar focuses on the mystical components of Judaism. More specifically, the texts contemplate such mystical aspects as the origin of God, the creation of the universe, the nature of good and evil, and how they all relate to the salvation of the soul through the use of numerology, astrology, philosophy, and paranormal sciences.
At the time, some Orthodox denominations considered the validity and sacredness of the Zohar questionable. However, there were others who placed an exceptional importance on these practices. These followers who considered the Zohar and its mystical components as key ingredients to understanding Judaism would develop a new school of thought that would come to be known as Kabbalah.
According to Judaic leaders, Kabbalah never really became its own sect within Judaism. Rather, the term Kabbalah is used to denote the study of mystical aspects within Judaism found in the Zohar. It is inaccurate, therefore, to claim that Kabbalah is a religious affiliation. Instead, the claim should be made that the teachings of Kabbalah constitute a philosophy found within Judaism. However, there are organizations that disagree with this assessment.
The Los Angeles Kabbalah Center and its subsidiaries claim that the teachings of Jewish Mysticism should be considered a faith separate from Judaism. According to their website, Kabbalah “is meant for everyone, regardless of their religious background, nationality, or level of study.” This philosophy allows people like Madonna, who come from a non-Judaic background, to practice Kabbalah worldwide. Madonna, who was born Catholic, is just one of the many followers of Kabbalah who fall into this category.
After Madonna was introduced to Kabbalah, her association with the Los Angeles Kabbalah Center was first made public through occasional interviews as well as numerous contributions made to Kabbalah-related charities. According to an investigative report by Jeane MacIntosh of the New York Post, Madonna made her first charitable contribution to Kabbalah in 2001. The article continues to explain that around this time, Madonna founded the Ray of Light Foundation, a non-profit organization established to benefit health, music, and child-related charities. MacIntosh looked into the Ray of Light Foundation’s IRS filings. At the time of publication, the most recent filings available were from 2006. MacIntosh found that approximately $3.9 million had been donated to various Kabbalah-related charities since 2001. In total the foundation raised about $5.2 million. Therefore, the contributions to Kabbalah have been about 75% of the total charitable funds. Since 2006, the exact amount of the contributions made remains unclear, but Madonna continues to give donations to Kabbalah-related charities. Over the last few years, interviews conducted with Madonna may shed light on her spiritualistic viewpoints or her religious opinions, but it is these monetary contributions that truly show her devotion to the survival of Kabbalah throughout the world.
With these events in mind, many questions may arise. Are her intentions true? Is it as simple as just wanting the practice of Kabbalah to thrive? Does she find Kabbalistic philosophy to be a pathway to enlightenment and life fulfillment? Or is it just her way of using Kabbalah to her benefit through its mystique? Of course, it is likely that Madonna finds comfort in the religion and she is drawn to it spiritually, but it is peculiar that for the most part, the public’s view of The Kabbalah Center is that of a cult-like fad religion.
More so than in any other nation, the multicultural demographics of the United States have fostered diverse traditions, faiths, cultures, and religious organizations. With these different and often contradicting philosophies usually come many criticisms. There are critics such as Matthew Benns, columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald, who claims that many of our faiths are “fad religions,” and even goes as far to call some of them “cults.” It is arguable that most of these so-called fad religious organizations in the United States are prevalent in Hollywood. According to city-data.com, many non-mainstream religions were founded in California during the early twentieth century, “including such organizations as Firebrands for Jesus, the Psychosomatic Institute, the Mystical Order of Melchizedek, the Infinite Science Church, and Nothing Impossible, among many others” (California-Religions). Even though a majority of people who consider themselves among the faithful in California belong to a mainstream religion, most of our attention is drawn to Hollywood establishments like the Church of Scientology or the Los Angeles Kabbalah Center.
Scientology and Kabbalah are among the most well known of the fad religions, due in part to their celebrity congregations and the public efforts made by these stars to validate their faiths and convert the public. Among the faithful in Scientology are famous musicians such as Beck, Isaac Hayes, and Chick Corea. Kabbalah has the support of performers like Mick Jagger, Britney Spears, and Madonna. Because of their celebrity congregations and cult-like status, these two fad religions are often grouped together in debate. However, dogmatically they have very little in common.
The Church of Scientology is a recently established religion founded in 1953. Based on the science fiction novels and philosophic self-help guides of L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology is an attempt to discredit modern day psychology and psychiatry, while offering a unique alternative to them (Davis). In contrast, Kabbalah is an ancient school of thought found within Rabbinic Judaism that has been practiced since circa 100 CE. Kabbalah uses these traditions to better understand some of the mystical aspects of Judaism (SparkNotes). The ideologies of these two faiths are drastically different, but they may have some similarities in the public’s eye. They both seem to be mysterious, somewhat odd or unorthodox, and they operate in a sort of secret society manner. Perhaps it is true that both religions are cult-like, but the “fad” label comes about because of the fashionable Los Angeles socialite and movie star following. Therefore, any critiques that lump Scientology and Kabbalah together in the same category simply because of their celebrity congregations must be examined carefully. This is especially true if a fair examination is to be performed on what it is that the Los Angeles Kabbalah Center’s most famous parishioner is drawn to, both commercially and spiritually.
