Madonna’s brand of Judaism

materialgirlMaybe the most unnecessarily talked about story of the past few days, particularly in that corner of the world I dwell in known as the Jewish twitterverse, has been Madonna’s first-person piece for Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Yediot Achronot. In “I Found an Answer,” the Material Girl offered a testimonial about how she found God, got religion and awakened her spiritual soul through Kabbalah.

It’s an inspiring story, and maybe you’ll be moved by Madonna’s awakening. News presses certainly were.

Despite the fact that Madonna is so far beyond irrelevant these days, this is big news. I don’t know why it is, but all the media coverage — AP, JTA, NY Daily News, E! Online and an ungodly number of other outlets — tells me it must be. (Anyone still wondering why newspapers are struggling?) The AFP offers one of the longer stories — they’re all short — about Madonna’s column and the same lack of depth, context and analysis:

The Material Girl, who will be in Israel in September as part of her Sticky and Sweet tour, said she had travelled the world many times over, dined with state leaders and achieved a high level of success but still felt that something was missing from her life.

“I was raised a Catholic and my father was very religious, but none of my questions ever got answered,” she wrote in the article that appeared in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper in English and Hebrew.

The Queen of Pop’s spiritual search led her to practice yoga, study Buddhism, Taoism and the Art of War — a 16th century military treaty — and read about the early Christians.

“I learned a lot and I was very inspired but I still could not connect the dots and find a way to take this knowledge and apply it to my daily life.

“I was looking for an answer,” the 50-year-old pop icon said.

She said her search was over after she turned to the Kabbalah, an ancient Jewish mystic tradition.

I skipped a few paragraphs at the top, and a few more follow — but that’s basically it. There is no real reporting here, just regurgitating. There certainly is no exploration of storylines like that mentioned on the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog:

The Israelis who are most likely to get upset by Madonna’s Kabbalistic rambling are ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are unlikely to be exposed to it, as they do not read secular newspapers. Kabbalah in its “purest” form — before it replaced pilates, macrobiotics, Scientology or Zen Buddhism as the latest celebrity trend — is a rather complicated and mystical body of writing in Judaism. Its sensitive content makes it “forbidden” to young and excitable religious students, and only older ones, with their rabbi’s permission, are allowed to delve into its enchanted world of spirits and legends. Learning too much Kabbalah is considered to be something that might “do your head in”, which is exactly why the ignorant are advised to stay clear of it. Many Jewish and Israeli writers were enticed to take a peek into the “orchard” as it is often referred to, of Kabbalah, among them are Author Laureate Haim Nahman Bialik, and the writer Asher Barash.

All this, naturally, has little to do with Madonna’s Kabbalah-lite, or maybe diet-Kabbalah, judging by her latest published images. Her exciting adventures in the spiritual orchard may actually find keen readers in Israel, which in recent years is being more and more infested by irrational mumbo-jumbo of all sorts, some of it affiliated loosely to Judaism, and some related to other sects, religions and beliefs.

But we don’t get that, or anything in it’s place. No real details about Kabbalah; no quotes from past stories that have talked about how Kabbalah messed up Madonna’s marriage and her boytoy A-Rod; no discussion of the fact that the religion most associated with celebrities, right after Scientology, is no longer seen as quite so cultish.

No, what we get is a pulpit for Madonna — I’m OK with that — followed by another disappointing round of stenography from our celebrity journalists.

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  • Ben

    Re: why newspapers are struggling…. I think I know what you mean by Madonna being irrelevant — i.e. she’s not dominating the music charts anymore. I guess I would have said the same thing a month back before Michael Jackson died. In this age of instant web traffic statistics, I’m guessing newspapers know exactly what they are doing by covering this older pop star.

    Not to launch too far into this well-trod controversy again on GR, but newspapers are struggling less because of the content they offer and more from the anemic payouts from online advertising.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Ben, I know all too well and personally how correct you are. But coverage like this certainly doesn’t help the journalism-as-the-backbone-of-democracy argument.

