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A Jewish Madonna? Is that a mystery?
Updated: 2004-06-18 11:38

So on the one hand, she wears a Jewish star, says she attends synagogue, performs with a version of the prayer accessory known as tefillin and with Hebrew letters flashing across a screen, and has let it be known that she won't have concerts on the Jewish Sabbath.

Madonna in her music video "Die Another Day." [file photo]
But on the other hand, Madonna is not Jewish. And her name is the least of the problem, although she appears to be addressing that issue as well. In an ABC interview that will be broadcast tonight, she says she has taken on the Hebrew name Esther. But Liz Rosenberg, her spokeswoman, denied that she was dropping the name Madonna. "Sometimes people have their secret name, a dream name," said Ms. Rosenberg, adding: "If someone calls her Esther she wouldn't turn around."

Given this apparent contradiction, what then, Talmudic dialectic aside, is one to make of Madonna and her infatuation with Judaism, which is on brassy display in her current traveling show, the "Re-Invention World Tour"? Its opening on the West Coast in May was described by Kelefa Sanneh in The New York Times as "a dense, dizzying, often incoherent, sometimes exhilarating night." The show began a six-night stand at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday and continues on Sunday.

For one thing, Madonna is just the latest in a great tradition of stars who have been beguiled by Judaism. For Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, marriage may have been the motive, to Eddie Fisher and Arthur Miller, respectively. But for Sammy Davis Jr. it was not. In the case of Madonna, who was born Roman Catholic, her fascination with Jewish images flows mostly out of her attraction to something that she calls cabala but that many dismiss as a distillation of New Age notions about the genuine cabala.

Cabala, which means "that which is received," is a name for the arcane works of Jewish mysticism that were first set down in the Middle Ages and collected in 13th-century Spain. Its theoretical content is regarded as profound, if esoteric, but its practical applications border on the magical. Even very observant Jews seldom dip in.

Of course, Madonna's appropriations make a hash of Judaism, of whatever flavor, as well as cabala. In cabala, Hebrew letters are said to have enormous power, with some writers believing that God created the universe out of the energy in words and that words contain the secrets of creation. According to one of her cabala advisers, Michael Berg, the Hebrew letters Madonna displays, lamed, aleph, vov — roughly equivalent to L, A, V — form one of the 72 names of God and denote a diminishing of the ego to connect with joy and fulfillment. But an observant Jew would never flash a name of God across the screen in so frivolous a forum as a rock concert, nor imprint the letters as tattoos, as Madonna sometimes does, since tattoos are regarded as pagan.

Madonna wore tefillin in a music video of "Die Another Day." Mr. Berg said that donning tefillin — the sacred assemblage of leather boxes and straps worn during weekday morning prayer — represents diminution of the desire to receive and a strengthening of the desire to share. But for a woman to don tefillin is still not a common practice, and for a gentile to wear tefillin might be regarded by some Jews as sacrilege.

For some Jews, even Orthodox Jews, cabala is something reserved for over-40 male scholars who have mastered Torah and Talmud. The Kabbalah Centre, a 50-branch organization whose beliefs Madonna adheres to, essentially takes cabala out of Judaism and preaches that its teaching should be available to everyone.

"If this wisdom is powerful, why would the Creator not want everybody to have access to it?" Mr. Berg asked.

But Dr. Arthur Green, professor of Jewish thought at Brandeis University, said: "This contemporary pop cabala is superficial in the sense that it doesn't require real Hebrew learning. You can meditate on a single letter without knowing what it means."

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