Since news broke of Madonna's plans for a multi-million dollar girls school in Malawi crumbled, there have been several attempts to explain what went wrong — and how Madonna got involved in a spiritual organization that many see as a cult that preys on celebrities.
This week, New York magazine attempts to explain one of the scandal's biggest mysteries.
Author Vanessa Grigoriadis starts by observing Madonna at the Kabbalah Centre's recent Purim party in New York. The event is also attended by Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, but unlike the other celebrities in attendance, Madonna withdraws to the club's VIP room after the service. Another member says this is common:
"That's the way it is with Madonna and Kabbalah. If there's a party, she never mixes. When she comes to services on Friday night and Saturday morning, Madonna rolls in late with an entourage, and they sit in the front row of the synagogue. In Kabbalah, she's the queen."
Madonna was drawn to Kabbalah while she was pregnant in the mid-'90s, and the group acknowledges that it wouldn't have taken off with celebrities if she hadn't jumped on the trend. As for what attracted her to the organization, Eitan Yardeni, who has given Madonna, Moore, and Roseanne Barr one-on-one Kabbalah instruction, suggests that it may have provided her with a way to deal with mega-stardom:
"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."
Another possible draw is the Kabbalah Centre's philosophy on strong women. From New York:
The Bergs' ideas were similar to those in the traditional Kabbalistic texts, but with a focus on emotional well-being, each individual's unfulfilled potential. Karen also emphasized the Kabbalistic notion that women are higher beings. Women, as it turns out, don't need to be on Earth-their reincarnation is assured, and they're here only to help men achieve their purpose. "Satan, which we also call the ‘opponent within,' knows that women are the key to a man's success, and the reason the world suffers is because women aren't doing their job," says [Billy] Phillips [a student of the Centre]. "Women need to kick men's asses! I'm serious. Kicking ass is more sexy and a turn-on than anything else, because now the woman is talking to my soul."
And that brings us to the snippet of this article that's mostly likely to make headlines:
Madonna became close with the Bergs [who founded the Centre], and they with her; Karen has even noted that Madonna "keeps a kosher home, she observes Shabbat, she circumcised her son and had her [ex-] husband circumcised." (Yes, you read the last part correctly.)
One would hope that Guy Ritchie had some say in the matter too.
While a philosophy catered to powerful female stars may have drawn Madonna to the Kabbalah Centre, it also partially explains why Raising Malawi failed. Unlike some stars, Madonna actually donated to her charity, but the boarding school for girls was in some ways just a vanity project. Madonna was cautioned that building many smaller schools would work better in Malawi, but she didn't want to be the only female superstar without her own African girls school.
As you might expect, when things started to go south with the charity, the blame was shifted away from the Kabbalah Centre's most valuable parishioner. Clinton-era White House staffer Trevor Neilson was hired to clean house, and stories were leaked to the press blaming Africans for Raising Malawi's failure. When Neilson began firing staffers, organization CEO Anjimile Oponyo demanded the $380,000 she was promised in her contract. She was painted as greedy in a press release and the New York Times was fed information that described her as incompetent. Oponyo appealed to Madonna in a letter, writing,
"I do not understand how I went from an employee you were proud of, an employee who last year women's day you championed with so much fanfare, to this year the enemy you want to discredit in the press ... I thought you were the Messiah to save Malawian women and children."
Despite the talk of becoming humble and getting "closer to the Light," Madonna is still in charge within Kabbalah Centre organizations. One of the biggest appeals may be that she's allowed to abandon the party to hang out in the VIP section when things get ugly.
Our Lady Of Malawi [N.Y. Mag]