  • Jerry

    I had the same sense about reading this blog post that I have about a train wreck, I did not want to look but I did anyway. I think you said everything worth saying about this story. At least this story was not about the topic I’m tired of, the Episcopal church.

  • Rev. Michael Church

    “Treaty” in the AFP section is a typo for “treatise.” Not a big deal — we all make tpyos — but another example of the generally slapdash approach you’re describing.

  • Rabbi Max Weiman

    Since you didn’t find her spotlight meaningful you enlarged it? Jumped on the bandwagon you decry? Make up your mind.

    She is relevant as long as people like you and I are curious about her. Why don’t you write your own article that explores a deeper side of the story?

    Focus on the fact that her kabbalah group is considered outcast by traditional mainstream Judaism. Flesh out the difference between religion and spirituality.

    Maybe probe why people like to mock celebrities. Are we jealous? Do we demand that every religion adherent be able to coherently express the ideas of that religion?

    I don’t know Madonna. But at least she’s trying.

  • MichaelV

    Adding to what Rev. Church pointed out, “16th Century” is also a typo. The Art of War I’m familiar with was written in the 6th century BC.

  • Jettboy

    Rabbi Max Weiman, you make great points for an article. However, I don’t think you know what Get Religion is supposed to be about. This is a blog about Religion and the Media, and where the intersection goes right and wrong. Questioning why the media makes an issue out of a person’s religion while no one else cares is perfectly legitimate.

  • Rabbi Max Weiman


    Thanks for informing me. As Emily Litella would say, “Oh, well that’s different. Nevermind.”

  • Rabbi Max Weiman

    Ok, I think I “get it” now. I understand the point of Get Religion.

    I still think, however, that Brad Greenberg, with all due respect, is missing the point of the Madonna article and why it is “news”. Its like wondering why the candy and celebrity magazines are at the check out counter.

    We all know why they are there.

    What I think Brad is missing is an important point. They mainstream media have sunk lower over the years and gone into the territory of the celebrity magazines. They have decided that Michael Jackson and Britney Spears doing odd things is a major news item alongside the controversy of Cash for Clunkers or the release of two journalists for N. Korea.

    And the reason they have done this is because readers are curious. It sells. And in a few years News of the Weird and celebrity “news” might be all the top headlines, and you’ll have to scroll down to find out what countries are threatening nuclear war.

    In other words, the Madonna article is not a statement about the media’s treatment of religion. It is a continuation of the co-dependent relationship between readers fascination with celebrities, and the media.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Actually, I do wonder why the celebrity magazines are in the grocery checkout aisles.

  • Rabbi Max Weiman

    Because the store owners have figured out that human nature is to give in to our baser desires when we have little time to decide.

    Our baser desires cause us to be more likely pick up a candy bar or a celeb mag on the way out, than a bunch of broccoli or a dust mop.

  • Stephen A.

    Aside from the typo howlers of a “16th” Century “treaty,” the main argument here is that the media is unduly interested in this aging pop star. I don’t think so.

    As a PR professional, I must admit to being in awe of how she (and/or her PR handlers) manages to remain in the limelight long after she has stopped being “relevant” in a musical sense. In fact, she REMAINS relevant as long as the media pay attention to her. Attention breeds continued relevancy – even if one feels she is well past her sell-by date (as an artist, not as a person. We wish her a long life, I’m sure!)

    Her religious epiphanies are relevant, too, for the simple fact that this 80s Era pop singer speaks freely about them, whereas others of that era – and later eras – don’t.

    From a Get Religion point of view, we should be glad this is being explored by the press, and yes, it’s the job of the GR blog to expose shallow reporting and, in the case of the Guardian blog citation, show (and praise) the deeper reporting of her Faith as “the latest celebrity trend,” which seems to be a spot-on description.