FEBRUARY 13, 2003
One spark of religion getting press these days is the popularity of the Jewish mystical tradition Kabbalah among celebrities. The most outspoken of this motley collection of celebrities-turned-seekers is Madonna, whose most recent music video -- to a song from the latest James Bond film -- features a sword fight with her psychic doppelganger, a blazing Aramaic name of God, and lyrics invoking the name of Sigmund Freud and calling for the destruction of ego.
Now I find it preposterous that Madonna identifies herself as "a Kabbalist," and I take some offense with the video's explicit parallels between wrapping tefillin and tying up for an injection of heroin. Yet, while the comparison between ultimately focused prayer and the rush of drug-induced ecstasy seems to me over-simplified and unsatisfactory, certainly it is a trope common to artistic interpretations of religion (and I do not intend to apply a harsher moral or critical yardstick to this video than I would to the number of wretched recent "Kabbalah" novels.)
The overall response to this high-profile religious exploration has been skeptical and cynical. The press assumes that the new interest professed by celebrities in Jewish mysticism can't possible be serious religious interest because, well, they're celebrities. Following the same logic, they assume that any religious thought sold in Hollywood is inherently superficial precisely because it is sold in Hollywood.
That Roseanne Barr attends a Yom Kippur service is presented in one recent article as a joke in itself, as if a comedian were incapable of depth of religious feeling. Mick Jagger, in his autumn years, professes a profound interest in the book of Zohar and our response is to snigger, not to say to him what we would to a younger and less fame-drenched person at the outset of such studies: commit yourself fully to the work, and may you achieve wisdom.
One problem is that it's hard to take celebrities seriously. Mick Jagger is, for most of us, purely a media creation; it's hard to see him davening his way through the finer points of esoteric cosmology. But therein lies the real risk with the buzz over showbiz religion: the tendency, on elitist grounds, to dismiss any religious expression made by rock stars or actors or advanced through pop songs or music videos. I suggest we should ground our opinions on Madonna's religious expression by turning to parallel cases of popularization of religious thought.
Joseph Campbell's best-selling scansion of world mythology juggled narratives and images from around the world, maintaining that "all truth is one," with the notable exception of two religions he found unworthy, Judaism and Islam. J.D. Salinger wrote fiction, much of which reads like self-help, including the novel Franny and Zoey, which is peppered with sound bites from a variety of mystical systems and is itself a meditation on The Way of the Pilgrim. Both of these writers, through their work and, through either a flurry of media appearances (Campbell) or a much-publicized retreat from the world (Salinger) took on guru-like status in American culture.
Madonna's video, Campbell's television appearances, and Salinger's novels are in the same category of cultural text. There are plenty of reasons why their presentation of religious ideas may make us cringe, yet many of us, including religion scholars, launched upon our present course by passionate, albeit adolescent, encounters with work like that of Campbell and Salinger.
We, as people keen to sight religion as it unfolds in public life, should be concerned not with the gossip regarding public figure's private lives, but, rather, should concern ourselves with the cultural ramifications of such popularization of a system of religious thought.
Thus, even as we brace ourselves against the inevitable wave of manglings and misunderstandings of Kabbalistic beliefs that will result from the current trend, we can also anticipate that today's buzz over Jewish mysticism may well result in a revitalization of the American artistic and intellectual scene.
Spencer Dew is a Ph.D. student in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His work focuses on contemporary fiction and traditional Jewish theories of language and textuality.