Fabricating controversy

Is Madonna's Kabbala-inspired music the target of undeserved condemnation?

madonna kabbala 88 (photo credit: )
madonna kabbala 88
(photo credit: )
Yawwwwwwn. Oh, sorry that was just me, reading details of the latest controversy involving Madonna, the singer who makes news practically every time she leaves the house. With the 47-year-old pop phenomenon set to release her newest album November 15, attempts are already being made to stir up yet another breathless scandal about the singer this time centering around a compilation entitled Confessions on a Dance Floor. What’s different about this particular controversy is that it started in an Israeli newspaper, Maariv, which reported Sunday that several rabbis in Safed disapprove of a song on the new album entitled “Isaac,” inspired by Kabbalist rabbi Yitzhak Luria. According to the article, the Safed rabbis allege that Madonna is trying to profit from the name of the sixteenth century mystic, whose teachings remain central to the study of Kabbala. Though the Maariv story’s ultimate impact remains to be seen, other media outlets immediately pounced on the article. Major search engines including Yahoo! and MSN featured articles about the article on their homepages, while People magazine’s Web site demurely announced: “Madonna’s song enrages Jewish leaders.” Like other Israeli papers including Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post also felt compelled to report on the story, running a less inflammatory headline “A Kabbalistic faux pas?” in yesterday’s paper. So much attention, so little news! While it’s true that a few Jewish leaders expressed varying degrees of disapproval over one of the singer’s new songs, the English-language publications shamelessly stretched the truth by portraying the Maariv story as some kind of cultural earthquake or even a tremor within the Jewish world. The Israeli newspaper itself indulged in an even more lazier form of journalism when it contacted the rabbis for comment, in an attempt to stir up anger and controversy where there had been none before. To the dismay of celebrity gossip merchants like People, the singer has actually become downright respectable in recent years, mothering her two children and mostly avoiding the sexually and politically loaded material that made her perhaps the most famous woman of the last century. No real controversy exists at this point, and hopefully stories about the Maariv? story will vanish as quickly as they appeared. But should the story become a full-blown media event, the controversy would only serve to alienate the tremendously influential singer and her tens of millions of fans worldwide, who so far have treated the star’s dabbling in Kabbala with genuine interest. Rabbis, Jews and conscientious people in general have a right to be defensive of important religious materials and the thinkers who produce them, but after years of study and a trip to Israel last year, Madonna should have earned the benefit of the doubt or at least a chance to release the song before the backlash against it begins. Though it’s easy to roll one’s eyes at the spiritual explorations of a woman who once simulated sex on MTV, Madonna has never used her decade long studies of Kabbala in a disparaging manner. To the contrary, the singer has praised her teachers, used their teachings in a series of children’s books, and invited famous friends to join her in her studies. To denounce or create controversy out of the new song without even having heard it, of course is a shortsighted, exclusionary act that can only discourage interested non-Jews from learning about the religion and those who practice it. Nelson Mandela and the few other uncontroversial icons of the moment are unlikely to convert to Judaism and spread the message of kashrut and the commandments throughout the world, and Safed rabbis and Tel Aviv journalists shouldn’t demand that kind of standard from those wanting to explore the religion and make their own contributions to it. Madonna’s tremendous fame and cultural influence has mostly worked to her advantage, but it also makes her a constant, frequently undeserving target of criticism and disproportionate disapproval. It’s unlikely anyone would pay similar amounts of attention if the Dave Matthews Band or Beyonce Knowles had produced the song, or that anyone would have felt the need to condemn the song prior to its release. Sensible people realize that the woman behind songs called “Like a Virgin” and “Vogue” probably isn’t an expert on Judaism or Jewish culture, and so far Madonna has never attempted to portray herself as such. Kabbalist rabbis and scandal-mongering journalists would do better to save their outrage and their ability to attract public attention for issues that truly represent a danger to Judaism and those who practice it.