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This blog is dedicated to the exploration of mystical wisdom and life experience. It seeks to penetrate beyond the shadows and surfaces of our physical reality to discover vistas of unfathomable depth, beauty and meaning. These mystical realms are closer than you might imagine, for they exist in every multifold aspect of the observed empiricial world, as they do within the consciousness of the observer. In the infinite silence and contracted light, within the ethereal mirage of every passing moment, the eternal search begins and ends...

Thursday, 20 September 2007

In Support of a Material Girl

This Rosh Hashanah occasioned a visit to Israel by Madonna, accompanied by an entourage of colourful Hollywood figures like Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Roseanne Barr and Donna Karan along with 3000 adherents of the Kabbalah Center worldwide.
The event received due coverage in the media, particularly of the meeting between the pop icon and President Shimon Peres, where the former presented the latter with a copy of the Zohar. In return, the Material Girl was given a leather-bound copy of the Tanach (Bible).
Also prominently discussed in the media were some critical remarks made by certain rabbis who teach kabbalah within the restraints of halachic orthodoxy. One rabbi, who refused to utter the name of the diva-in-question from his lips, explained how the Hollywood fascination with kabbalah only proved how the kelipot, the “husks of evil”, are attracted to the holiness of the Torah’s hidden wisdom.
Rabbi David Batzri, head of the kabbalistic Shalom Yeshiva was more circumspect in simply calling attention to the halachic injunctions forbidding the teaching of kabbalah not only to non-Jews but also to Jews who have not met the prescribed requirements (married, over 40, with full knowledge of Talmud and legal codes).
These two responses, to imply that Madonna is from the “husks of evil” or to suggest that she is forbidden to study kabbalah in the first place, are valid and appropriate from the perspective of Orthodox Judaism, which tends to see the real world through the lens of duality: kosher/treif; holy/profane; muttar (allowed)/assur (prohibited); Jew/gentile. From that viewpoint, there is no doubt that teaching the sacred Torah to the stars from “that place of iniquity and lasciviousness” must be condemned.
Is that, however, the only possible perspective to maintain?
From a mystical viewpoint, we are taught, for example, that in the times of the Messiah, human consciousness will change in a number of ways:
1. We will then see as good all that we formerly thought of as bad.
2. The secret wisdom of Torah and spiritual knowledge in general will be widespread in the world
3. The realisation of Divine Oneness will promulgate
4. The Jews, and the Land of Israel in particular, will be a “light unto the nations”
5. The “wolf will lie with the lamb”, which means, according to Rashi, former enemies become friends and allies
Let us then look at the Madonna story in a wider context. Arguably the most renowned, successful pop- celebrity, she finds solace nearly a decade ago in the teachings of kabbalah. From producing films like In Bed with Madonna, she progresses to writing children’s books promoting spiritual and ethical values. Though many detractors initially mocked her declaration of faith in Jewish mysticism as a passing fad, it seems to have withstood the test of time to the point that finds her standing before the President of Israel proclaiming to be “a friend of the Jewish people.”
What if-- theoretically, of course-- Madonna was not just a kelipa, a “shell” from the husks of evil? What is she were just a person, a human being like all of us, with a good side and a bad? And what if she is being honest when she says that kabbalah has imbued meaning in her life? If you entertain these possibilities to be true, the result is nothing less than messianic. The “bad” girl who once waved the banner of licentiousness now becomes the “good” girl unfurling the emblem of Divine Unity. Through her, a large number of people, in the midst of a turbulent, fragmented world, are gaining insight into life’s inner meaning through Jewish esoteric sources. Even if one contends that it may be an adulterated and slickly packaged version for New Age markets, some of the core message apparently sifts through (trusting, as we are, in Madonna’s intelligence and integrity).
In this Age of Information Madonna cannot be blamed for revealing this Hidden Wisdom. Since the 70’s publications on kabbalah, many of them from orthodox publishers and some translated into English, abound. There are hundreds of websites on the subject as well. Nor can she be faulted if the version of kabbalah offered by The Kabbalah Centre is less than complete or authentic, as some decry. Since the orthodox world is so deliberately reticent on this matter, the Kabbalah Centre has been most successful in stepping into the vacuum and marketing this ancient wisdom to a new, broader audience. Apart from the point-blank “no”, is this the best answer that Orthodox Judaism can give to seekers of spirituality, whether Jewish or not, eager to tap the wellsprings of Jewish wisdom?
