I keep waiting for Madonna to have her James Frey moment. Some Jewish Web site — a philo-Semitic "Who's Jewish?" site like Jewlicious or one of the many anti-Semitic "Who's Jewish?" sites — will be looking for a photo of Madonna in her Zohar whites and red bracelet at the Kabbalah Center and won't be able to find it. Then upon further investigation, they'll discover that in fact Madonna is not a member of the center, she's just on their mailing list, and that she doesn't regularly attend classes or meet with rabbis, though she did have a conversation with one once at a Shabbas dinner at Demi and Ashton's. Esther, it will turn out, isn't her Hebrew name, but the alias she uses at hotels.
There will be podcast apologias available for exclusive download from iTunes and debates in Hollywood over whether it's still appropriate for her to star in a remake of Yentl. She'll have to go on Jon Stewart, and he'll pretend to be mad that he was duped into pretending to care about her midlife conversion into the ways of the gematria. In her defense she will say, "I tried to tell the label. Why do you think I named the new album Confessions on a Dance Floor? Did any of you believe me when I said I was a virgin?"
No such luck. Madonna's memory of her (very) recent Jewish past is still intact, though she's been coy about fact-or-fiction when it comes to "Isaac," a silky flush of chill-room exotica that's become known as her "kabbalah song." When Confessions (Warner Bros.) was released last November, the song immediately got her into hot water with a few Jewish rabbis who believed she had written a club hit for Isaac Luria, one of the most revered 16th-century Jewish mystics. "Jewish law forbids the use of the name of the holy rabbi for profit," Rabbi Rafael Cohen said in his best Pat Robertson imitation. "I can only sympathize for her because of the punishment that she is going to receive from the heavens."
Madonna fired back by admitting that she didn't even know enough about Luria to write a song for him and that she wasn't even sure what her song meant. She did know enough about the other Isaac — Abraham's son, who was almost sacrificed in a divine game of chicken in one of the most debated passages of Genesis — to originally give the song a title better suited to a Torah study session than to a TRL countdown, "The Binding of Isaac."
Compared to other "binding of Isaac" songs (Leonard Cohen's "Song of Isaac," Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited"), Madonna's is pretty tame, though musically more celebratory in its Jewishness. Between Hebrew chants from London rabbi Yitzhak Sinwani, she runs through some vague prayerisms — broken spirits, open gates — and then nods to the Genesis tale with an empathetic vision of Isaac "staring up into the heavens in this hell that binds your hands."
The point, though, is not which Isaac Madonna is singing about — a beloved mystic or a Biblical icon — but that she's singing about any Isaac at all. Do we really want our pop stars to be God brokers, torchbearers of Testaments, Old or New? When Bono showed up at President Bush's National Prayer Breakfast two weeks ago, he sure seemed to think so. He stooped to God-talk when he pleaded with 3M to remove policy restrictions that keep poor countries from accessing necessary medical supplies. "God will not accept that," he said. "Mine won't. Will yours?"
Madonna shouldn't be singled out for her mystical awakening when Bono is busy debating religious relativism with the president of the United States. But the fact that you can hear her Jewphilia on a pop station and then flip to alt-rock radio and hear Matisyahu, a burnout Phish head turned Lubavitch Hasid, demanding "Moshiach Now" begs a bigger question: How did Judaism become the new Christianity? Indeed, on "Roots in Stereo," a new duet between Matisyahu and Christian rap-rockers P.O.D., there doesn't seem to be any difference between the two. In the song's spliffy rude boy blur, where we're all "the blood of God's veins," Jewish redemption and Christian redemption turn out to be the same thing after all.
Madonna's always been a reliable trend-spotter, so maybe her embrace of music-video phylacteries and dance-floor Torah tales has been her way of trying to tell us something. In politics, it's the God you pray to that matters the most. In pop music, it's the quality of the pose — any God will do, you just better pretend to pray to something. *