The Kabbalah


Will it grow cold, the secret that I hide?
Will I grow old?
- Madonna

You’ve had those moments when you heard a song, and you had to drop everything, because nothing else was happening except the song? You just stand there with your eyes closed, literally entranced, bewitched by the music and the words and the voice? And for a moment it seems that everything in your life is contained in the song, like a secret hidden in some kind of code, and you wish you could reveal that secret to the world, but you know you can’t, because if you did, the world would crumble before its beauty? You know the feeling, right?

(Oh. Well, maybe it’s just me, then. But you get the idea.)

The song “Live to Tell” was one of those moments for me. Hearing it, I was sure that it was the work of someone who, like me, was searching for the path back to that higher place that we all come from and to which we are all destined to return. “If I live to tell the secret I knew then, will I / ever have the chance again?”

So picture Yossi Klein Halevi sitting with the Bergs and Madonna at the Kabbalah Centre. Madonna is sounding out the words to the Birkat ha-Mazon, while Halevi is mentally taking notes for his article in The New Republic.

What is Madonna Ciccone thinking as she recites the Hebrew words? Has she found what she was looking for?

Halevi closes the article with some intriguing hints about the Kabbalah Centre: an unnamed source familiar with the Centre says, "They don't tell everyone who walks through the door that it's really about immortality ... but subtly, the more you get into it, the more they reveal their real agenda." The author ends with a wry speculation: "What, after all, is more likely to entice a sex symbol confronting middle age than the promise of eternal youth?"

Perhaps many things, I think. It is easy for a male journalist to dismiss an attractive, seductive female entertainer as a "sex symbol" - and undoubtedly, whatever else she may be, Madonna certainly is that. But remember that Madonna's early role model, and the source of her principal public persona, was Marilyn Monroe - another talented, intelligent young woman who gained fame by marketing herself as a "sex symbol". Madonna, now ten years older than Norma Jeane Baker at the time of her death, must have had occasion to think about what she is going to do with the rest of her life.

A news item on Madonna suggests that there is more to this person than a "sex symbol confronting middle age". Madonna has announced that she is taking the Hebrew name Esther; she is also toning down the public sexuality. I think both of these things are important.

Taking another name - a Hebrew name, for example - is a big step. Yes, some people do do it frivolously, but when you ask to be known by another name, whether or not it replaces your old one, you are making a big change in your life. If you change your name, your parents may not take kindly to it. (Mine certainly did not.) Madonna, who was named after her mother (as was I), emphasizes that her assumption of the Hebrew name is "in no way a negation" of her mother, who died when Madonna Jr. was very young.

The news item also indicates that she is no longer interested in the "raunchy pop vixen image". "I don't regret it, but it's just ... I mean everybody takes their clothes off now. And then what? You know? And -- and then what?"

It's interesting, too, that she takes the name Esther, which is associated with the Jewish holiday of Purim. Halevi's article mentions a Purim celebration at the Kabbalah Centre, where, in the author's estimation, "Jews can pretend to be non-Jews, non-Jews can pretend to be Jews, and everyone can pretend to be Kabbalists." Halevi plays the scene for laughs, but the joke is really on him, because the ambiguity of identity is exactly what Purim is about - and I think this may help us to understand Madonna better.

The holiday of Purim and the book of Esther are unique in many ways. Esther is the only book of the Hebrew Scriptures in which the Divinity is never mentioned by name. It is also the only book set wholly in the diaspora, and the only book in which Jews are called by the name we use today: not Hebrews, not Israelites, but survivors of the Tribe of Judah - Jews.

And Purim, the holiday derived from the Esther story, is a law unto itself. While the moderate, sacralized use of wine or liquor is common at Jewish festivals, Purim is the only holiday on which we are actually expected to get drunk - so drunk, tradition tells us, that we should no longer be able to distinguish between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordechai". And above all, of course, Purim is a masquerade festival - and the only time when Jewish law officially sets aside the prohibitions of Deuteronomy 22:5, permitting celebrants to dress outside of their assigned gender.

Purim isn't one of the major Jewish holidays. Its origins are not in the Torah, but in the historical period, and so the Sabbath-like strictures that apply to Passover, Rosh HaShanah, and especially Yom Kippur do not apply to Purim. In fact, Purim is the one Jewish holiday that can never fall on the Sabbath. And yet tradition holds that in the Messianic Era, when redemption has come to the world and all other holidays are abolished, Purim alone will still be observed.

In taking the name Esther, Madonna has taken on the identity of the Jewish queen of Persia in the Biblical book of the same name. (I always identified with Vashti myself.) In the Jewish reading, Esther represents the "hidden Jew": either the Jew who must hide her or his identity for fear of persecution, or, still more allegorically, the higher Divine self that stays hidden within each person.

Perhaps Madonna is no longer content to entertain the king's court by presenting - however skilfully - the image that the outside world wishes to see. Now she can begin to come to terms with her spiritual identity as a woman, as a human being. Now, as Esther, she can begin to reconcile her public image with her true self.

(End of Part 6.)