Commercially, for Madonna to be associated with such an organization gives her the same sort of mysterious characteristics coupled with Kabbalah. As long as Madonna can appear unconventional, bizarre, or be seen associating with the little-known cult, it will only increase her popularity through its mystique. Madonna has the ability to appeal to her fans when parents or the rest of conservative society do not approve of her sometimes-shocking actions. It makes them feel like they belong to a popular yet taboo club. It is similar to the psychological argument that supports the theory that kids can be led into drugs because they are told that they should avoid them by their parents. This use of Kabbalah for its mysterious qualities has continued to keep Madonna in the limelight during recent times.
There is a famous quote by the Irish author and dramatist Brendan Behan, “There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.” Similarly, any marketing representative will claim that remaining in the public’s eye is the key to product longevity and commercial success. Even though Kabbalah may be a lesser-known religion, it is the lack of public knowledge that paradoxically keeps the public chatting. Whether they do not understand it, like it or dislike it, fear it, or analyze it, if the conversation didn’t start on the subject of Madonna, it eventually will switch to her. Even if it is with negative connotations, Madonna gains recognition through the exposure as it adds to her mystique quality.
Being a little-known religion, the only things if any that people may know about Kabbalah practitioners are the little red string bracelets they wear or the special Kabbalah water they drink. And the fact that these religious artifacts may seem strange to the uneducated allows the mystery that coincides with Kabbalah to grow. When Kabbalist celebrities are asked about the red bracelet, they commonly give a short and often obscure reply about an “evil eye.” When Rosie O’Donnell, follower of Kabbalah, performed at the 2008 Night of Too Many Stars: A Benefit for Autism, she gave her explanation of the red string, “It’s to ward off the evil eye.” She even went as far as to jokingly call the faith a “cult,” and questioned whether or not she, Demi Moore, and Lucy Liu were in fact prophets (“Rosie”). Replies such as these, even in jest, further intensify the obscurity of Kabbalah, and contribute to its fad-cult status. So if Kabbalah is to be better understood, the cultural relevance of the water and bracelet must be realized. And the starting point is to uncover the religious significance of these items.
According to Kabbalah, there is a possibility that one could be possessed with an evil eye. On the Kabbalah Center website, there is a quote from the first chapter of the Zohar which explains the evil eye possession: “A person possessed of an evil eye carries with him the eye of the destroying negative force; hence it is called ‘destroyer of the world,’ and people should be on their guard against them” (“Red String”). The implementation of the red string bracelet to ward off the evil eye comes from the story of the Biblical matriarch Rachael, wife of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. Rachael is often referred to as “The Eternal Mother.” After many years of failing to conceive a child, Rachael and Jacob were miraculously able to give birth to their two sons Joseph and Benjamin. Rachael was said to have wept for her children when they were forced to leave their home after the Babylonian exile. She made a promise that God would protect them and allow their safe return to her and to the Holy Land. Over time, it became a tradition to bring charms to the Tomb of Rachael so that they may be blessed with her protection. These charms are said to hold powers to cause fertility or to protect you from death. Followers of Kabbalah have adapted this tradition to make their bracelets.
Red string bracelets that have been wound around Rachel’s Tomb are available for purchase online for $9.99 at israelvisit.com, minimum of two bracelets per order. On the same website, they claim that, “An ancient tradition teaches us that a red string, wound seven times around Rachel’s Tomb, is endowed with mystical powers” (“Mystical Red”). These bracelets are extremely sacred to Kabbalah practitioners. For example, Sony Pictures spent over $100,000 to digitally remove the red string from Ashton Kutcher’s left hand after he refused to remove it while filming the movie Guess Who. For Kutcher’s more recent film The Guardian, he did agree to take off his bracelet after negotiations with the producers. Kutcher was then quoted as saying “I wasn’t happy at first but to remove it digitally is beyond silly” (Gheorghe). And just like the red bracelets popping up around Hollywood, the water that Kabbalists drink is gaining popularity as well.
