Thanks, Esther, for making Judaism anything but boring

I don’t know about you, but I must admit I find myself quite excited by this whole Madonna thing.

Indeed, I find myself almost giddy, really pleased, very happy.

I’m happy that Madonna recently announced that she’s adopting the Hebrew name of Esther. I’m happy that she is no longer performing on Shabbat, that she wears a Jewish star, that she goes to shul, that during her concerts there are Hebrew letters being flashed across a screen, and that in one of her music videos, she wears tefillin.

I’m loving it. Think all of that is great.

Now, I know most of you out there, especially those of you who think Judaism is serious business, especially those of you who see yourselves as so pious, don’t think what Madonna is doing is a good thing at all, think, in fact, it’s sickening and outrageous.

Well, it’s your kind of thinking that’s holding Judaism back, pulling Judaism down.

Sure, being Jewish is serious, but that doesn’t mean it has to be dull. In fact, for Judaism to thrive, we must continually find ways to make it anything but boring.

If we don’t, we can pooh-pooh all we want about why young Jews are intermarrying, not affiliating, not identifying, why they’re trying everything but Judaism. And we can pooh-pooh all we want when poll after poll shows that more and more Jews simply feel no connection to Israel or to Judaism.

We can pooh-pooh or we can act-act, do-do, enjoy-enjoy.

I’m enjoying that Madonna is so out there about her attraction to and her allegiance to things Jewish.

Now, yes, I am well aware that Madonna is Catholic and that she couldn’t have a more Christian name. And I’m also aware that her early career was less than pristine.

But she’s in her 40s now, a wife and mom, and by her own admission has been looking far and wide for, as she told Larry King on CNN, “the answers to life. Why am I here? What am I doing here? What is my purpose? How do I fit into the big picture?”

Good questions. Questions she has found the answers to in Judaism.

That thrills me. For I believe Madonna being so out there and so public about it, Madonna being Madonna, her embrace of Judaism will do more good for Judaism than all the outreach organizations can do, than all the lame “continuity” programs ever did.

How many young Jews will be turned on to their faith because Madonna is turned on to Yiddishkeit? How many might want to adopt a Hebrew name, find out what this tefillin thing is, might consider not working on Shabbat? Hell, if Madonna won’t do her concerts on the Sabbath, maybe there’s something there to check out.

It is a weakness of Judaism that we so shy away from the Madonna news, either condemn it, ridicule it or ignore it. Instead, we should be kvelling from it.

So good for you, Madonna. And very good for us.

Talking about Madonna reminds me of Kabbalah. That’s because it was Kabbalah that first attracted her to things Jewish.

Kabbalah has been in the news recently not only because of Madonna, but because of a new project that rated no less than a full page article in Time magazine. That project is an English translation of the Zohar, the core text of Kabbalah, written in Aramaic.

Now, just like most Jews would say Madonna putting on tefillin is a bad thing, most would say translating the Zohar is a good thing.

And just like they’d be wrong about Madonna, they are wrong about the Zohar.

No, this is not a good thing. It is a ridiculous, wasteful thing.

And, sadly, all too typical of a big problem in today’s Jewish world.

Until recently, wealthy Jews who wanted to help the community would entrust their funds to those with expertise in how best to use those funds to best help the most Jews and best serve the most vital needs of the community.

But in the last few years, as the leaders of all the country’s Jewish federations have had their guts and spines removed, we’ve had the era of raging egos.

Namely, very wealthy Jews who know a lot about business but nothing about Judaism but who think they know everything about Judaism, who, indeed, firmly believe only they know how to fix what ails us. Their answers always involve them getting lots of attention and lavishing lots of dough on pet programs that tickle their fancies.

In the case of the Zohar, it’s Margot Pritzker, part of the billionaire family that owns the Hyatt Hotels, among many other things, who will be funding the guy translating the Zohar for something like the next 20 years.

Now, ask any head of any Jewish organization for a list of Jewish priorities and they’d name 5,000 or so before they’d say what we really need is a translation of the Zohar.

Don’t get me wrong. It’ll be nice to have the Zohar in English, but it’s something that will still be inaccessible to almost all Jews, will still be something made use of by only a tiny handful of Jews. Meanwhile, serious problems and issues in the community, ones that could really benefit from Pritzker’s money, get ignored, simply because she gets a kick out of throwing money at this sexy, quirky effort. Simply because no one had the guts to set her straight. Simply because those who should know better cared first and most about feeding her ego. Simply because too much in today’s Jewish world, what counts is how much publicity something gets, not how much good it does. The Zohar got a lot of ink, but it will do almost no Jew any good.

So Margot, whose fabulously wealthy family has donated a disgraceful pittance to the Jewish community, compared to what its means call for, has chosen to squander what little Jewish tzedakah she does give on a vanity project. Meanwhile, day schools close, old Jews in Europe go hungry, young Jews in Israel live in poverty, Jewish marketing lacks creativity, Jewish disunity grows, young Jews fade away.

It is a sad, sad state of affairs when someone named Madonna is doing so much more for the Jewish community than is someone named Pritzker.

Joseph Aaron is editor and publisher of Chicago Jewish News.

Two Views:
Is Madonna the poster child for the new Jew?

Sorry, but you can’t be a kabbalist and strip on stage