Spiritual Fast Food
The front-page headline in the New York Post was striking: “A-Rod brainwashed by Kabbala. Wife blames Madonna, sues for divorce.” I did a double take.
Who is A-Rod? He is Alex Rodriguez, the star third baseman of the New York Yankees, who commands a $300 million contract and is considered the best baseball player since Willie Mays.
Who is Madonna? She is the aging Hollywood pop star who has been dabbling in what she calls the secrets of the esoteric Kabbala and makes sure the world knows about her secrets.
What is Kabbala? The short answer is that it is the overall term for ancient Jewish mystical lore. The long answer is that it is the study of the cosmic ramifications of our behavior, of the hidden meanings behind the biblical text and of the almost inconceivable meticulousness with which human beings must align their actions with the demands of the Torah. That is to say, one cannot even begin the study of Kabbala unless one is thoroughly conversant with Torah, Talmud and the codes; is personally pious and dedicated to spirituality; and is deeply learned in the ways of God. Neither Madonna nor A-Rod seems quite to match these qualifications.
Were it not so sad, the image of the pop singer teaching Kabbala to the Yankee third baseman could be a comic invention – the once-impregnable fortress of Kabbala overrun by fools and miscreants.
This concealed and mystery-laden discipline, which represents hiddenness and quiet meditation, has reached the nadir of its millennia-long history by being dragged onto the headlines of a garish and sensationalist New York newspaper. The unkindest cut of all is that the headlines link Kabbala with two individuals who are not even Jewish and certainly have no Judaic learning whatsoever, who cannot read or understand a Hebrew word, who cannot even pronounce the word “Kabbala” correctly, who know nothing of its provenance, and whose closest encounter with things Jewish is the corner deli. This transcends ludicrous; it is absurd, grotesque and farcical. It is, in a word, unadulterated lunacy.
WHAT ATTRACTS the rich and famous to Kabbala? First and foremost are some very creative modern witch doctors – medicine men who promote it the way elixirs and potions and snake oil were once peddled to a gullible public. These pitchmen claim that there are no prerequisites to learning Kabbala and that it demands no personal obligations or responsibilities. This is a powerful mix: You unlock the secrets of life, attain peace of mind and you don’t have to invest anything of yourself into it. There are no restrictions on the way you live, no thou-shalts and thou-shalt-nots, no refraining from any behaviors that you enjoy, no withdrawal from things you desire, no ongoing study or prayer requirements, no arduous paths of self- discipline.
Just pay a nominal membership fee, read a pamphlet or two, and you’re in. Occasionally you simply sit in front of a lit candle, meditate, chant a few mantras and – oh yes, wear a red string around your wrist, like Madonna does. (The string is on special this week at your friendly Kabbala Center for $29.95 plus shipping and handling. Also available this week only at special prices are incense, soaps, holy water and energy drinks.)
Why engage in a strenuous climb all the way to the top of a mountain in Nepal to attain serenity from a guru, when with much less effort you can walk around the block and drop in to your convenient neighborhood Kabbala Center in Los Angeles or New York or other cities of your choice?
BUT WHY are celebrities especially attracted to such quackery? Perhaps because these people are the least serene and therefore the most vulnerable of all. They have been aiming all their lives at celebritydom and all its attendant appurtenances: The limitless money, the adulation and genuflection of the masses, the fulfillment of every whim and desire, the huge mansions and servants and fawning assistants and yes-men, the power and the influence.
And now, after struggling and clawing their way up to the top of the greasy pole, they find it to be an empty shell. Inside their own souls, in the dead of night, there still lurks a hollowness, a desire for meaning and purpose, a yearning for a life that transcends the crassness that surrounds them. Is this what I have striven for all my life? Is that all there is?
Some react to this inner yearning by resorting futilely to drugs; others to a restless, never-ending whirl of adventures and even more material pleasures, which yields up even more frustration. A few of the more sensitive ones find meaning in doing good works, worthwhile endeavors which bring them some inner satisfaction and fulfillment. Most, however, seek shortcuts to ease the sense of emptiness that besets them.
Enter Kabbala – which, they are told, can painlessly unlock their hidden selves and make them feel good. But – as the life of Madonna herself attests – tranquility continues to elude them. She is engaged in a constant, headlong rush for publicity and notoriety to satisfy her insatiable needs for recognition. She is eminently successful with the headlines, as per the A-Rod affair. But inner peace continues to elude her. For there are no shortcuts to anything worthwhile in life: The concert pianist has practiced countless years; the outstanding athlete has worked at his skills for a lifetime (ask A-Rod); the great scholar has invested endless hours of day and night labor on his studies; the truly spiritual person has worked at it for decades. Madonna herself surely worked hard to become a pop-star personality. Not even pseudo-Kabbala can grant serenity without some personal investment of self-discipline and spirituality.
