Catholic Madonna learns an old Jewish secret

John Carlin reports on the appeal of Kabbala, the latest mystical tradition to fascinate America's soul-starved rich
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The Independent Online
THE HOTTEST, newest trend in Hollywood these days is dark, profound, inscrutable and more than 800 years old. But Madonna is into it, and where the maternal girl goes others follow.

Kabbala is the name. Inner peace (what else?) is the game. An occult mystical tradition that has its roots in 12th- century Judaism, Kabbala planted its seed in Madonna's consciousness a year and a half ago, shortly before the birth of her baby daughter, Lourdes.

Kabbala blossomed, generating thousands of new American devotees, after Madonna organised a big gathering last September to preach her new gospel. She told guests that although she had been brought up a Catholic, nothing in the teachings of Rome had moved her spirit like the lessons of Kabbala, nothing had impressed more clearly upon her the virtue of taking responsibility for her own life.

The message appears to have resonated powerfully among the soul-starved celeb classes. Among those who have been flocking to the Kabbala Learning Centre in Los Angeles, where Madonna goes for spiritual nourishment twice a week, are Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand, Courtney Love, Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern and, according to unconfirmed reports, Dolly Parton.

A 12-week course at KLC, as initiates call it, costs a trifling $151 (pounds 110), but opportunities to spend more abound. As California's Jewish Bulletin reports, KLC's fees do not cover books, "spiritual paraphernalia" and other expenditure that, among truly committed Kabbalists, can run into the thousands.

One man who has been cashing in on the Kabbala boom is Rabbi Eytan Yardeni, the head teacher at KLC and, by the grace of the Above, Madonna's private spiritual tutor. During the last month of her pregnancy she sought the young Israeli's advice as to the best date to deliver. He suggested New Moon day, Rosh Hodesh, and, lo, it was upon that very day that the child was born - by Caesarean section.

Kabbala, which stresses the inter- relation between Man, God and Nature, aspires to bring followers closer to the Divine Light and, by so doing, to help them achieve the inner balance required to keep the hurly-burly, the confusion and chaos, of terrestrial existence at bay. Rabbis skilled in the ways of Kabbala talk of "positive and negative angels". Some tend to a belief in reincarnation.

According to Zohar, the 12th-century manuscript where Kabbala first appears, its secrets should only be imparted to married men over the age of 40. Contemporary Kabbala teachers have stretched the definition to include men and women over 30, and marriage is no longer a prerequisite.

Not all Jewish leaders believe that popularising Kabbala is a good idea. Some rabbis feel that a venerable tradition has been reduced to yet another New Age fad. They say that a meditative ritual designed to come as the culmination of years of immersion in Judaic scripture has been transformed into a quick-fix technique to help pampered Americans cope with the banalities of everyday life. Critics are also unhappy at what appears to be a trend to expand the practice of Kabbala beyond the sphere of private contemplation into something resembling the mass worship and vulgar self-exposure favoured by Christian evangelicals.

Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man of the Metivta Jewish Studies Centre in Los Angeles describes the new Kabbala trend as "a synagogue gimmick", as a social, more than a religious, phenomenon inspired by end-of-millennium anxiety.

But others think it is cool that Madonna, who apparently has no intention of converting to Judaism, should have chosen to jump on the Kabbala bandwagon. Yosef Abramowitz, author of a popular internet column called Jewish Family and Life, has convinced himself that here is evidence, no matter what she may say, that she has already shed Catholicism's chains.

As if addressing himself directly to Madonna, Mr Abramowitz wrote in a recent column, "You have all the elements of being a good Jew and a great Jewish mother". To wit, she is a vegetarian, she gives to the poor and speaks out against society's shortcomings. More compellingly, perhaps, Mr Abram-owitz argues that Madonna has been zealous in her obedience to the Jewish instruction "to delight in sex and to satisfy our partners". In practice, he believes, "You have rejected Christianity's puritanical linking of sin and sexuality."

Yes, indeed. We may all, Gentile and Jew, say Amen to that.