The Kabbalah water that is distributed by The Kabbalah Center is made through meditation and blessing of ordinary filtered drinking water from Canada. Its significance comes from Kabbalah’s belief that the flood during the time of Noah changed the elemental and molecular structure of water. Before that time, it is believed that water only existed as a peaceful giver of life. On a website designed by the Kabbalah Center to promote the use of their water, they explain, “The negativity of humanity brought about the dual nature of water that had never existed before. Since that time, water has been both creative and destructive, both healing and harmful” (“Kabbalah Water”). The Kabbalah water is blessed so that it may return to its former state and while removing its harmful element. Made and distributed by The Kabbalah Center, followers believe that there is scientific evidence that the blessed water has been elementally altered. The Kabbalistic blessings and meditations “bring about elegant and balanced crystalline structures in water, while negative consciousness has an opposite effect…In a very literal way, Kabbalah Water is life’s original blueprint information brought into the modern world” (“Kabbalah Water”). The water is available as an energy drink, spray perfume, and most popularly as an $8 bottle of drinking water.
Keeping the commercialization of Kabbalah aside, once the cultural relevance of the bracelet and water is understood, their significances could be viewed similarly to the crucifix necklace and sacramental wine of Catholicism. People of all sorts of faiths carry with them relics or symbols that are believed to hold powers of protection. And there are ceremonies found throughout other religions where the consumption of food or drink plays a vital role. With the significance of the bracelet and water explained, it doesn’t sound any more mysterious than other similar religious traditions. However, without any explanation or clarifications, the red string and water only add to the mystique of Kabbalah. The same fans who are drawn to Madonna through the controversial aspects of her performances are also affected by these ceremonial objects. While her following of Kabbalah may be honest and true, Madonna also benefits commercially from what seem like mysterious traditions of the faith. And looking at Madonna’s earlier works shows how her utilization of Kabbalah’s mystique to add to the controversy is just a modification of her previous trends.
In the past, Madonna has expressed her Catholic upbringing by wearing a crucifix during her performance of “Like a Virgin” at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards, by holding rosary beads in photos and videos from the ’80s, and with her Catholic-imagery-filled album Like a Prayer, just to name a few. Though she did consider herself a Catholic at the time, critics argued that Madonna exploited these religious symbols by combining them with taboo topics like sexuality in order to create controversy and draw media attention. While the controversies may press her career forward and increase popularity among her fans, many of these actions have angered the Catholic Church. The video for “Like a Prayer” was condemned by Vatican leaders and called “blasphemous” for the depictions of “burning crosses, statues crying blood and Madonna seducing a black Jesus” (Sanderson). She has even been criticized for using the name Madonna in her early career before it was known that it is her baptismal name. It seems that critics are quick to judge Madonna whenever she touches on the topic of religion. However, the Vatican’s condemnation may have had an adverse effect, and has in fact made her more popular among her devoted fans. Even after leaving Catholicism, Madonna still causes controversy by continuing to use Catholic imagery in her work.
The now infamous crucifixion scene during her Confessions tour was combined with images of starving children in Malawi as an attempt to raise awareness for world hunger relief. In the following quote, Madonna explains the crucifixion scene, and attempts to justify her actions by pointing out her intentions.
My performance is neither anti-Christian, sacrilegious or blasphemous. Rather, it is my plea to the audience to encourage mankind to help one another and to see the world as a unified whole. I believe in my heart that if Jesus were alive today he would be doing the same thing. My specific intent is to bring attention to the millions of children in Africa who are dying every day, and are living without care, without medicine and without hope (“Madonna Explaining”).
However, Madonna’s messages frequently get lost because of all the focus on the shock value of the performance. While Madonna usually has a message to deliver in her work, it seems that the message is not her main concern. Rather it is the commercial success gained from the controversy that takes on a greater importance. Cardinal Ersilio Tonini, former Archbishop and current spokesperson for the Vatican, reacted to the crucifixion event in the Italian newspaper La Stampa: “To crucify yourself in the city of the pope and the martyrs is an act of open hostility. It’s a scandal created on purpose by astute merchants to attract publicity” (Heritage). The Cardinal’s outcry was not unexpected. The producers of the show should have foreseen the controversy. It indicates that Madonna may have been concentrating on the commercial success the controversy would bring to her music and concerts, and the message to raise awareness for world hunger was the justification for the scene. And while Madonna still uses the occasional Catholic image in her work, more recently she has started to add Jewish imagery with Kabbalistic themes.
Madonna first started making references to Kabbalah in her music with her 1998 album Ray of Light. In the videos, there are only subtle references to certain mystical components, but Madonna can be seen wearing the red string around her left hand. However, while the visual components of the Ray of Light videos may be lacking in Kabbalistic references, the lyrics are most definitely inspired by Jewish Mysticism. Throughout the album, Madonna evokes such meteorological events as thunder, lightning, and rain. The mentioning of a “Zephyr in the sky at night” in the title track is a reference to Zephyros, the Greek god of the west wind. Astrological signs, the moon, the sun, and constellations are all used to give the lyrics a mystical component. Even the title, Ray of Light, is a term used by astronomers and astrophysicists to describe how light beacons travel through space. According to Kabbalah, all of these events have different symbolic interpretations and can signify omens of spiritual events to come. Furthermore, Madonna has claimed that Ray of Light is her ode to maternity. This is intriguing when it is rumored that Madonna was first drawn to Kabbalah through the belief in the fertility granting powers of the red string bracelet. It was also around this time when she and newly married husband Guy Ritchie were trying to conceive their first child together.
