Madonna the mystic?
by: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach - Last updated: 2003-10-06
Madonna wearing tefillin
So Madonna has written a children's book, The English Roses, which is based on the Kabbalah and features as its lead character a girl named Binah. Should the Jewish community be proud?
After all, here we are, a little backwater religion, with one of the world's most famous faces highlighting our ancient mystical tradition. Should we not embrace her as our saviour and princess, the woman who renounced Catholicism in favour of Judaism? The woman who helped make Judaism sexy?
No. And here's why. The fact that Judaism is becoming increasingly dependent on depraved pop cultural icons to make it appeal to the masses is a sign of desperation rather than achievement, failure rather than success.
Religions have staked claims to authenticity for millennia, and it is a fool's game to debate the legitimacy of one over another. But the overriding characteristic that has distinguished Judaism from every other world faith and made us Jews justly proud is its demands for moral excellence. For centuries you could be the pope of the Catholics and still father bastards and call for the slaughter of Jews and Muslims. As recently as 60 years ago a pope watched six million Jews die and never once condemned it.
Likewise for many Muslims today there seems to be an inversely proportional relationship between religious zealotry and simple humanity, such that the more you claim to love God the more you seek to blow up His children.
Not so Judaism, which cries out that the only true test of religious piety is where the end result is human decency. The discerning characteristic of an authentic as opposed to a counterfeit faith is outstanding moral virtue.
How different are the portrayals of the founder of our faith, Abraham, from the founder of the Christian faith, Jesus. The latter is ascribed countless miracles and divine qualities. Abraham, however, does not perform a single supernatural feat in the whole of Genesis. Rather, he is portrayed as a caterer who sits outside his tent awaiting hungry wayfarers and a man who even after victory over kings refuses to take any kind of loot or booty.
In short, he is a not a god-man, but a good man, not a saint with celestial power but a human being of outstanding moral courage.
Likewise, the Bible only once gives a description of Moses' personal character. He is described not as the most commanding, nor even the wisest, but rather as the "humblest man who walked the earth."
Proximity to God breeds a distinct humility. Fakers garbed in religious robes but as distant from God as Pluto is from the sun exhibit an arrogance and a judgmentalism that has become all too common in modern-day faith.
Islam today has lost its direction because it has lost its heart. Judaism dare not make the same error by losing its moral compass, by failing to inspire in its representatives, or to demand of its adherents, a passion for moral rectitude and ethical greatness.
Madonna has been studying Kabbalah now for a good many years. The same woman who helped debase the dignity of women everywhere with her mainstreaming of sado-masochism, who helped launch a decade of decadence and misogyny with her music videos, and who in her 1992 book Sex bared every region of her body for money and publicity is now a devoted student of the most sacred mystical texts in Judaism.
Has it made her into a better person? Has she ceased her contemptible portrayal of women as the lecherous man's plaything? Was an ennoblement of character in evidence in the recent MTV music awards, where the publicity-famished star "swapped spit" with Britney Spears, while millions of teenage girls looked on? (She defended her coarse performance as "the kind of kiss you would give your sister," thereby insulting our intelligence as well as our morals.)
And what of her most recent film, Swept Away, which itself was swept away by critics who described its embarrassing amalgam of "vulgarity, nudity, adult situations, sex, bad taste, bad acting, bad judgment."
Here was Madonna at 44, years into her Kabbalistic journey, proving, in the words of an on-line reviewer, "that she is still willing to strip for the cameras with a couple of peeks at her breasts and her bottom."
Kabbalah argues for the spiritual supremacy of women over men, for feminine transcendence over masculine imminence, and feminine radiance over masculine expedience. Yet Madonna has spent her career dishonouring women, portraying them as chunks of meat bereft of personalities or even souls. She set back the cause of female recording artists by a generation by showing, a full 50 years after the feminist revolution, that a woman cannot sell a record unless she takes off her bra.
Just look at Madonna's sleazy imitations, and Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera for confirmation. One's heart goes out to three desperate women reduced to outrageous antics because they have no real talent. Somehow I don't remember the Beatles having to run around in thongs with guitars in order to sell out a stadium.
It is no secret that I spent two years in close friendship with Michael Jackson which I now regard as one of the great mistakes of my life. To be sure, we worked together toward the noble goal of parents prioritizing their children. I also took him to meet Ariel Sharon at a time when Israel needed all the friends it could get. And, truth be told, there is much good in Michael, including a soft heart and a meek spirit.
But my embarrassment comes from my insecurity in believing that I needed a celebrity pairing in order to be an effective exponent of Judaism, and that the Jewish faith needed a celebrity spokesman in order to garner mainstream credibility.
Like many others who make the similar mistake of thinking that "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" and thus try and wed vulgar popular culture with the spiritual enormity of Judaism, I did not realize the serious dilution of Judaism's monotheistic message that would result from being twinned with a culture which promotes human beings as gods.
I have since learned from my mistake and two years ago declined Michael's kind invitation to me and my family to attend his 35th anniversary concert in his special friend's box. I told my children at the time that I wanted them to understand that no man but God is the real Thriller.
I was taught as a child that there is no greater privilege than for one's actions to add to God's grandeur, and there is no greater failure than to diminish His glory. When I have made mistakes in my life I have been pained not only by the personal consequences of my actions but especially by the fact that as a rabbi and a Jew I diminished a great religion.
Madonna has taken the Zohar - "the book of luminosity" - and made it dark. While Judaism will always flourish with spiritual seekers, it will founder with publicity-seekers.
God promised Abraham that his children would be "like the stars of the heaven," not the stars of the silver screen. The stars of heaven give light amid an all-encompassing darkness, and, indeed, the Jewish nation has retained its righteousness in a dark and cruel world.
But movie stars are counterfeit constellations, artificially illuminated fakes set in a world of make believe.
Far from aggrandising Kabbalah, Madonna's practice of it sends the message that one can be mystical without being spiritual, and one can claim to be holy while having lost all dignity.
Sounds pretty fake to me.