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A-Rod, Madonna Learn Kabbalah, Promote Jewish Identity?

by Hillel News |Jul 21, 2008|Comments

Could the alleged extra-marital affair of New York Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez and self-proclaimed Kabbalist Madonna be good for promoting Jewish identity?

Citing Jewish mysticism for her broken marriage, A-Rod's soon-to-be ex-wife is blaming Kabbalah (rather than her husband's widely reported indiscretions) for destroying six years of wedded bliss.

Is Alex Rodriguez under Madonna's Jewish spell?
Is Alex Rodriguez under Madonna's Jewish spell?

A publicly scorned Cynthia Rodriguez alleges that her Catholic husband's relationship with pop star Madonna has persuaded him to abandon his family for a new-found religion. Friends of the couple agree the third baseman has been "brainwashed," turning what may have been just another tabloid divorce story into a religious debate, the latest boost for Kabbalah's fame -- and a sore point for some rabbis.

Rabbi Avi Heller, director of Jewish education at Boston University Hillel, does not approve of the popularization of this mystical branch of Jewish learning. He insists that the study of the Kabbalah should be reserved only for the most learned Jews.

"It's elite, obscure, esoteric," he says. "The requirement to study Kabbalah is that you are well-versed in Torah, pious, Jewish. The idea of inviting anyone to study is a betrayal of Kabbalah."

"Madonna's Kabbalah," the oxymoron mash-up of the new millennium, has become a part of the everyday lexicon. In an ironic twist, the "Material Girl" has made a form of Jewish spiritual learning popular. Once a secret tradition studied only by advanced Jewish scholars, public Kabbalah classes are now offered for men and women of all ages and faiths. Kabbalah has become a fad, complete with its own fashion accessories: The red string bracelets popularized by Madonna in 2004, intended to ward off the Evil Eye, can be purchased online by anyone willing to pay (prices range from $7-$36).

Illustration by Maria Radacsi.
Illustration by Maria Radacsi.

Many college students have been turned on to Kabbalah thanks to Madonna's influence. "For a good number of students, the reason they've even heard of Kabbalah is [through] popular culture," explains Rabbi Aaron Levy, the multi-campus rabbi of Hillels of Greater Toronto. "I think it leads to a positive thing in terms of helping Jews become more familiar with our own tradition especially because it interests Jewish students who aren't otherwise interested in Judaism."

But these Jewish educators must balance Jewish law's prohibition of teaching Kabbalah to novices with the benefit of introducing young people to any form of Jewish learning. Kabbalah, they explain, is an intensely complex and deeply spiritual learning process which is traditionally passed on orally only from master to scholar, and only once the scholar has reached 40 years of age.

"The question," Rabbi Heller asks, "is should students be learning the parsha of the week or Kabbalah? What if they aren't going to learn the parsha and they only want to learn Kabbalah? If Kabbalah is the only thing they will carve out time in their schedule to learn, do we teach them?"

Levy and Heller have solved this problem by offering introductory classes about Jewish mysticism, but not Kabbalah itself. Rabbi Levy says that because many common Jewish concepts such as tikkun olam (repairing the world) and the Tu B'Shevat seder are Kabbalistic ideas, he uses the draw of Kabbalah to delve into more traditional study with curious students. Rabbi Heller likens his teachings on Kabbalah to the way one teaches a child to read - not by putting an encyclopedia in front of them, but by introducing letters one at a time.

At Rutgers Hillel, Rabbi Esther Reed recalls an introductory course on Kabbalah was taught four years ago, the same time that red strings started appearing on celebrity wrists. The class reached a mix of students including Jews with no prior Hillel involvement which, she says, is a good thing for Jewish life on campus.

Illustration by Maria Radacsi.
Illustration by Maria Radacsi.

But Rabbi Levy cautions: "The skewing of Kabbalah to make it fit into the larger North American culture of self-help is very problematic. Studying Kabbalah should make someone's life more complex. It's not the key to pleasure and success in five simple steps. I don't want to continue those sorts of tropes as a method of trying to attract students."

Rabbi Seth Goren, Hillel director at Lehigh University, is less offended by pop culture's interpretation of Kabbalah and more intrigued by non-Jews' and non-observant Jews' reasons for imitating its teachings.

"It's difficult to generalize what that red string means to that person," says Rabbi Goren. "For some, it can mean something deep, perhaps a physical reminder of a powerful spiritual experience in Israel or a sartorial remnant of a transformative encounter with the Divine. It's important to gain a better understanding of what the red string means to that individual and not to impose what we may believe that string to be on them."

Superficial dalliance or transcendent experience, Kabbalah has never been considered the sustenance of Jewish life. "Kabbalah is like dessert," says Rabbi Heller. "It's sweet and it comes at the end of dinner. It's not a substitute for the meat and potatoes." Traditional Jewish learning (and not its mystical counterpart), he says, is the actual meal.

You can learn more about Kabbalah in this week's Learn Something Jewish.

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