By 2002, Madonna was no longer hinting at Kabbalistic references in her music, and her videos began to use Jewish themes. In the video for the title theme song to James Bond: Die Another Day, Madonna displays some Jewish and Kabbalistic imagery. The video draws some inspiration directly from the film. James Bond is being held captive in a North Korean prison and is tortured for over a year by his captors. Madonna is depicted in her music video in similar situations as those that appeared in the film. According to Boaz Huss’ critique of “Die Another Day” in Jewish Quarterly Review, the video “shows the Hebrew letters LAV (lamed, aleph, vav) tattooed on Madonna’s arm” (611). These three letters signify the holy name of the Hebrew God. After some controversy, an attempt to explain and justify the use of the name of God was made by Rabbi Yehuda Berg, one of Madonna’s spiritual teachers and son of Philip Berg, founder of the Los Angeles Kabbalah Center.
The “word” on Madonna’s shoulder is not actually a word, but rather one of the names from the 72 Names of G-d. Kabbalah explain that Moses used these names to split the Red Sea, and that we can use them to create miracles in our own lives. Each name draws a particular kind of energy. The name in the “Die Another Day” video is for eliminating the ego (Packwood).
However, Rabbi Berg failed to mention that body modification is forbidden by Hebrew law. Laws such as these are considered to be sacred in particular to traditional Jewish practitioners of Kabbalah. According to an article in Yeshivat Benei N’vi’im Online, Rabbi Ariel Bar Tzadok attacked Madonna for the tattoo image, “Tattooing…is a practice forbidden under Torah Law, all the more so abhorred by the Kabbalah. Granted the tattoo may not be real or only temporary but nonetheless, any expression of performing a forbidden act is itself forbidden and inexcusable” (1).
Later in the “Die Another Day” video, Madonna wraps a leather strap around her left arm. Rabbi Tzadok claims that Madonna used these leather straps “in the exact same format and style as holy tefillin are worn by religious Jewish men” (1). The significance of the tefillin is to remind the wearer that God led the children of Israel out of Egypt. In practice, there are two holy tefillin attached to small boxes containing sacred parchments. One should be wrapped around the arm and the other worn on the head. The verse written on the parchments is taken from the book of Deuteronomy, “And you shall bind them as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes.” However, these verses do not completely explain the use of the tefillin in this manner, nor do they clarify the meaning of the word “totafot.” Rather it is the oral traditions of Rabbinic Judaism that provide the instructions on how the tefillin should be applied. Rabbi Tzadok claims that “Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the famous Ari’zal of 16th century Tzfat and clearly the greatest of all Kabbalists is quoted in numerous references as having taught that a woman’s spiritual path precludes her from wearing tefillin” (2).
In the video’s finale Madonna is strapped into an electric chair with the tefillin. Before her captors can complete the deed, Madonna is able to escape. What is left at the end of the video is a black and white image of the empty electric chair. As the camera zooms in, the audience can see the inscription of LAV carved into the back of the empty electric chair.
The tattoo, the use of the tefillin, and the use of the name of God all caused a stir with leaders of the Jewish faith. Perhaps Madonna was unaware that the video would be seen as so controversial. At the Los Angeles Kabbalah Center, all members regardless of race, sex or prior background are permitted the same rights and privileges when it comes to religious ceremonies and practices. The philosophy of the Kabbalah Center does not coincide with the written laws found in the Torah, nor do they agree with many traditional Kabbalah practices. So there is a possibility that the use of these images was not meant to offend, and Madonna may be ignorant of the traditional Judaic laws which prohibit these actions. However, given Madonna’s history and the background of religious leaders at the Kabbalah Center who mentor her, it is more likely that Madonna is aware of these laws, and she was attempting to make a statement against such prohibitions.
On one hand, there are laws in the Torah that prohibit men from wearing certain clothing or having a particular hair style, and there are some guidelines for both sexes to follow. But on the other hand, there are many more laws which specifically prohibit women from any involvement in certain actions in which men may partake freely. Assuming that Madonna is aware of the differences between the Kabbalah Center and other Judaic organizations, her actions in “Die Another Day” were to signify distaste for traditional Torah laws. But the use of the empty electric chair is a sign that there may be more than just a Kabbalistic theme to the video.
