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Pop Stars and Pop Spirituality — It Goes Back to the 13th Century

Lawrence Bush
April 1, 2005

“I got a lawyer and a manager
An agent and a chef
Three nannies, an assistant
And a driver and a jet
A trainer and a butler
And a bodyguard or five
A gardener and a stylist
Do you think I’m satisfied?
“I’d like to express my extreme point-of-view
I’m not a Christian and I’m not a Jew
I’m just living out the American dream
And I just realized that nothing is what it seems.”
—Madonna, “American Life”

by Lawrence Bush

I’ve never considered Madonna to be a great musician or vocalist, but she’s an audacious song-writer and stage performer and has been a dynamo as a cultural force, setting in motion the belly-baring, in-your-face sexuality of the current generation of young women. While a legion of imitators — the Spice Girls, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and numerous others — have mostly steered Madonna’s legacy towards pap or porn, her own linking of female sexuality to power and autonomy was stunning and liberating.
As nearly everyone knows, Madonna is now involved with kabbalah — Jewish mysticism — as taught by the Kabbalah Centre, an international and, some say, cult-like operation run by the family of its founder, Philip Berg, a former insurance salesman. Madonna has adopted the name “Esther,” wears a red string “protective” bracelet, does not perform on shabbes, and uses kabbalistic motifs as stage dressing at her concerts. She has been involved with the Kabbalah Centre for seven years, giving them kaboodles of money, and has visited the graves of mystical rabbis in Israel. She has even landed on the Forward’s list of the year’s fifty most influential Jews (Madonna, a non-Jew, was number 51).
And she’s under attack, from many Jewish quarters, for “cheapening” kabbalah. Peter Anik of the Jewish Community Federation of Louisville, Kentucky has charged her (in the Louisville Courier-Journal) with “misrepresenting Judaism. It’s a real watered-down distortion; a trendy, new-agey magic thing. The whole thing is nuts.” Rabbinic authorities in South Africa have issued decrees of condemnation against the Kabbalah Centre, as have rabbinical councils in Toronto and New York. “The Kabbalah Centre,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Alderstein of Loyola Law School (in January’s Hadassah magazine), “takes kabbalah wisdom and pretties it up with phrasing and mixes it with nonsense.” Their teachings represent “the McDonaldization of the kabbalah,” says Dr. Boaz Huss of Ben-Gurion University (in Ha’-aretz). “The center is part of a larger international trend in the Western world which integrates spiritualism [sic] and capitalist-style merchandising.”
Now, I’m not about to carry on about freedom of religion for pop stars or to rush to the defense of the Kabbalah Centre — which, from some descriptions, does seem to be exploitative towards its “true believers” and nonsensical in its teachings. What irks me about the reaction to Madonna’s mysticism, however, is the stuffiness and irritability of those rabbis, scholars and latter-day mystics who view the kabbalah and especially its central text, the Zohar (the “Book of Splendor”), as far, far worthier of serious attention than the folk magic and superstitious dabblings of the Kabbalah Centre. Why are they complaining, when the “cheapening” of religion into magic has been a trait of Jewish mysticism throughout the ages?
I assert this cautiously, for I am not the kind of atheist who arrogantly dismisses as foolishness all religious faith or scholarship. Clearly, there are important Jewish intellectuals today who are entranced by the kabbalistic tradition and have devoted years towards making it accessible to the likes of me. Gershom Scholem, of course, was the first modern scholar to do so through his extensive research and analysis (in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 1941, and other books and articles). Now Daniel Matt has completed two volumes of English translation (from the original Aramaic) of the Zohar, with an academic committee of supporters that includes heavy hitters from major universities in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Chicago, and New York. A companion volume, A Guide to the Zohar (Stanford University Press, 2004), has been written by Rabbi Arthur Green, an important expert on Jewish mysticism and a fluid, lively writer. This is not a cast of characters to be dismissed as kooks, charlatans or boring academics.
So I guess it’s my obtuseness. I dip into the Zohar and don’t really get why grown men and women, in an age of immense scientific knowledge and immense social and ethical challenge, would devote so many waking hours to the wild, vague, and often contradictory speculations of 13th-century rabbis.
Then again, I also don’t really get why Madonna earns more than seven million listings when I look up her name on an Internet search engine.
Kabbalah (which means “tradition” or “that which is received”) was essentially a product of the Middle Ages, when the Jews of Spain and Provence (southeastern France), living under the shadow of both Islam and Christianity, developed some highly esoteric interpretations of the stories and imagery of the Bible. Their work, rooted in Talmudic midrash and deeply informed by traditional Jewish thought, was in large part a conservative reaction to the influence of Moses Maimonides, who had popularized a rationalistic and philosophical approach to Judaism in his Guide for the Perplexed (1232). As Arthur Green tells it, Maimonides, a towering figure in Jewish thought, “insisted on divine perfection, on the unchanging, all-knowing, all-capable quality of God. . . . Why then would such a God care about performance of the commandments?” The “disinterest in human affairs” of Maimonides’ God, Green continues, frightened the mystics into going public with their esoteric teachings — which, like most mysticism, emphasized God’s nearness and accessibility.
Why do I call this a “conservative reaction” to Maimonides’ rationalism? Because by positing an unknowable, “distant” God, whose existence could be “proved” by rational argument but whose features were beyond human ken, Maimonides unwittingly opened the door to the eventual growth of biblical criticism and secular humanism. The kabbalists, by contrast, kept God very much in the picture — and therefore kept human beings enthralled to religious practice and religious authority.
