Interesting Times: Madonna, meet the Talmud

She's not evil, she's just studying the wrong books.

September 20, 2007 12:29
saul singer 88

saul singer 88. (photo credit: )


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Madonna personifies celebrity. Google her name and you will get almost as many hits as "Jewish," meaning that she is roughly as famous as the religion she has come to admire. With other celebrities in tow, Madonna declared in Tel Aviv this week that she was an "ambassador for Judaism." Meanwhile, the head of a Kabbala-oriented yeshiva reacted: "It is a known fact in Kabbala that impurity and evil are inherently attracted to sanctity. That's why people of Hollywood, a place of iniquity and lasciviousness, are naturally attracted to the holiness of Kabbala." Is Madonna really "evil"? Or should we regard her fascination with Kabbala as an amusing curiosity? The problem with those who criticize Madonna as a bad role model is that if she hadn't behaved outrageously over the years she probably wouldn't be so famous. Further, Madonna is doing some good things with her fame. Though her adoption of a child from an orphanage in Malawi has been controversial, she has also adopted the cause of such orphans generally. She has written best-selling children's books, almost all of which are influenced by her study of Judaism. HER PERSONAL story, as the third of eight children, whose mother died of cancer when she was six, is a classic rags-to-riches tale of a midwestern girl who showed up in New York City with nothing but talent, ambition and an eye for opportunity. Her successors in the top reaches of the mega-famous, such as Britney Spears, do not seem to share her intelligence and talent for reinvention. Though I feel a bit uncomfortable admitting it, I'm proud to have her on our team. Of course, it would be better if, rather than latching on to a distorted form of the most esoteric aspect of Judaism, she were to study and represent the real thing. The Los Angeles-based "Kaballah Center" that Madonna frequents, Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in The New Republic, "doesn't merely trivialize Kabbala; it inverts its intention." "It's about annihilating the ego, not reinforcing it," notes Pinchas Giller, professor of Kabbala at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. But let's not quibble. Over the past decade, Madonna has visited Israel more than most American Jews. The search for meaning that brought her to Judaism and the Jewish state should not be deprecated or rejected, but built upon. Kabbala may be hip, but most searching Jews, let alone non-Jews, have not begun to explore a no less "hidden" work that is central to Judaism and has no comparison in other world religions: the Talmud. The great Jewish philosopher Eliezer Berkovits wrote that "the Talmud came into existence because a whole nation, and not just a few saints, took the Bible seriously, and tried to make it the foundation of their daily life." When this work was finally closed about 500 CE, it represented the culmination of 13 centuries of "prophetic tradition, lived and taught ... The great teachers of the Talmud are even today 'modern personalities' in a much deeper sense than many of the great Europeans ever have been." Berkovits argues. In a fascinating essay on Jewish sexual ethics (in Essential Essays on Judaism), for example, Berkovits explains how the Judaism of the Talmud neither shuns the body, as other religions do, nor conflates humans with animals, as do secular ideologies. "It is doubtful whether in the entire course of history anyone has degraded the reality of love in the world more than Freud, who saw in it nothing but libido energy displacement resulting from frustrated sexuality. ... The truth that we affirm is the recognition of love as an originally given force in the wholeness of the bio-psychic reality of man. It is the most truly personal, as the libido is the most truly impersonal. It is through love ... that the libido in its broadest meaning is redeemed from the prison of its impersonality." The Talmud, unlike other holy books, is a record of a unique debate between the greatest Jewish minds extending over many generations. While it is often stereotyped as being obsessed with minutiae, buried in it as well are struggles with all the great human and ethical dilemmas, such as the nature of justice and God's hand in the world, how to develop oneself and one's family to be better people, and the purpose of humanity in history. MORE THAN kabbalistic works, the Talmud is begging to be "data mined" for lessons in the modern world. Psychologist Wendy Mogul has done a wonderful job of this in the parenting arena in her book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. So has Adin Steinsaltz in his classic The Essential Talmud and Joseph Telushkin in Jewish Literacy and other books. Berkovits has written powerfully about the tragedy, forced on the Jewish people by the exigencies of exile and powerlessness, that the living oral tradition was finally frozen into its current Talmudic form, resulting in Judaism losing "its flexibility, its strength of development." This strength is seen in a Talmudic story. God let Moses eavesdrop on the study hall of 2nd-century sage Rabbi Akiva. Moses became agitated when he could not recognize anything he was hearing, until he heard the great rabbi explaining that he was saying nothing new, only the tradition directly "received by Moses at Sinai." This is the perfect illustration of what it means to be a living tradition: one that remains true to the original, not by staying in stone, but by adapting to changing conditions. Even as we mourn the loss of such organic adaptive power and grope for ways to revive it, the Talmud provides a window into when that power was alive and what an intense, multi-generational debate "for the sake of heaven" can produce. Though this would be a reversal of the traditional order, now that Madonna has spent eight years studying a Hollywoodized version of Kabbala, perhaps she might be interested in delving into Judaism's struggle with the nitty-gritty of life on earth, the Talmud. If she did, maybe some of the Jewish and non-Jewish seekers of spirituality would be inspired, after dabbling in the more "self-actualization" oriented approaches of Eastern spirituality, to explore the vast Jewish inquiry into how to make better people and a better world.

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