The image of the empty electric chair is shown in a fashion which is very similar to a group of 1963 works by Andy Warhol, most notably Double Silver Disaster. It can be argued that the chair in Madonna’s video is a reference to these works. At the time of debut, people speculated on Warhol’s intentions. Was it a statement against corporal punishment? Was it completely abstract? Or was the chair just used purely for its shock value? Warhol rarely made his intentions completely clear, but the works did spark a conversation on a topic which was not too commonly debated. The works appear today frequently by protesters of capital punishment who use them to make a statement against the death penalty.
At first it seems likely that Madonna’s video is speaking out against some Judaic laws, but the depiction of Madonna being punished for her actions shows a much deeper message. The use of Warhol’s electric chair combined with these scenes of bondage and abuse speak out against imprisonment and torture, as well as criticizing religious laws of forbidding. But, whatever Madonna’s true message may have been, whether to criticize Jewish laws or speak out against capital punishment, the message was lost once again by the critics and rather their focus was on the controversial aspects.
Jewish practitioners of Kabbalah such as Huss and Tzadok only see the use of the tefillin by a woman or the tattooing of the Hebrew name for God on your arm as sacrilegious. Any message or references to Warhol that may have been designed to promote equal rights or criticize capital punishment were lost. It is possible that Madonna’s fans or students studying her work may read articles criticizing these actions. They may learn about the denial of equal opportunities for women in Judaic law, or notice the subtle references. Only then will they begin understand what Madonna might have wanted to say in her video. But these actions are seen as sacrilegious to Judaic leaders or any people who may have the authority to reinterpret the laws. Once again, it seems that Madonna used a legitimate issue as justification for her actions, but her actions nonetheless were more importantly designed to be controversial, and her actions certainly succeeded in that regard.
Perhaps one of Madonna’s most Kabbalah-inspired works is her song “Isaac” from her 2005 album Confessions on a Dance Floor. Isaac is the English translation of the Hebrew name Yitzhak. It was rumored, before the release of the track, that the title of the song was a reference to Yitzhak Luria (1534-72), one of the founders of modern day Kabbalah. This enraged Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Rafael Cohen who was quoted as saying, “Jewish law forbids the use of the name of the holy rabbi for profit. Her act is just simply unacceptable and I can only sympathize for her because of the punishment that she is going to receive from the heavens” (Ugarte). However, Madonna has since claimed that “Isaac” is not a reference to Yitzhak Luria, and in fact the song was named after Yitzhak Sinwani, a Yemenite Jewish singer who performs on the track. It appeared that people were so expectant of Madonna’s intentions to create controversy in her work that the critics were now speaking out before her songs were even released. However, just because the title may not be a reference to the sixteenth century rabbi, the song still has numerous Kabbalistic themes.
The text of the song is Kabbalistic in nature, the video shows some Judaic imagery, but the live performance at Madonna’s Confessions tour was the most expressive. The performance of “Isaac” opens with a shofar solo played by Sinwani. The shofar is a type of horn, commonly made from an antler of the Greater Kudu, a species of North African antelope, in the Jewish tradition. The shofar is played during the celebration of the Jewish services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The sound is used to signify important times during these services such as the beginning and ending periods of fasting. In biblical times, the shofar was used to mark significant astronomical events as the coming of a new moon, and was also used to announce the beginning of a military battle.
The song continues with Sinwani singing lyrics based on a seventeenth century Hebrew poem, “Im Nin’alu.” The translated lyrics are as follows: “What if they were locked, the doors of the generous, the doors on high? What if they were locked?” The music then changes to a dance beat, but the Middle Eastern flavor set by Sinwani’s shofar solo and the chant style of singing remain throughout the song. The lights come up and a woman appears inside a prison wearing clothing similar to a traditional Islamic burqa, a dress designed to hide the flesh of women from head to toe while in public. The woman begins to dance provocatively.
Madonna rises from below the stage and sings, “Staring up into the heavens, in this hell that binds your hands. Will you sacrifice comfort? Make your way in foreign land?” The woman continues to dance while Sinwani sings his chant again.
Madonna then approaches the woman while singing, “All your life has all been a test. You will find the gate that’s open, even though your spirit’s broken.” She gets closer to the imprisoned woman and exclaims, “Open up my heart, and cause my lips to speak. Bring the heaven and the stars down to earth for me.” Then Madonna raises her hands and commands the prison bars to rise over the stage, freeing the dancing woman. The woman then strips herself of her burqa, and she emerges as an Arabic Raqs Sharqi dancer, more commonly known in the west as a belly dancer. The woman is then able to dance freely outside of the cage and all over the stage while Madonna dances with male partners dressed in Israeli garb. Sinwani changes his chant to, “God is alive, elevated upon cherubs. Everybody in his spirit will rise.” Madonna has never given a full explanation of the meaning behind “Isaac.” No spokesperson or member of Madonna’s creative team has ever released their account on the symbolism or imagery in the performance. Therefore, only a speculation can be obtained through one’s own understanding of Kabbalah. The following is my own interpretation.