Kabbalistic teachings were eventually codified in the Zohar, an extensive 13th-century Bible commentary (Daniel Matt’s translation and commentary will extend to ten volumes). The Zohar was written by Rabbi Moses De Leon (and associates), but he claimed it to be an ancient manuscript written by Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, a 2nd-century student of Rabbi Akiva. According to the Talmud, Rabbi Shimon had denounced Roman rule in Jerusalem and been forced into exile in a cave for a total of thirteen years, during which time — according to the kabbalists — he uncovered mystical truths and systematized them by writing the Zohar. The narrative of the Zohar is cast primarily in Rabbi Shimon’s voice, with other Talmudic rabbis chiming in.
Central to the Zohar’s quest to make God accessible through prayer, mitzvot, and other human activities is the concept of the sefirot. These ten “emanations” or “faces of God” supposedly form the fundamental structure of the material and spiritual universes. The kabbalah elaborately maps this metaphysical structure, assigning character traits, colors, numbers, biblical personae, natural elements, festival days, human body parts, and heavenly bodies, too, to each sefirah. Obviously, this is a system rich in metaphors and associations, and students of the kabbalah could wander in its fantasies and thrill to its patterns of meaning for years.
They did so especially following the expulsion in the 1490s from Spain and Portugal, right on through to the massacre of 100,000 Jews by Cossacks during the Chmielnicki uprising of 1648 and to the 17th-century messianic movement of Shabbetai Zvi, who mobilized Jewish mystical faith and fervor all around the world until he was forcibly converted to Islam in 1666. This was the period of kabbalah’s greatest ascendancy — two hundred years of political helplessness, exile, mass slaughter and mass delusion for the Jewish people.
Scholars like Gershom Scholem have drawn links between these awful historical events and the embrace of the escapism of kabbalah. Others emphasize not the escapism but the effort by kabbalists to preserve Judaism and Jewish practice from the anti-Jewish polemics and the powerful political and religious attraction of both Christianity and Islam. Many historical critics of the kabbalah have been especially disturbed, in fact, by resemblances they see between the sefirot and the Christian Trinity, and between the kabbalistic Shekhinah — the feminine, intimate face of God — and the Virgin Mary. The late contemporary Israeli theologian Yesha-yahu Leibowitz summed up such criticisms of kabbalah by calling it simply “another name for idolatry” (Contemporary Religious Thought, 1987), similar to “the covert idolatry of Christianity,” in which “God takes the form of a man.”
From an historical perspective, perhaps we can understand kabbalah’s spread throughout the Jewish world before the Haskalah (Enlightenment), but how do we explain its renewed attraction for people today?
To my mind, kabbalah is just the latest lucky recipient of the the drive for “spirituality” (as opposed to “spiritualism,” which means attempts to contact the dead) among my own baby-boom generation and younger generations. After decades of immersion in Eastern mysticism, spiritual seekers can now “come home” to “Western religion” through the kabbalah craze, without sacrificing some of the more compelling notions of Eastern mysticism — reincarnation, the magical power of words and the supremacy of consciousness over the material — because these are all fundamental kabbalistic beliefs.
This drive for ‘spirituality” is a phenomenon that I have speculated about in this column and elsewhere. I have argued that magical thinking — for example, seeing significance in patterns even when there is none — was likely hard-wired into our brains by the evolutionary process, so that it is skepticism, more than faith, that requires a counter-intuitive “leap.” I have argued that the shift in the role of science in society — from Promethean science to Frankenstein science, from the polio vaccination to Mutually Assured Destruction — has provoked people to seek “alternative ways of knowing” that are empowered by our yearning and our anger towards science and modernity. I have argued that the widespread use of consciousness-altering drugs has given a significant percentage of younger Americans a taste of actual mystical merger experience — experience that often carries with it the conviction that the “revelations” of mysticism are more real than the perceptions of our normal waking consciousness. (For a description of the actual brain chemistry of mystical transport, see Why God Won’t Go Away, a 2001 study by neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and the late Eugene D’Aquili.)
Whether my arguments hold water or not, there is clearly a pattern of mystical consciousness that people have been able to access throughout the ages using meditation, prayer, fasting, drugs, sensory deprivation, intensive symbology, and many other means. Mysticism is simply an end point of the continuum of “merger” or “loss-of-self” experiences that we nearly all have through sexual love, contemplation of nature, music and art, intense physical workout, etc. Spirituality might be defined as the feeling you get during such experiences, as certain parts of your brain “light up” and you lose some part of your sense of boundary and ego.
Now, surely, the perception of the “unity of all life,” which seems commonly to arise during the mystical experience, is to be cultivated and cherished during this era of worldwide environmental crisis, poverty and genocide. And surely the lowering of boundaries and dissolution of ego can be a positive, transformative experience for people. What I’m saying, in other words, is that there are progressive elements to mystical consciousness that secular humanists, notwithstanding our skepticism, should explore. Judging from centuries of testimony about the mystical experience, it may help to cultivate those aspects of human self-awareness that make us more capable of developing a merciful, equitable, and environmentally responsible world.
The main problem with mysticism, however, is that it often breeds a sense of “ah-ha!” — a conviction that the universe has a “system” that can be understood by human beings — which leads to fanaticism, gullibility, cultism and debasement. The road to the Shabbetai Zvi debacle, for example, which humiliated the entire Jewish world, was paved by Jewish mysticism (Zvi’s principal advocate, Rabbi Nathan of Gaza, was a famed kabbalist). Modern Lubavitcher Hasidism, with its messianic babble about the late Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, is likewise rife with the trappings of kabbalah — as are some extremist elements of the Israeli settler movement.
If people want to criticize Madonna and the Kabbalah Centre for cultism or occultism, they present an easy target. But let the critics admit that the charges they are leveling have been leveled against Jewish mysticism throughout the ages. The kabbalists of yesteryear were simply the pop stars, performers, cult leaders, and insurance salesmen of their own era.

