My faith gets up your nose? Good!
It’s Thursday night at the smartest party in town and we are sitting over a drink talking about kids; Madonna, Demi and me. Life has some surreal moments to offer and this is definitely one of them. We’re having to raise our voices above the hubbub of beautiful people, including Gwyneth Paltrow and the fashion designers Donatella Versace and Valentino, gathered upstairs at Home House, a private club.
We are all here to celebrate — if that’s the right word — the launch of Becoming Like God, a book about the teachings of Kabbalah, an obscure offshoot of Judaism. Madonna is wearing the red string bracelet that denotes adherents next to a big, diamond-studded watch.
Demi Moore, a fellow Kabbalah-ist, is officially hosting the evening but it is really Madonna’s night. The former Material Girl has approved the venue, the guest list and the admission of a single journalist — me — to witness the wonders of ersatz spiritualism.
Kabbalah is regarded by some as worryingly near to a cult and earlier this year the chief rabbi’s office issued a statement distancing it from mainstream Judaism. A member of Rabbi Sacks’s cabinet said that there was “a great deal of unease about (Kabbalah’s) methods and the pressure brought to bear on those they view as being vulnerable and as possible sources of income”.
There have been similar warnings about other sects, but doubts about Kabbalah have been tempered in the public mind by the enthusiastic endorsement of glitzy celebrities. Fervent followers include Roseanne Barr and Elizabeth Taylor. Jerry Hall and Mick Jagger also had a flirtation with Kabbalah and hosted a fundraising dinner in London four years ago.
The book outlining Kabbalah’s theories seems more flaky than sinister, full of psychobabble about “transformative sharing” and getting rid of your “ego nature”. Certain sections are printed IN SHOCKING PINK CAPITAL LETTERS for emphasis, giving it a disturbing resemblance to the letters that journalists routinely receive from crazies in coloured, usually green, ink.
Rabbi Michael Berg, its author, is a pleasant chubby man wearing a little black beret. When I tell him that I find the design very arresting, he has the grace to look sheepish. “Oh, the pink was Madonna’s idea,” he says.
Madonna, who recently announced that she wanted to be known by her spiritual name Esther (although everyone on Thursday night continued to refer to her as Madonna), first got involved nine years ago. She was far from the needy, emotionally damaged wreck who we usually think of as finding refuge in obscure religions.
“I was what you would call at the top of my world,” she says. “I’d won a Golden Globe for Evita, I was pregnant, I had fame, I had fortune, everything that you would perceive a person would want in life. But I’m sure everyone’s had that out-of-body experience where you say to yourself — and it might happen at 28 or 38 or 68 — why am I here? Why am I inside of this body? What am I doing? And I was hearing that question a lot.”
A girl she bumped into at a party told her that she had been studying Kabbalah. “I love taking classes,” says Madonna. “I learn languages, I go to dance class, I love the idea of being in school. So I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll try this’. I went to a class and, yes, there was a man standing at the front who looked like a rabbi but what he was saying was amazing.
“I felt so inspired when I left the room. One thing Kabbalah teaches you is that your true potential in the world has nothing to do with selling records or making money or being popular, it has to do with what you are doing to help. What are you doing to make the world a better place?” The Kabbalah centre in Los Angeles was founded by Rabbi Rav Berg, father to both Michael Berg and the modern Kabbalah movement. Kabbalah, Hebrew for “received tradition”, is based around the Zohar, or Book of Splendour, a 2,000-year-old book in 23 volumes written in Aramaic.
Berg formulated a simple, practical version of Kabbalah that promises “fulfilment in every aspect of your life: relationships, business, health and more”. It was Kabbalah’s lucky day when Madonna arrived at the centre. Her huge popularity turned a little-known movement into a global brand. It now has 56 centres around the world and its website gets 150,000 hits a month.
Adherents can buy Kabbalah merchandise, from the L25 bracelets to bottles of specially blessed mineral water (very effective, apparently, in treating Madonna’s husband Guy Ritchie’s verrucas). It is just this sort of thing that raises hackles, but Madonna dismisses the criticisms with an imperious wave: “You know, I’ve been dealing with cynicism all my life.”
So we shouldn’t be worried about the allegations of money-making? “Slowly, slowly catchee monkey,” she says mysteriously. “The fact of the matter is that people are criticising Kabbalah because it’s pushing a button. They are paying attention because it is rankling people’s nerves.”