The imagery that appears on stage has deep significance in the creed of Kabbalah. When Sinwani plays his shofar solo at the song’s opening, it signifies the beginning of a new movement in Madonna’s music. The shofar is used as a reference to its common purpose in Judaic traditions to signify the beginning of important events. It is an announcement that Madonna is now going to combine cryptic messages with dance music in a Middle Eastern style that can only be understood through knowledge of the teachings of Kabbalah.
When Sinwani sings about the doors of the generous being locked, it signifies that there are people who have been denied the gift of God’s love; there are people being held captive in this world by their faith. The text suggests that some have not found true religious enlightenment.
Then Madonna sings to the audience, and tells them that Kabbalah is the tool to achieving freedom and understanding. According to the mystical lessons of Kabbalah, if one studies the alignment of the stars, it can be determined when a messenger from heaven can be brought down to earth to grant freedom to all religious prisoners. It is at this moment when the woman is able to free herself from the faith that binds her by following the mystical knowledge of Kabbalah. While the use of an Islamic woman may seem controversial towards Muslims, it is unlikely that this is a statement against Islamic fundamentalists and their mistreatment of women. Rather it is more likely that the image of the Islamic dancer is used to signify all religious laws which prohibit people from freedoms.
By listening to comments from celebrities such as Kutcher or O’Donnell, learning a little bit of the faith’s traditions, and seeing some of the images in Madonna’s videos, it seems unclear whether or not the cult status of the Kabbalah Center is a fair assessment. Certainly many creeds can seem odd or ridiculous to a practitioner of another faith, but if one can keep an open mind, it may be possible to clarify if the cult status is appropriate.
Dictionary.com defines a cult as “a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader.” The entry continues to give a more generic and non-religious definition as “any system for treating human sickness that originated by a person usually claiming to have sole insight into the nature of disease, and that employs methods regarded as unorthodox or unscientific” (“Cult”). The expensive water and magic bracelets that members are obligated to purchase certainly are red flags, especially since both items are considered to hold powers of protection and healing. But the uses of such religious items are purely dogmatic, and the reasoning of dogma can only be argued by contrasting beliefs from other faiths. An argument against a religion which is based on the philosophy of another is not justification for declaring said religion a cult. Therefore, arguing about a religion’s spiritual practices may not lead to an answer. However, organizations such as the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) may supply some clarification and provide tools to assess a possible cult status.
Founded in 1979, the ICSA is a global network of researchers who study the psychological manipulation of various religious and social groups. Psychologists such as Janja Lalich and Michael D. Langone, who conduct research for ICSA, have designed a list that comprises some possible signs of cultic groups. Parts of the list which mention certain manipulative aspects of the group leader may not pertain to the practices of the Los Angeles Kabbalah Center, but there are other signs which may be relevant.
“Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines)” are seen as a sign by Lalich and Langone. At the Kabbalah Center, the reading aloud of the Torah in Hebrew is attempted by many practitioners who do not speak the language. The idea is that there are cryptic codes and messages in the organizations and in the shapes of the Hebrew letters.
“The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members” also made the list (Lalich and Langone). The investigation into Madonna’s Ray of Light Foundation can be seen as evidence of this characteristic. Even though some of the funds are used for African hunger relief, they often come combined with funding to spread the education of Kabbalah.
The following two items on the list are also of significance to Madonna’s current situation, “Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members,” and, “The most loyal members feel there can be no life outside the context of the group” (Lalich and Langone). Reports in the New York Post and in the English paper the Sun both suggest that Madonna’s increasing devotion to Kabbalah combined with Guy Ritchie’s growing distaste for the religion may have played a major role in their divorce. Recently, Ritchie has publicly announced that he has left Kabbalah. This supports the possibility that Madonna and Guy could not continue to have a relationship without sharing the same spiritual following.
Perhaps the item on ICSA’s list that most applies to the Kabbalah Center is, “The group is preoccupied with making money” (Lalich and Langone). After a brief investigation into the organization’s business practices it may become clearer whether or not labeling the Kabbalah Center a “cult” is a fair assessment. John Sweeney and Mim Udovitch are two reporters who have investigated Kabbalah organizations and made attempts to shed light on their possible cult status.