The Democratic Spirituality of John Lennon
The lyrics by Madonna that head this column express the “I-have-everything-but-I’m-still-not-satisfied” feeling that seem to drive many celebrities onto religious paths. And then there is John Lennon, who would have turned 64 last October had he not been murdered at the age of 40 by an insane fan. Since the Beatles’ hilarious song, ‘When I’m Sixty-Four” (written primarily by Paul McCartney) asks —

Will you still need me
Will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four?

— I thought I’d take this opportunity, in discussing celebrity and spirituality, to express why the world still needs this brilliant artist’s voice.

When it came to fame, the Beatles stood apart from all the rest. Early in the ’60s, Lennon described the group as “more popular than Jesus,” and he wasn’t half wrong. But John used that top-of-the-world celebrity status to broadcast a wonderfully democratic message. When the Beatles were featured in the first international satellite television broadcast, viewed by many millions of people around the globe, John pooh-poohed celebrity and the cult of the individual by singing:

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung ....
All you need is love.

And long after the Beatles broke up, he persisted in telling his fans: Never mind idol-worshipping. I’m just a pained, uncertain, evolving human being, like you — and each of us should be valued and given the chance for fulfillment.
“Because we all shine on/ like the moon and the stars and the sun . . .” (“Instant Karma,” 1970). Because “Whatever gets you thru the night, it’s all right” (“Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” 1974). Because:

Why in the world are we here?
Surely not to live in pain and fear.
Why in the world are you there
When you’re everywhere!
Come and get your share!
“Instant Karma”

And rather than responding to the emptiness of celebrity by turning to mysticism, Lennon took the existentialist plunge: “God is a concept by which we measure our pain,” he wrote (“God,” 1970). “I don’t believe in—” and he listed every idol imaginable, including the Beatles themselves. Yet his skepticism was never despairing, for he could imagine a world of “no heaven . . . no country . . . no possessions . . . no religion . . .”

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
“Imagine” (1971)

When Lennon died (December 8, 1980), I was working as assistant editor of this magazine and trying to understand my elders, who formed its backbone community. Paul Novick, the 90-year-old editor of the Morgn Freiheit, wrote in that paper about the public outpouring of grief over John’s murder. In an amazed and humble tone, Novick confessed to ignorance and wonder about how beloved an artist John had been. I was reminded of another great democratic artist, Sholom Aleichem, who had been similarly mourned in 1916. The “generation gap” was thus bridged by love — and here I am, still mourning for John and working, once again, for Jewish Currents.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.