Sun, Jun 27, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Goodbye Madonna, hello immaterial girl

The newly renamed Madonna has joined a long line of women drawn to spiritual life in middle age


I always thought that Madonna would "get religion" at some point. Partly because she was raised a Catholic, and there is usually something lingering about a Catholic formation even if, like James Joyce, it later turns to passionate hostility. And partly because of her restless need to keep developing in new directions, which is often lightly described as "reinventing herself."

The third reason that I thought Madonna -- who said last week that she now wants us to call her by her Kabbalah name of Esther -- would take up religion is that she is a mother, and in her 40s. You don't expect the unattached Bridget Jones, or the average chick-lit heroine, to be drawn to the spiritual life, but it does happen to a noticeable number of more settled mothers: Suddenly, they want to transmit to their children that je ne sais quoi of a worldview with slightly more uplift than the morals and mores of reality TV.

They want to give their children values. And they quite often feel a stirring of these transcendent values themselves, at about the same time. This may be deepened when they start anxiously trying to get their progeny into faith schools. If you don't believe me, look at the evidence, and visit a church, chapel or synagogue on a day of worship: You will find that at least two-thirds of the worshippers present are women, and 90 percent of these are mothers.

Stalin claimed that religion was dying out because the churches were full of women, and mostly older women too: What he forgot was that the younger women would one day grow older and eventually take their places among the churchgoers. Faith is a feminine thing, and may even be a feminist one.

It is a fairly well-kept secret that feminism originally arose among religious women in the 19th century: From Hannah More and Josephine Butler in Britain to Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the US, feminism was an offshoot of evangelical Christianity, and that spiritual energy still hovers.

But with Madonna-Esther, I rather thought that when she came to her inevitable spiritual awakening, she would choose something like Buddhism, the "religion-lite" of so many of the stars. Buddhism is a charming faith; very peaceable and calm and full of love for all living things. It allows you to affirm that your cat has a soul. It is also agreeably "lite" on matters of sin and transgressions, with no tiresome Ten Commandments or other heavy prohibitions.

I was surprised, thus, when Madonna first announced she was drawn to Judaism, since it is notoriously difficult to become a Jew, and real Jews seldom truly accept the converted goy. But then the lady announced, further, that her religious commitment was towards a particular kind of Jewish mysticism known as the Kabbalah. The children's books that she has written are encoded Kabbalah messages.

Kabbalah no doubt answers that human -- and specifically feminine -- need for spiritual enlightenment, and "the path", as eastern mystics call it. The word is Hebrew for "received tradition", and the Kabbalah texts are all based on ancient Jewish sacred lore, which means that they are probably wise and sensible, being the accumulated knowledge of countless Jewish mothers telling their rabbi sons how many beans make five.

Kabbalah, however, has been somewhat rebranded and repackaged for a new age, and you can become initiated in its mysteries in 10 easy lessons for ?180 (US$327). (The Kabbalah headquarters in Britain are in Bond Street, one of the best parts of London. The property cost more than ?3 million, to which Madonna gave a hefty contribution. Financial contributions are usually part of the commitment of faith.)

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