There’s more to Madonna’s Jewish story than just Kabbalah and social media posts about Israel

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Within a day of the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel on Oct. 7, international pop-star Madonna took to Instagram to share her reaction to the slaughter of Israeli civilians with her 19 million followers. Her post included video clips of the terrorists rampaging through Israeli towns and villages, and her accompanying commentary said, “What is happening in Israel is devastating. Watching all of these families and especially children being herded, assaulted and murdered in the streets is heartbreaking.

“My heart goes out to Israel. To families and homes that have been destroyed. To children who are lost,” she continued. “I’m praying for you.”

She concluded her message with three Israeli flag emojis and a call “for peace. For the world.”

To the casual follower or fan of Madonna, this heartfelt outpouring of sympathy with Israel might have come as a surprise. But to those who have been paying closer attention to the pop superstar over the years, this gesture was totally in character with Madonna’s longstanding support of Israel and her strong connection to Judaism and the Jewish people.

This is made especially clear in the new 858-page critically acclaimed biography, Madonna: A Rebel Life, by Mary Gabriel, who recounts in great detail Madonna’s religious upbringing and her deep and abiding lifelong spiritual searching that culminated with her decades-long involvement with the controversial Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre.

Madonna’s parents raised their children in a devout Roman Catholic household; Madonna attended several Catholic elementary schools. Her mother died when she was only five years old, leaving her father, Tony Ciccone, fully in charge of their schooling and upbringing. In Pontiac, Michigan, religion was “fundamental to life,” writes Gabriel, “and because the population was so diverse, the congregations were, too… A street might have a Catholic church on one corner and a synagogue on the other.”

According to Madonna’s brother, Christopher Ciccone, their father made a “very deliberate effort to introduce his children to cultures outside their own so they would not be ‘prejudiced’ or ‘unnerved by different people.’” The Ciccones belonged to a Catholic-Jewish organization through which they learned about Jewish holidays and ritual. “I celebrated Passover all my life, without realizing it was Passover. I thought it was Easter,” said Christopher.

In high school, Madonna’s dream was not to be a singer and a pop star but a dancer. At 19 years old, in 1978, before settling in New York City to pursue those dreams, Madonna attended a six-week intensive summer program in modern dance sponsored by the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C. It was there that she first met Pearl Lang, renowned as the first dancer who Martha Graham allowed to perform some of her own roles, and eventually recognized as Graham’s greatest interpreter.

Lang went on to form her own company, and her dances were infused with references to Jewish plays, poetry, and legends. “Most of her dances explored Jewish themes,” Gabriel writes. “Many of them derived from Yiddish literature, which she expressed with an emotional range that ran the gamut from abject despair to religious ecstasy…. Lang described the essence of her work as the search for God. The intellectuality, spirituality, and passion of Lang’s dances, not to mention the rigor of the work, all appealed to young Madonna.”

As most people know, Madonna’s first husband was actor Sean Penn. The two got hitched in 1985, but within two years, their tempestuous relationship came to an end, and they were divorced in 1989. What many people do not know is that Penn’s father, Leo Penn, was a blacklisted actor who came from a family of Russian and Lithuanian Jewish immigrants.

Madonna gave birth to her first child, daughter Lourdes, in 1996. The baby’s father was Carlos Leon, Madonna’s fitness trainer. Motherhood steered Madonna back to thinking about her own religious upbringing and how she wanted to raise Lourdes.

“Religious beliefs had long been part of her self-education,” Gabriel writes. “She studied the Gnostics and early Christians, Buddhism, and Hinduism. She told an Italian journalist, ‘Although I am Catholic in my bones, I am looking for something else in my blood.’”

Madonna discussed her dilemma with film producer Susan Becker, who mentioned that she was attending classes taught by a rabbi about the Jewish mystical tradition called Kabbalah. Until the mid-20th century, Kabbalah was an esoteric discipline reserved for study by married Jewish men over the age of 40 who were already well-versed in all aspects of Torah. But an excommunicated rabbi named Philip Berg began teaching a version of this ancient Jewish wisdom tradition to all comers in Los Angeles.

Berg’s teachings required no previous knowledge of Judaism or Hebrew. Berg attracted a following that read like an A-list of Hollywood celebrities, including Demi Moore, Ariana Grande, Britney Spears, Diane Keaton, Roseanne Barr, Sandra Bernhard, and most notably and ardently, Madonna. She began attending classes at the Kabbalah Centre, where she found what she was looking for: “She believed Kabbalah was exactly what she needed to help prepare for her new role as mother,” writes Gabriel.

Putting aside for the moment the question of just what was being taught at the Kabbalah Centre, and if it had any relationship at all to the Jewish mystical tradition as explored in the Zohar, or the Book of Splendor, thus began a long-term relationship between Madonna and the Centre, which extended to supporting her philanthropic and charitable works, especially her devotion to building children’s hospitals and schools in Malawi, through her organization Raising Malawi.

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