4/27/12

Is Madonna Jewish?

No, superstar singer and dancer Madonna is not a Jew. She was born and brought up Catholic. However in recent years she has been linked to the Jewish mystical practice called Kabbalah.

On Madonna's 2005 album, "Confessions on a Dance Floor" the tenth track is controversial because it is called Isaac and contains allusions to the Kabbalah. Rabbis in Israel (mistakenly) thought Madonna was trying to cash in on the good name of Isaac Luria, the Ari, the great founder of Lurianic Kabbalah. So those good men condemned the singer and the album.

It turns out that the singer named this song in homage to her quite living London spiritual guide, a Mr. Yitzhak Sinwani - Isaac is his English name. So what do we think? Is Madonna misappropriating the Kabbalah in this song, distorting it in her now-expected sacrilegious manner? (See below for the lyrics.)

There are elements of Jewish chant in this song with strings and guitars and guts and emotion - yes, a spiritual vibe. Yitzhak Sinwani of the London Kabbalah Centre, does sing several stanzas on the song in Aramaic and provides the soft-spoken English coda at its end.

Madonna has said to the press that the Aramaic chant by Yitzhak in the song made her cry. "I had tears in my eyes and did not even know what he was singing about," she told AOL. "Then he told me and I cried even more."

Is this Kabbalah? It's Madonna stringing together poetically some lines about heaven and angels and light and doors that are locked. Everyone that sings of light in heaven is not a Kabbalist. Locked doors of the heart are a classic Madonna theme. In fact, Open Your Heart is a Madonna standard from her True Blue album of 1986 (yes, twenty + years ago).

I'm more intrigued by the songs both before and after this cut on the album. In the one before she asks superstar mid-life crisis questions.

"How high are the stakes? How much fortune can you make? Should I carry on? Will it matter when I'm gone?" To me this sounds more like Kohelet (the philosophical biblical book of Ecclesiastes) than Kabbalah. How much is enough? How many Rolls Royces, villas, private jets?

"Was it all worth it? How did I earn it?" And Ms. Madonna forces herself to admit, "Nobody's perfect/I guess I deserve it." Now this is hardly a spiritual reflection. It sounds like the material girl is poking her head through here.

Okay, perhaps, I ruminated, the song Push that follows Isaac on the album moves in a mystical direction. But first you have to make one big rabbinic assumption that most critics and fans have not made. They all assume that this song is an homage to Madonna's (former) husband and lover, Guy Ritchie. "You push me to go the extra mile. You push me when it's difficult to smile. You push me, a better version of myself. You push me, only you and no one else. You push me, see the other point of view. You push me when there's nothing else to do. You push me when I think I know it all. You push me when I stumble and I fall."

However, one might presume - a la the midrash - that this song is a metaphor for the singer's reliance on a higher spiritual being, much as the rabbis interpret that the beloved in the Song of Songs is a metaphor for God.

Only then does Madonna tilt toward the spiritual and maybe - it is still a stretch - in the direction of the authentically kabbalistic content of Judaism.
Here are the lyrics:
Im-ninalu (if they are locked)
Daltey Nedivim (the doors of the generous)
Daltey Nedivim
Daltey Marom (the doors of heaven)

Im-ninalu x8

Staring up into the heavens
In this hell that binds your hands
Will you sacrifice your comfort?
Make your way in a foreign land?

Wrestle with your darkness
Angels call your name
Can you hear what they are saying?
Will you ever be the same?

Mmmmmm
Im-ninalu Im-ninalu
Mmmmmm
Im-ninalu Im-ninalu

Remember, remember and never forget
All of your life has all been a test
You will find the gate that's open
Even though your spirit's broken

Open up my heart
And cause my lips to speak
Bring the heaven and the stars
Down to earth for me

Im-ninalu
Daltey Nedivim

Mmmmmm
Im-ninalu Im-ninalu
Mmmmmm
Im-ninalu Im-ninalu

Mmmmmm
Im-ninalu Im-ninalu
Mmmmmm
Im-ninalu Im-ninalu

El-Hay (Living God)
El-Hay Merumam Al Keruvim (Living God, aloft above the Cherubs)
Kulam Be-Ruho Ya'alu (All of them will rise up through his spirit)

Wrestle with your darkness
Angels call your name
Can you hear what they are saying?
Will you ever be the same?

Mmmmmm
Im-ninalu Im-ninalu
Mmmmmm
Im-ninalu Im-ninalu

Mmmmmm
Im-ninalu Im-ninalu
Mmmmmm
Im-ninalu Im-ninalu

El-Hay
El-Hay Merumam Al Keruvim

[Spoken by Yitzhak Sinwani]

The generous truly know
What will be given
If they don't stop, you know
The gates of heaven are always open
And there's this God in the sky and the angels
How they sit, you know, in front of the light
And that's what it's about
- repost from 2006

5 comments:

Dr. Frank Buschmann said...

Excellent article that helped me much understanding what might be behind these songs, especially Isaac. You know, I kind of accompanied Madonnas history the last 20 years myself (for generational reasons) and was stunned coming across the Kabbala issue since I dealt with that subject myself about 20 years ago :-)
Keep on sharing your knowledge/opintion here, since it can be important for many people.
Cheers,
Frank.

Liorah-Lleucu said...

I don't think she's misappropriating kabbalah. She's integrating it into "all her ways" (including her music). Just because something's different doesn't mean it's illegitimate.

Bryce said...

"I'm more intrigued by the songs both before and after this cut on the album."

Like the song with this line? -->

If you don't like my attitude, then you can F-off

"Rabbis in Israel (mistakenly) thought Madonna was trying to cash in .... So those good men condemned the singer and the album."

Eh, with verses like the one above, not to mention the slutty album cover, they had other reasons to condemn.

megan said...

first of all, madonna has explored numerous religions. being a catholic, hinduism, and now a kabbalah. she is a cultured woman and with her experience she can do whatever the hell she wants. the song has nothing to do with the rabbi they speak of or misleading the kabbalah. i think it's a beautiful song and all religions have their closet monsters, maybe the kabbalists disagree with madonna because it freaks them out. she previously had made a song in hindi (om shanti) which means "peace" relating to the hindu gods. does that mean she's not repping the hindu people wrongly? nobody said anything about that.

madonna is amazing and always will be. in any religion or outfit. people buy her records and go to her shows. the end.

Charlie said...

The Kabbalah is certainly older than Isaac Luria, although he popularized its tenets in the sixteenth century. Luria was also something of a cultural hybrid, his mother was a wealthy native Egyptian Sephardic Jew and his father an Ashkenazi German emigre. His message of cosmic rectification was particularly prescient to the Diaspora Jews confined to the Ghettos of a Christian Europe. Like Luria, Madonna has clearly repackaged an ancient tradition and repurposed its message to the world in which she lives. More power to her.