September 19, 2004, Updated September 12, 2012

Madonna joins other Kabbalah students at a lecture in Tel Aviv on Thursday. (Photo courtesy of the Kabbalah Center).When thousands of Kabbalah enthusiasts – including American icon Madonna – wanted to learn more about the mystical Jewish texts, they decided to go the source: Israel.

On the eve of Rosh Hashana – the Jewish new year – more than 1,200 participants from 22 countries descended upon the land where Kabbalah was inspired in order to attend the International Kabbalah Center’s annual New Year’s gathering.

While Tel Aviv is not the source of Kabbalah in Israel, this Mediterranean city is home to the Kabbalah Center in Israel, and was chosen to host the Los Angeles-sponsored event because of its commercial amenities, including an abundance of suitable hotels and restaurants.

“The decision fell that it was time to do the gathering in Israel. And the only place we could find big enough was in Tel Aviv,” Shaul Youdkevitch, director of the Israel Kabbalah Center, told ISRAEL21c. “Also, the biggest activity of the Kabbalah Center in Israel is in Tel Aviv. This is logical because most of the country lives in this central area.”

Meaning ‘what has been handed down’ or ‘received wisdom’ in Hebrew, Kabbalah is a generic term for Jewish mystical texts compiled between the 5th and 12th centuries in Spain and the Middle East. In Jewish communities, Kabbalah was long the exclusive preserve of devout male scholars, giving rise to the term “cabal”. It was introduced to non-scholars in the West in the 1960s by Philip Berg, a U.S.-born rabbi who studied Jewish mysticism in Israel.

In recent years, celebrities like Madonna, Britney Spears and Demi Moore have embraced Kabbalah, increasing its profile within a non-Jewish framework and making the mysterious branch of Judaism more accessible to the public.

“Non-Jews can study Kabbalah and women can study Kabbalah. It is nonsense to think otherwise. The wisdom of Kabbalah that we teach is something that can deliver all of us. According to all Jewish laws, it’s universal and pertains to all human beings who were created in the image of God. There are some people who don’t understand that the Middle Ages aren’t over yet,” said Youdkevitch.

But Kabbalah is considered by many traditional Jews to be so holy that it may be studied in its original form only after years of Talmudic study and spiritual maturity.

Talmudic sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, is attributed with having authored the kabbalistic teachings over 1,800 years ago – recorded in a mostly-Aramaic book called the Zohar (“Shining”), first published in Italy in 1558. According to Jewish tradition, Bar-Yochai developed mystical powers while fleeing Roman occupiers.

In 1922, Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag founded the first modern Kabbalah Center in Jerusalem. His idea was to kick-start an educational movement that would spread the message of Kabbalah among the Jewish masses. Ashlag is the renowned author of the Sulam, the ladder, a commentary on the Zohar. He died in 1954.

In 1969, Berg took control of the center and decided to popularize the mystic texts in the West. And, most controversially, he deemed it suitable for everyone and anyone to learn the sacred teachings.

The Kabbalah Center aims to “make accessible the ancient wisdom and tools of Kabbalah in order to illuminate the minds and hearts of individuals, groups and organizations-regardless of faith, political belief, or race,” according to the organization’s Web site.

“If you’re speaking about public attention and interest, although the Kabbalah Center is quite widespread, the celebrities is a way of getting public attention and to a certain degree more legitimacy, which they are seeking,” Dr. Boaz Huss, a faculty member in the Goldstein-Goren Department of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University, told ISRAEL21c.

“Of course we are teaching a light version,” says Youdkevitch. “You have to start from something light in any studies.”

Whatever the motivation behind her interest in Kabbalah, Madonna and the other participants were able to take advantage of the wealth of historical opportunities connected to Kabbalah that exist in Israel.

She made a midnight pilgrimage to a Jerusalem cemetery early Sunday, holding a mystical candlelit ceremony at the grave of Ashlag. Following her graveside visit, Madonna went to the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site.