As to the most pertinent, yet unspoken, point of contention, Madonna’s flaunting of her sexuality onstage contradicts the ascetic moral values of traditional kabbalah. Before I retell a personal story in that regard, let me retell an even older one. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, the 18th century Hasidic master, was known for seeing only the good in all people and events. Once he was walking home from synagogue with his shammos (beadle) in the morning, when they both spotted a wagon-driver who was greasing the wheels of his wagon. As they approached him, they realised that the driver, who had not gone to synagogue, was wearing tefillin (phylacteries) and davening (praying). The shammos, aghast at this disrespect, said, “Look at that! He’s greasing a wagon wheel while davening!”
“Yes, that is amazing,” Reb Levi Yitzhak replied, “he is even able to daven while greasing a wagon wheel!”
Years ago when Madonna first came out with the music video of herself wearing a very provocative outfit adorned with tefillin (the latter nullifying, for me at least, any potential seduction in the former), a friend remarked to me, “How can it be that someone who dresses like that is studying kabbalah?”
Similar to the story above, I answered: “Isn’t it amazing that someone who dresses like that is studying kabbalah?”
My point here is not to compare the “sin” of sexual immodesty with the “sin” of disrespect during prayers (nor to compare that both Madonna and the wagon-driver were wearing tefillin!) but rather to show that everything can be viewed in different contexts; and though the rabbis quoted in the JP article were unable to see it, there is a favourable context in which to see the Madonna story. (Of course, since the rabbis can neither look at Madonna nor utter her name, I concede that this wider context will be easily missed.)
Nonetheless, though the rabbis can be excused for their inability to adequately interpret the popular resurgence of kabbalah in this broader context, there is a foundational concept of Torah that I believe demands that they at least try to do so. That concept is known as Derech Eretz (“the way of the earth”) and refers to our ability to interact with the real world in a display of “proper conduct.” Derech Eretz is said to be both a prerequisite of Torah study and also a consequence of it. My rosh yeshiva (academy head) used to refer to it as the unwritten “fifth book” of the Shulchan Aruch known as “common sense”. For example, although halacha forbids physical contact between the sexes, if a woman falls and slips on the ice (this actually happened right in front of our yeshiva one winter in Tsfat), common sense only dictates that a man should give her a helping hand. This is not written explicitly into Jewish law, but someone who is too “pious” to assist this woman would be deemed a “chasid shoteh”, (“a pious imbecile”).
We live in a time period where Israel and the Jewish people face enmity not only from Arabs in the Middle East but a worldwide campaign to delegitimise the Jewish state. This political smear campaign is frequently accompanied by heinous remarks against the Jewish religion, looked at as a tribal, patriarchal and ethnocentric throwback. It is no small matter to have the hip Queen of Pop publicly proclaim her infatuation with Jewish spirituality and the Jewish people. Her trips to Israel, in contrast to so many pro-Palestinian Hollywood liberals, make millions of people think twice about the negative press that Israel invariably receives. After all, if Madonna raves about her visits there, how can it really be the “apartheid state” described by the left-wing media? To me, common sense dictates that when a person displays such philosemitic enthusiasm as Madonna does, she should be encouraged rather than branded a “kelipah”.
An important facet of derech eretz is gratitude. In fact, the name yehudi (Jewish) is rooted in the word “modeh” (“to be thankful”). The very essence of what it means to be Jewish is the acknowledgment of gratitude to one who bestows a favor. Madonna’s continued practice of kabbalah, at whatever level, and her support of Israel certainly merit that gratitude rather than the rabbinic scorn that is heaped upon her. Perhaps it is time for the rabbinate to acknowledge the thirst for spiritual knowledge that currently pervades the planet, and for the kabbalists amongst them to assist in guiding the general public in accessing Jewish mysticism from authentic and relevant sources. The current approach of point-blank “no” will not stop the tide of spirituality and will only increase suspicion against such an insular, negative relgious stance.

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