Madonna’s road to Malawi began in the mid-nineties, when she discovered Kabbalah. Early to trends, she was the first major celebrity to sign up for the group but was soon followed by Moore, Kutcher, Donna Karan, Roseanne Barr, prominent New Yorkers like some members of the Wilpon family, the family now struggling to hold on to the Mets, and young goyim like Britney Spears, who once tattooed Hebrew letters on her neck. But Madonna, as always, is the biggest. “The Kabbalah Centre would not have taken off without Madonna, and they know that—they admit it,” says Jody Myers, author of a large-scale study of the center, Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest. “A lot of people thought, Well, Madonna’s tough, she’s smart, and she likes this place—is there something in it for me?”
When Madonna began studying Kabbalah, she was filming Evita and pregnant with her first child, Lourdes. Having achieved total domination in the material world, she’d begun a new campaign to conquer the spiritual, and was an adherent of a strict yoga practice called Ashtanga, a form that attracts a lot of type A personalities looking for the release that comes with a teacher’s literally sitting on your back. But yoga, with its sprinkling of Hindu wisdom, may not have answered enough existential questions for her. As she has said, she worried, “What will I teach my child about the important things in life?”
But the Kabbalah Centre, which is a mix of EST-era consciousness-raising principles and ancient Hebrew texts with a dash of numerology, astrology, and good old-fashioned talk therapy thrown in, is not shy about providing answers. In fact, it prefers to be called a “spiritual technology” rather than a religion. Once she was introduced to Kabbalah, Madonna, like all new students, was assigned a personal teacher to aid her in decoding the Zohar, a thirteenth-century commentary on the Hebrew Bible and other religious writings. She began studying one-on-one with Eitan Yardeni, a handsome Israeli who has also taught Moore and Barr. “The rule in Kabbalah is that the more a person has, the more they need to work on themselves, in every area,” says Yardeni over the phone last weekend, expanding on Kabbalah’s basic philosophy. “With that power of having so much comes a greater challenge, a greater amount of work to become humble about it. It’s a struggle, to have so much.”
These thoughts resonated with Madonna, who has, traditionally, been more interested in power than almost any other pop star. “With celebrities, at least those who are honest with themselves and ready to do the spiritual work, they realize that fame is not enough,” says Yardeni. “The test is to realize that the temporary glitz, the temporary high, the temporary fame, is not true power. If you let the power control you, you’ll be miserable. That’s just the truth.”
In the haze of cocaine, red carpets, and yes-men that is modern Hollywood celebrity, the appeal of being told that you have a responsibility to be good—perhaps being told this for the first time since you moved to L.A.—cannot be underestimated. In fact, one of the main tenets of Kabbalah is that the only way to achieve real happiness is charity or sharing with others: Giving everything away will get you everything you desire. This idea is even woven into their cosmology, which is a doozy. The Kabbalah Centre says that at the beginning of the universe, God, or Light, which is also called the Desire to Share, was all that existed. Then God decided he wanted to share, so he made something to receive his sharing energy: ten vessels, most of which also give off Light, except for one set of vessels, named Malchut. Malchut feels shameful because he is a vessel with nothing to give and only a Desire to Receive. Lost in the depths of his humiliation, Malchut decides to cut out the light.
This was not a good decision. Suddenly, Malchut’s emptiness shatters the vessels and, much like Adam eating the shiny apple, a physical world blasts into being, one in which humans are bound to suffer forever. Down here, in the earthly world, we can no longer perceive the Light, since it’s blocked by the shards of the broken vessels. It is our duty to connect with the Light again, which is the only way that we can (a) be happy, (b) get what we want, and (c) eventually make the cosmos whole again. It’s not that easy, though: Everyone has a different karmic debt to settle, and the accrued actions of one’s past lives may mean that there is a long way to go before reaching nirvana.