HERE IS some non-mystical advice. A-Rod, forget Kabbala. Go back to being the best human being you can be. Go back to your wife and children. Take them to church with you. Give 10 percent of your earnings to good charities. Help those in need. Forget the incense, holy soap and the false promises of inner peace. Be the best Alex Rodriguez you know how. You will be a much happier man. And your batting average will undoubtedly improve.
Madonna: Forgive me for using a non-kabbalistic but Yiddish phrase – enough already! There comes a time when getting yet another headline is simply not worth it. You are almost 50. It is time to act your age. Remove the red string from your wrist and enter the ranks of gracefully aging ex-movie stars. Join the church choir. You too will find that tithing your earnings to legitimate and worthwhile charities and devoting your energies to them will give you some of the tranquility that you obviously yearn for. Drop the Kabbala the same way you drop boyfriends. Let your fans remember you as a great entertainer and not as a gullible dilettante.
The object lesson is the same for the rest of us ordinary non-celebrities: Beware of fast-food religion and drive-in spirituality.
This article appears in today’s Jerusalem Post.
“Who is A-Rod? He is Alex Rodriguez, the star third baseman of the New York Yankees, who commands a $300 million contract and is considered the best baseball player since Willie Mays.”
– who is Willy Mays?
Absolutely. The Kabbala being peddled today offers something for nothing. This offer is desirable to many. A perception that one never gets something for nothing – not because the person making the offer is always a fraudster, but because something obtained for nothing is always worthless – would be a help.
This viewpoint plainly needs to be instilled at home. Although I do not take the view that modern society is necessarily evil and I have a TV etc, I do acknowledge that the message is not one shared by the media or the press. What is required is a consumerist approach that insists on ethical behaviour, even at the expense of personal inconvenience and financial expenditure. I fear that, if we had that, the Meschiach would already be here.
For now I simply try to teach my kids that these ‘role models’ are nothing of the kind and encourage a critique of their behaviour. And pray…
Thank you for speaking truth in wisdom and in love.
G-d doesn’t demand a fast track, in fact, He always meets us where we are in the midst of our stuff and struggle in ways unanticipated and unexpected but in His way so that He gets the glory and we know it wasn’t by our work. Those who sincerely seek Him and His wisdom, find it. G-d hasn’t changed His plan or method. Man, on-the-other hand, often thinks he has a better way……one that is more complex and complicated than G-d ever intended.
An excellent commentary, but ironic to find on the same page an ad for Western Wall Prayers, clearly advertised as a means to achieve a spiritual goal without effort on your part (other than spending a bit of money). Fast-food religion at its finest!
This gives Major League Baseball a new challenge. In the past, they confiscated and checked bats thought to have cork inside that illegally enhanced performance. Now, they may have to check bat handles for red string in or under the tape.
“- who is Willy Mays?”
To put it in yeshivish terms: among baseball players, Willie Mays was the godol hador of the previous generation.
BTW, this is the best article I’ve read in a long time. Wow.
There are several rabbis whose opinions must be right as I always agree with them, these include Rabbis Emanuel Feldman and Berel Wein.
How do we deal with the many advertisements and mail solicitations which promise that if we give money to their cause, Rabbi Kanievski, or some godol of equal stature will daven for me at a specific holy place.
I know many “Litvishe” people whose idea of a trip to Israel is going from tzadik to tzadik for brochos and then from grave to grave.
Then you have the “segulos”, whatever they may be e.g. if I give Chai rotel mashkeh at the grave in Meron, I will be saved from whatever problem I have. The pages of our frum papers are full of these ads.
Does Rabbi Feldman and do others think that this is the authentic yiddishkeit of former generations or has something crept in that is really foreign, at least for non chassidim? What do the wise people of the blogosphere think? Is this authentic,orthodox Judaism or something altogether from a different mindset and belief system.
LOberstein, whether it’s authentic, orthodox Judaism I don’t know. But I have a theory where it came from. PArts of Israeli Charedi society are poor. The temptation is find something to sell is very strong when you have five children and a small Kollel stipend and a tiny government kitzbat yeladim (child payment, which the Israeli government gives on a per-child basis to the parents).
Children and teenagers need to be taught job skills. I don’t know from first-hand experience, but from what I heard a lot of Charedi children do not.
Rabbi O (re comment 7), Rabbi Yisrael Reisman spoke about segulos during one of his motzei Shabbos navi shiurim. If I can find the date, I’ll share it. You’ll like his views.
And hoping I don’t offend the Rabbis in question, may our senior rabbanim, such as Rabbi Feldman and Wein have many more years of good health to communicate and share the clarity their years and experience have brought them.
LOberstein, whether it’s authentic, orthodox Judaism I don’t know. But I have a theory where it came from. Parts of Israeli Charedi society are poor. The temptation is find something to sell is very strong when you have five children and your income consists of a small Kollel stipend and a tiny government kitzbat yeladim (child payment, which the Israeli government gives on a per-child basis to the parents).
Children and teenagers need to be taught job skills. I don’t know from first-hand experience, but from what I heard a lot of Charedi children are not.