Madonna, Israel, and Eurovision: why does she play at being Jewish?

Tanya Gold
Madonna, performing at the Billboard Music Awards, Las Vegas, on May 1 - Getty Images North America

Madonna is due to perform at the final of the Eurovision Song Contest in Israel on Saturday night; she will preview a song from her new album for £1 million, paid for by an Israeli billionaire. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd has asked her not to sing - he says it will “normalise” the occupation of Palestine - but it is unlikely that Madonna will resist an opportunity to honour her obsession with Jewish mysticism.

She takes no particular side in the conflict. She falls back on the “why can’t we all get along?” narrative but for some any visit to Israel is collusion in child murder.

Madonna’s love of Jewish mysticism - of Kabbalah, the “woo!” branch of Judaism - is weird but not offensive. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to be Jewish, but there aren’t that many philo-Semites around; we will take what we can get. What we get is a splice of Madonna and a new form of Kabbalah that requires no previous Jewish learning, or experience.

The comic Sandra Bernhard dragged Madonna into the Kabbalah Centre founded by the “rogue” Rabbi Philip Berg in Los Angeles 20 years ago. “I was looking for something,'' Madonna said. ''I mean, I'd begun practicing yoga and, you know, I was looking for the answers to life. Why am I here? What am I doing here? What is my purpose? How do I fit into the big picture? I know there's more to life than making lots of money and being successful and even getting married and having a family.”

She’s right about the question, but I’m confused about the answer. It seems like another hoax, or re-invention; a tableaux from a woman who isn’t sure who she is. She plays at being Jewish, but she is not Jewish. She is still, presumably a Catholic. She is still called Madonna. Perhaps she does it to vex the pope.

Madonna taking part in Kabbalah conference in Tel Aviv, in 2004 Credit: reuters

She explains it in babble. “This [study of Kabbalah] appears like I'm Jewish,” she explains, “but these rituals are connected to what I describe as the Tree of Life consciousness and have more to do with the idea of being an Israelite, not Jewish. The tribes of Israel existed before the religion of Judaism existed, so you have to do your history...

"So, am I Jewish? I mean, some people would say, well, you do a lot of things that Jews do, but I would say I do a lot of things that people did before Judaism existed. And I believe what I practice has to do with something deeper than religion, that it embodies all religions, including Judaism. And Christianity. And Islam."

That explains nothing, but she is certainly a devout Kabbalah-er. She wears the holy red string ($26) the centre sells on its website and drinks the holy mineral water ($4). Apparently she once tried to fill a swimming pool with it. She does Jewish type things with about the same level of religious significance as watching Seinfeld.

She has taken the biblical name of Esther although, her spokesperson points out confusingly, she doesn’t answer to it. “Sometimes people have their secret name, a dream name,'' she said, ''If someone calls her Esther she wouldn't turn around.'' She has worn Tefillin - black leather boxes filled with Jewish scripture - on stage and in videos. It looks extremely odd. Her son was Bar Mitzvah. That is slightly less odd.

The Kabbalah Centre, with its multiple global branches and its fake holy mineral water, is anathema to traditional Judaism. Serious Judaism isn’t for dilettantes. There are 613 commandments, and none of them say, “Live in LA and wear coloured string”.

Ultra Orthodox Jews treat the Kabbalah Centre as they did Sasha Baron Cohen when he ran through Jerusalem in a pornographic version of their traditional costume for the film Bruno. They tried to stone him. He had to hide in a shop selling bathroom fittings. But Madonna’s enthusiasm made Kabbalah very popular with celebrities who embraced it in their keening need for meaning as you might a fashionable shoe.

I’m not sure they understood it. Donald Trump’s second wife Marla Maples said it helped her recover from the experience of being married to Donald Trump. “During that period of time, you think you've cleared out a lot of the pain by the time you decide to move on. But, as I started looking deeper at myself, I realized there were still places inside where I held anger, or had blame. [Kabbalah] helped me learn to take responsibility for my own choices and no longer be the victim.”

Lindsay Lohan said it made her a better person. “I would never steal anyone's boyfriend,” she said. “It's bad karma, and I'm a big believer in karma—hence the fact that I've studied Kabbalah.”

But nothing lasts forever. The Kabbalah Centre, presumably fighting with Scientology and Mormonism for the same clients overreached itself, and was beset by scandals. A Telegraph reporter with cancer visited the London branch and was told he would be cured if he drank enough mineral water. He was charged £860 for the Zohar - the principle text - and the water. Rabbi Berg told students that if they couldn’t read Hebrew they could just touch the Zohar and receive its wisdom. It is claimed that he also told people that if they chanted God’s name, they could alter their cellular structure, but the centre denies that he said that.

The celebrities drifted away, and took other paths to madness. Jerry Hall complained she was asked to contribute a 10th of her income. Bernhard said: “I went in 1995 before there was any hoopla and I got the best out of it”. That’s quite grandiose. Kabbalah has been going for longer than that.

“Then the wheels started to fall off,” she added. “I'm not nearly as involved with that place as I was. Unfortunately, money corrupts everything, even spirituality. And it's hard not to get caught up in the excitement of glamour and fame."

If it is all ridiculous, I can only be grateful for Madonna’s commitment to pick ‘n mix celebrity Playmobile Judaism. Anti-Semitism rises everywhere. The Middle East is in perpetual war. Yet here is Madonna, bouncing around in Spanx and talking nonsense about trees of life.

The strain of Kabbalah she practises may be bogus. It has not been established whether she can read Hebrew, or has been inducted into the rabbinate. But her tenacity in the face of universal ridicule is actually rather - Jewish.