Madonna’s visit to Israel last week, as part of a High Holidays pilgrimage organized by the Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre, was greeted here with an enthusiasm deeper than mere excitement at the presence of a pop superstar. Israelis were understandably grateful to her for showing solidarity with their besieged country and for defying the fear of terrorism that has kept so many tourists away. Her very presence reminded Israelis that they still had friends around the world.
However reassuring, Madonna’s embrace should be treated by Jews warily. The source of her Jewish connection, the Kabbalah Centre, has been repudiated by the mainstream Jewish community for its alleged cult-like behavior. Accusations against the Centre (the pompous spelling is theirs) include exploiting volunteers, breaking up marriages when one partner opposes involvement in the group, and even instructing one terminally ill L.A. man to cure himself by filling his swimming pool with water “blessed” by the Centre’s leaders. (In fact, the Kabbalah Cafe in the Centre’s L.A. headquarters has a sign that reassures patrons that all coffee and tea sold there is made with this water.)
The mainstream Jewish community is so wary of the Centre -- which claims to have influenced about 3 million people, including Mick Jagger and Britney Spears -- that the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has excluded it from a listing of local Jewish organizations.
But no less disturbing for religious Jews than the Centre’s alleged abuses is its doctrinal distortion of cabala, the ancient mystical tradition revered as the inner sanctum of Judaic devotion and thought.
In traditional cabalistic schools, the 72 Hebrew names of God form the basis for arduous meditations and ascetic practices. In the mechanistic world of the Kabbalah Centre, though, merely glancing at the letters is said to infuse a devotee with their healing and invigorating power. Similarly, the Centre insists that scanning the text of the Zohar, the seminal 13th century cabalistic commentary on the Bible, offers divine protection. You don’t have to understand what you’re reading; in fact, you don’t even need to know how to read the Hebrew letters to absorb their magical properties.
You can even call the Centre for a consultation with a “72-name” specialist to find the name best suited to your needs. Perhaps this is how Madonna chose her Hebrew name Esther -- said to have been derived from the word for star.
And you can buy scented candles at the gift shop for relaxation and better sex.
Whereas cabala’s goal is to transcend this world, the Centre’s goal is to master it. In place of God’s will, the Centre offers a set of “scientific” principles that, when properly implemented, will ensure total human control over creation. According to the Centre, all illness is self-induced, our failure to draw “the light.” Accessing the light through the divine names will eliminate “chaos,” the Centre’s term for all that is wrong with the world. The Centre goes even further, claiming that meditation on the Hebrew letters, which Jewish mysticism calls the building blocks of creation, can actually alter one’s DNA structure to regenerate cells, heal illness and induce longevity.
From that premise, it’s a short leap to the Centre’s most outrageous claim: that its leaders are well on their way to uncovering the secret of physical immortality. True, all of the world’s great faiths, including Judaism, teach belief in eternal life. But that faith focuses on the immortal soul, not the transient body. With its body-centered theology, the Centre co-opts spirituality for its opposite intent.
We live in a remarkable era, in which the spiritual riches of various faiths, once restricted to their own believers, are now accessible to outsiders. Arguably for the first time in history, we can study and even experience something of the devotional life of another faith. With its openness to non-Jews, the Centre could have performed an important role in this process of spiritual exchange. But its profound corruption of Jewish mysticism negates any potential contribution.
Some Jews argue that Madonna’s endorsement of Jewish mysticism helps make Judaism attractive to alienated young Jews. Yet Jews need to protect the integrity of their tradition. No matter what the short-term benefits, Jews should shun the Kabbalah Centre and those who promote it. Distorting Judaism is not good for the Jews. For centuries, cabalists vehemently guarded their secrets, wary of popularization. With the emergence of the Kabbalah Centre, we now know why.