Madonna: Still not a kabbalist

By Tzvee Zahavy | Published 12/9/2005 | Last Word |

Commuting to work in the morning rush hour from Teaneck to East 53rd Street in the city often takes me an hour — about the length of Madonna’s latest album "Confessions on a Dance Floor," which I was playing for the first time one recent morning.

At the bottleneck at 125th Street entering the East Side Drive, the 10th track came on. It is controversial because it is called "Isaac" and contains allusions to the Kabbalah. Rabbis in Israel (mistakenly) thought Madonna was trying to cash in on the good name of Isaac Luria, the Ari, the great founder of Lurianic Kabbalah. So those good men condemned the singer and the album.

It turns out that the singer named this song in homage to her quite-alive London spiritual guide, a Mr. Yitzhak Sinwani. Isaac is his English name. Here are some of the lyrics, followed by my thoughts on the song:

Im-ninalu (if they are locked)

Daltey Nedivim (the doors of the generous)

Daltey Nedivim

Daltey Marom (the doors of heaven)

Im-ninalu x8

Staring up into the heavens

In this hell that binds your hands

Will you sacrifice your comfort?

Make your way in a foreign land?

Wrestle with your darkness

Angels call your name

Can you hear what they are saying?

Will you ever be the same?


Im-ninalu Im-ninalu


Im-ninalu Im-ninalu

Remember, remember and never forget

All of your life has all been a test

You will find the gate that’s open

Even though your spirit’s broken

Open up my heart

And cause my lips to speak

Bring the heaven and the stars

Down to earth for me

So what do we think? Is Madonna misappropriating the Kabbalah in this song, distorting it in her now-expected sacrilegious manner?

There are elements of Jewish chant in this song with strings and guitars and guts and emotion — yes, a spiritual vibe. Yitzhak Sinwani of the London Kabbalah Centre does sing several stanzas on the song in Aramaic and provides the soft-spoken English coda at its end.

Madonna has said to the press that the Aramaic chant by Yitzhak in the song made her cry. "I had tears in my eyes and did not even know what he was singing about," she told AOL. "Then he told me and I cried even more."

Is this Kabbalah? Not really.

It’s Madonna stringing together poetically some lines about heaven and angels and light and doors that are locked. Everyone that sings of light in heaven is not a kabbalist. Locked doors of the heart are a classic Madonna theme. In fact, "Open Your Heart" is a Madonna standard from her "True Blue" album of 1986 (yes, 20 years ago).

I’m more intrigued by the songs both before and after this cut on the album. In the one before, she asks superstar mid-life crisis questions.

"How high are the stakes? How much fortune can you make? Should I carry on? Will it matter when I’m gone?" To me this sounds more like Kohelet (the philosophical biblical book of Ecclesiastes) than Kabbalah. How much is enough? How many Rolls Royces, villas, private jets?

"Was it all worth it? How did I earn it?" And Ms. Madonna forces herself to admit, "Nobody’s perfect/I guess I deserve it." Now this is hardly a spiritual reflection. It sounds like the material girl is poking her head through here.

Okay, perhaps, I ruminated, the song "Push" that follows "Isaac" on the album moves in a mystical direction. But first you have to make one big rabbinic assumption that most critics and fans have not made. They all assume that this song is an homage to Madonna’s husband and lover, Guy Ritchie. "You push me to go the extra mile. You push me when it’s difficult to smile. You push me, a better version of myself. You push me, only you and no one else. You push me, see the other point of view. You push me when there’s nothing else to do. You push me when I think I know it all. You push me when I stumble and I fall."

However, one might presume — a la the midrash — that this song is a metaphor for the singer’s reliance on a higher spiritual being, much as the rabbis interpret that the beloved in the Song of Songs is a metaphor for God.

Only then does Madonna tilt toward the spiritual and maybe — it is still a b-i-g stretch — in the direction of the authentically kabbalistic content of Judaism.

Tzvee Zahavy, a Teaneck resident, has finally concluded that if he fulfilled his life-long wish and actually met Madonna, he’d have nothing to talk to her about.