The British BBC2’s show Sweeney Investigates reported in a documentary that the healing Kabbalah water was actually bottled at CJC, a Canadian bottling company. Sweeney discovered that in the past, CJC had been fined for a failure to obey proper health and safety guidelines. The bottling plant has also supplied water for various other drinking water companies, some who sell the water for as little as $1. Even after this information was revealed to Kabbalah leaders in the film, they continued to claim that the high price is due to the added value after the process of blessing the water. Apparently, even though the water’s source is the same as many other common low-quality store brands, the Kabbalah Center states that the spiritual process gives the water its magical powers and claim it can even be used in the treatment of cancer. Sweeney also discovered a red string gift package sold by the Kabbalah Centre of London for £18.50 had a “Made in China” sticker on it. He was unable to determine if the string was in fact blessed at Rachael’s tomb before being cut up and packaged, or if the bracelet was completely manufactured in China, but the sticker still causes some doubt of the bracelet’s authenticity (Sweeney and Baracaia).
The film shows recorded testimonials of former Kabbalah members claiming that the purchase of numerous packages was a requirement of all acting members. These packages ranged anywhere from £289 for a 23-volume set of the Zohar to an annual £550 for a Kabbalah water package. That’s approximately $520-$990 at the time of filming. The documentary caused many BBC viewers to question the legitimacy of this “non-profit” organization, while the public outcries increased Kabbalah’s cult status in the United Kingdom (Sweeney and Baracaia).
In another investigative report which appeared in Radar magazine, reporter Mim Udovitch examined the Kabbalah Center’s 2000, 2001 and 2003 tax filings. They showed that approximately $60 million for the five non-profit entities is controlled by the Center’s founders Philip and Karen Berg. The Bergs are criticized for operating a tax-free organization while flying “in chartered jets and the private planes of their major donors” (Udovitch). Udovitch also discovered that the Bergs own three mansions in Beverly Hills and a luxury apartment in New York City, all paid for with the Kabbalah Center funds. In no way have the Bergs taken a vow of poverty, but Udovitch points out that it seems unfair to profit so much from vulnerable people in search of spiritual enlightenment. People are very willing to pay top dollar for Kabbalah’s yearly membership fee, and in turn they receive what some would argue to be cheap ordinary products from Canada and China with a claim that they hold magical powers. Even with the knowledge of the Bergs’ mansions and expensive lifestyle, Madonna still continues to make donations to the Center, purchase merchandise, and promotes the use of Kabbalistic products.
At first glance, it seems that something is awry. How can the Bergs make so much money by running a religious organization? In actuality, the high profitability of a religion is not all that unusual, and it is perfectly legal. The Kabbalah Center’s headquarters in Los Angeles is registered with the IRS as a 501c3 non-profit organization. This provision exempts businesses from federal income taxes, and is most common for organizations of a religious, scientific, charitable, or educational nature. Essentially, the only requirement for a 501c3 application from a company that earns more than $10,000 annually is a $750 fee. If the 501c3 status is granted, the company will be denied the ability to start a political campaign, or conduct any activities which will influence a public election, although a 501c3 organization may lawfully lobby Congress to press for legislation (Internal Revenue Service). With this tax filing status, the Kabbalah Center can offer packages for “sale” and use the proceeds to fund Kabbalistic education throughout the world, without paying federal income taxes on any profits made from fees or merchandise.
Some critics claim that the retail price of Kabbalah merchandise is drastically high when compared to the wholesale cost of the items. Others state that the products are falsely marketed as having powers to grant fertility or cure cancer. However, there is no specific law that prohibits the sale of such religious artifacts. Religions commonly use the argument of unconditional faith in such products, rather than scientific proof of their effects, thus nullifying any dispute against them in the eyes of believers.
Even though Kabbalah’s products may not be able to grant special abilities, Madonna can still be seen today having faith in her red string bracelet and drinking her blessed crystalline water. At a recent concert in Ireland, Madonna demanded that 25 cases of Kabbalah water be delivered to her backstage (Walls). It was originally rumored that the pop diva planned on bathing in the expensive water, but it was later revealed that Madonna distributed the water to the more than 100 staff workers backstage in an attempt to persuade potential converts. And like her fellow Kabbalist Kutcher, Madonna does not like taking off her red string bracelet and has rarely been seen without it.
Perhaps Madonna is following a cult religion; the evidence seems to support that fact. It is true that the Los Angeles Kabbalah Center may practice a simplified or obscured version of the mystical studies found within Judaism, and the critique of her Kabbalah-inspired work comes mainly from Jewish leaders of the faith. Even though some of the Kabbalah Center’s practices may seem rather cultic, it still shouldn’t be denied that Madonna holds the practice very dear to her heart, and it influences her personal life as well as her work.
In a 1997 interview with Kurt Loder, Madonna gave some insight into her passion for Kabbalah during her early relationship with the faith. She found understanding and clarity in some of the teachings. Much of the philosophy she was learning seemed to help Madonna cope with difficult times in her life. She seemed as if she had an enlightened religious experience, and she compared the religion to certain aspects of Buddhism. She felt at the time of the interview that she could relate to the Kabbalist idea that, “you absolutely are the master of your destiny….You can’t go around claiming that you are a victim” (“Madonna on Kabbalah”). In interviews which occurred over the next few years, Madonna proclaims her love of Kabbalah and how its wisdom has changed her life. Not only does Kabbalah inspire her music, her performances and her personal life, but also the children’s books she has authored.