Madonna has a reputation for being tricksy but this evening she is in her element, working the room and urging her American friends to vote for John Kerry (“If you vote for Bush you’re not becoming like God”). She looks amazing in a very fitted and very expensive light tweed skirt and dark roll-necked top.
Anyone else in that outfit would look like Princess Anne, but tiny Madonna has a glow about her that transcends her outfit. At 46 her skin is flawless, her eyes heavily made-up, her hair glossy and expertly tinted. She has been a superstar for 20 years, selling more than 250m records and reinventing herself over and over again, from the crop-topped ingenue of Holiday, one of her early hits, to the sophisticated rerun of Like a Virgin on MTV last year.
She had a brief and tempestuous marriage to the actor Sean Penn and a daughter Lourdes, nicknamed Lola, by Carlos Leon, her personal trainer, before marrying Ritchie four years ago. The bluntly spoken British director of the films Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch has been a steadying influence.
He teases her — something her staff would never dare to do — calling her “Wiff” or “the Missus”. Their son Rocco is three. I am impressed by her adoration for her children and her conviction, even if what she says is sometimes startling. During the evening it transpires that Michael Berg has a child with Down’s syndrome. She explains how Kabbalah sees it.
“Nobody looks at Joshua as somebody who got a bad deal. Kabbalistically, everything that happens to you is a blessing,” she says. “You hit the jackpot and win a million dollars or you break your leg skiing or you’re born with disabilities . . . it’s all about perception. We perceive having Down’s syndrome as a bad thing but if you go past the physicality of it and what it looks like and how we expect people to behave, we deal with everything at the soul level.
“There are some who say that children born with learning disabilities or who are born blind or deaf are people — if you believe in reincarnation — who have come into this world in their last correction, so to speak, and they choose to be born into this physical body which cannot communicate in the normal way. It’s perceived as quite an elevated position so we don’t look at him with pity, we’re not sorry for the parents, we don’t think they’ ve been cursed and nor do they, which is an amazing environment to be in.You can be a celebrity or you can be a person with Down’s syndrome, that’s not relevant.”
But at least part of the need for spiritual fulfilment must be as an antidote to the madness of fame? “There’s a need to be beautiful and successful, yes, but that is not just reserved for celebrities,” she says. “That pressure to be beautiful, to be successful, to be rich, to be thin, to be popular, it’s everyone’s pressure. If it wasn’t everyone’s pressure we wouldn’t have depression, we wouldn’t have anorexia.
“We live in a society that judges everyone on a completely superficial level. So it’s not just the celebrities of the world who have to contend with the constant anxious feeling that you have to perform, to rise to meet some common denominator of what we consider to be beautiful or acceptable.”
She is reported to have given $22m to fund a Kabbalah school in New York under the so-called Spirituality for Kids programme, with which she has become involved. She says it’s not that much but the figure must be substantial: a building to house more than 300 children is being converted.
In Los Angeles, where a school is already up and running, children from problem families — and often their relatives, too — are bussed in and given Kabbalah therapy. Her daughter attended after-school classes there last year and Kabbalah heavily emphasises passing on mother-to-daughter wisdom. “She is learning that she’s responsible for things. That she’s not a victim, that things don’t just happen to her by accident,” says Madonna.
“For example, there’s a girl in her school that she’s always fighting with. I don’t know why they’re fighting but there’s some kind of jealousy thing going on. She’s eight, it’s normal. They’re constantly squabbling and this has been going on for months and it’s driving me bonkers.
“I said, Lola, you have to make friends with her, do you understand? She said, ‘But mummy it’s not my fault, I didn’t start it.’ I said, you know what, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes even when you don’t think you’re wrong, you have to say you’re sorry because when you say ‘I’m sorry’ the dam bursts, everything changes.
“So last week she came running home from school and said, ‘Mummy, I did it, I did it and it worked. I said I was sorry and she said she was sorry and we made up and now we’re friends.’ So it’s teaching her that even if you’re caught in a situation and it feels like a stalemate you still have the power to change things . . . and saying sorry is actually a powerful position to be in, not a vulnerable or weak one.”
To anyone with children this does not sound like Hebrew mysticism, just plain common sense. And her mix of the mystical and the prosaic seems to leave Madonna’s friends cold, too; although happy to drink her champagne, at the end of the evening the stack of books by the exit remains almost untouched.
© Sunday Times