Led by a rabbi, Madonna and her small entourage recited blessings over food and wine, drank from small plastic cups and circled the raised stone grave, AP reported. Toward the end of the ceremony, a visibly moved Madonna wiped tears from her eyes.

On Sunday, the singer, along with husband Guy Ritchie traveled to the north of Israel to visit the grave of Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Luria at a cemetery in Safed. Luria (1534-1572), renowned as the greatest kabbalist of modern times, is commonly known as the Ari.

Adherents of Jewish mysticism believe that praying at the graves of sages can help achieve one’s wishes. Millions make pilgrimages every year to the more than 100 of these burial sites across the Holy Land, praying for health, children or to find a mate.

Madonna – who has adopted the name Esther – has said she is not following some fashion but is truly devoted to Kabbalah. She wears a red thread on her wrist to ward off the evil eye, and has used Hebrew letters and Jewish prayer accessories in her music video clips.

When Berg and Madonna announced their participation in the Tel Aviv conference, the center – located in the heart of the city – underwent a complete renovation. The Kabbalah Center shop was also restocked – with Kabbalah baby blankets, candles, water bottles, and CDs. Also on the shelves are copies of Madonna’s children’s books – translated into Hebrew.

Thanks to her generous donations to the center and because she has helped publicize its activities, Youdkevitch says Madonna was crowned the ‘president of honor’ for a gala dinner during her visit called the ‘Spirituality For Kids’ gala benefit, a “spiritual fund for children”.

Madonna called for world peace and tolerance at the dinner on Sunday night in Tel Aviv.

“I’d like to say how happy I am to be back in Israel,” Madonna told the 1,000-plus crowd. “I was a bit hesitant to come here after seeing so many news reports about terrorist attacks and reading travel warnings about how dangerous it is for Americans here. I realize now that it’s no more dangerous to be here than in New York. I feel very safe and welcome here. The most dangerous thing I’ve encountered here were the very naughty paparazzi waiting outside my hotel.”

Madonna clarified that she was not “representing a religion or any religious group,” but rather that she was here as “a student of the Kabbalah.”

Kabbalah students “all have one thing in common,” she said, “we want to create peace in the world. We want to put an end to chaos and suffering. But most of all we want to put an end to hatred for no reason.

“A Kabbalist sees the world as a unifying whole. A Kabbalist believes he or she has the responsibility to make the world a better place. That is why I’m here,” she said.

Hosted by local TV personality Dan Shilon, the evening included dignitaries like Labor leader Shimon Peres, Trade Minister Ehud Olmert, and Druse leader, Sheik Abulrocan. Local singing sensation Ahinoam Nini and Palestinian songstress Amal Murkus provided entertainment by singing “Imagine”, the John Lennon song that Madonna has been closing concerts with on her current tour.

“In the past four days I’ve met people from all over the world – I’ve held hands, sung, danced and prayed with Sufis, Christians, Jews, and Moslems. We all have one thing in common we want to create peace in the world,” said Madonna.

Speaking about the importance of Spirituality for Kids, Madonna said: “When a child sees another child they just want to play. They’re not thinking, ‘oh he’s a Muslim,’ or ‘she’s a Jew’. They do not judge one another by the color of their skin or the style of their headdress. It’s adults that put these ideas into children’s heads. Children are more pure and they do not see the world in a fragmented way. They are closer to God.”

Madonna garnered a standing ovation before and after her speech.

Israel’s Tourism Minister Gideon Ezra said that Madonna’s visit to Israel is very important for promoting tourism to Israel and that attention to her visit in the international media will strengthen the flow of tourists to the country and awareness of Israel as a tourist destination.

“It’s very important to Israel when a personality like Madonna comes here,” Ezra told ISRAEL21c. “Hopefully others will follow in her footsteps and come and visit too.”

For Madonna and the 1,200 other Kabbalah students, the five-day visit to Israel was a fulfillment of their desire to feel and experience the country which spawned the mysticism which has touched their lives.

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