In a 2005 interview on the Today Show, Matt Lauer asked about the rumors surrounding her Kabbalah-inspired children’s book series. Madonna did not deny the fact that Kabbalah inspired the books. She claimed that “the only way to enjoy what you have is to share what you have” (“Madonna Today”). She continued to explain that Kabbalah teaches you not to be the owner of what you have, and rather you should see yourself as the manager of your belongings. The themes of her children’s stories are based on this philosophy and other similar lessons found in Kabbalah. These books are obviously much different from the rest of Madonna’s work. They still strike some controversy due to the public’s opinion of Kabbalah, but for the most part these stories were not designed to be controversial. The books are filled with peaceful stories, clever fables and beautiful illustrations with valuable lessons and morals to be learned by children.
The children’s books she has authored may show the lighter side of Madonna’s Kabbalah, and they are a less controversial display of her spirituality. Other times in her career, she has placed significant importance on expressing sexuality or other taboo topics while displaying her spirituality. One of the problems with publicly expressing these issues is that people are easily offended when such private matters are made so public. It is easy to jump to conclusions and see the negativity of such statements, but still Madonna may be to blame. She admits that her career is propelled by controversy. When asked in an interview by Meredith Vieira about the crucifixion scene during her Confessions tour, Madonna stated, “My entire show is a publicity stunt….I am putting on a show to sell my record” (“Dateline”). But just because Madonna commercializes herself does not mean that her work does not contain deep symbolism or intricate references to high art, because her work certainly does. Her performances may be controversial, provocative, and shocking, but it is not simply a blasphemous act against religious faiths for the sake of angering religious leaders, nor is it blatant pornography. The elaborate and creative references show that her work is of a much more complex design than what appears on the surface.
It is no surprise that the references in Madonna’s music can often be misconstrued when they tend to be subtle or can be multifaceted in nature. It is known that she expects controversy, and in fact she invites it. But essentially, much of the controversy arises out of misinterpretations by Madonna’s critics when references and symbolism are overlooked, and she expects her critics to act this way. Perhaps the confusion happens in part to the postmodern approach the writers and directors take when creating Madonna’s videos.
One common characteristic of postmodernism is the use of references to past works of art. Call it pastiche or parody; they both reference prior works in order to create emotions, show polarity or invoke past significances in the art. The references can be complex, deep, and sometimes obscure, but a prior knowledge of the referenced event is needed to understand the art. Another characteristic of postmodernism which relates to the use of subtle references is that things may not actually be what they seem to be. There can be bipolarity, purposefully created role reversals, or symbolic masks placed on art to show a realistic aspect of duplicitous human life. Madonna and her creative team use these features from postmodernism interchangeably in her work.
On the surface it seems that the video for “Die Another Day” is simply about Kabbalah, or is an outcry against Torah laws. This is why her critics are quick to judge and shun her for the controversial acts such as wearing the tefillin or displaying the tattoo. In this video, Madonna’s spirituality is the mask, but closer examination of Madonna’s work can reveal another layer. The video can be viewed as statement against imprisonment, torture and bondage while using these religious images and Warhol’s work as references.
This trend can also be seen Madonna’s videos that do not have Kabbalistic imagery. For example, things are not exactly what they seem in Madonna’s video for “Material Girl.” The lyrics suggest that Madonna is only concerned with money, commercialism, and diamonds. But the situations that take place in the video and the reference to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes say otherwise. If the audience is not familiar with thematic material in Howard Hawks’ film, and the polarity and role reversals of Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe’s characters, they will not fully understand the message conveyed in Madonna’s video “Material Girl.”
These multifaceted themes and artistic references appear in all of Madonna’s work, and it is common that her sexuality or spirituality is what the audience sees on the surface. What is underneath the top layer of these visual components can sometimes be difficult to determine. Madonna’s work encompasses many facets from history, art, theology, or pop culture. The viewer must have some pre-existing knowledge about the images and symbolisms they are seeing in order to fully understand the artistic statement being made. Kabbalah, while it may be her current spiritual guide, is also a new reference used in her work. Aspects from her personal life or art movements that she feels particularly drawn to will frequently become the subject matter for her music. It is true that Madonna’s music can sometimes be provocative and controversial, but her work always demands close attention, and the audience needs to be knowledgeable of all art forms and educated in worldly cultures.
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The author would like to thank Jennifer Jones-Wilson, the BLSCI writing fellow for MSC 4900, for reading and commenting on earlier versions of this paper. And thank you to Professor Tomasello for his insightful lectures and guidance throughout the course.