Opinion: Madonna: definitely good for the Jews

Did you ever hear of Rabbi Isaac Luria?

I didn’t think so.

Ever hear of Madonna?

That’s what I thought.

It is a sad but true commentary on the state of Jewish learning and Jewish knowledge today that so few Jews know whom Rabbi Isaac Luria was, for he was nothing short of one of the greatest rabbis of all time.

Indeed, in Jewish tradition there are only three sages who we are taught to refer to only and always as “Hakadosh,” “The Holy One.” Whenever we say their names, we are to immediately add the words “the Holy One,” as if that is part of their names, for so great, so holy were they.

Rabbi Isaac Luria Hakadosh is one of only three Jewish scholars in all of Jewish history, a history replete with great scholars, to be considered deserving of that designation. And yet, Jews are more likely to know who Madonna is.

But a lot more Jews now know his name, thanks to Madonna.

You see Madonna, who has gotten quite serious in the last few years about things Jewish and has cleaned up her life considerably as a result, is about to come out with a new album. And one of the songs on that album is titled, “Isaac.” A song that is a paean to none other than Rabbi Isaac Luria.

Not too many people get songs written and sung about them by Madonna, one of the greatest pop singers of all time. But Madonna felt that Rabbi Isaac Luria deserved that honor.

She knows whereof she speaks because Madonna has been doing quite a lot of studying of the Kabbalah, and knows that no Jew in history knew more about Jewish mysticism or embodied, lived and promoted the kabbalistic life than did Rabbi Isaac Luria, also known by his acronym, the Ari.

The Ari was an unbelievably special Jew, one every Jew would gain much from learning about his life. There are so many incredible stories about him and so many incredible lessons to be learned from him. A good place to start the next time you’re in Israel is to travel to the city of Safed and visit his grave, a place that filled me with both awe and joy. And pray at his synagogue, the Ari shul. He was the rabbi there in the 16th century and the shul is still open and operating to this very day. Indeed, you can see the chair the Ari himself sat in and stand and pray in the very shul he stood and prayed in.

I did that one Shabbat and I can tell you I felt chills just knowing I stood where he had stood, was within the walls of the synagogue he graced with his holiness. If you want to feel yourself both transported and elevated, go to the Ari shul.

My focus here, however, is less the Ari Hakadosh than it is Madonna.

For she has once again done Judaism a very big favor. She has done much for us in the past by letting the world know more about us by not performing in concert on Shabbat, wearing tefillin in a video, using Hebrew letters in some of her visual effects, traveling to Israel for Rosh Hashanah, observing some laws of kashrut — doing Jewish things and letting the world know.

Now she’s even acting as public relations agent for Rabbi Isaac Luria by introducing him to lots of people who otherwise would never have heard of him. Indeed, articles about her song tribute to him have been everywhere, from the New York Times to USA Today, reaching millions who read the story because it involves Madonna but who wind up learning something about one of the greatest rabbis of all time.

Thanks, Madonna. On behalf of the Jewish people, I just want to let you know how much we appreciate it.

We do, don’t we? I know not everyone does. Indeed, Rabbi Rafael Cohen, director of the Ari Yeshiva in Safed, said of the song, “This is an inappropriate act and one can only pity her at the punishment she will receive from heaven. The Ari is pure and holy, and immodest people cannot sing about him.” The rabbi who oversees the Ari’s grave added, “She brings great sin.”

Okay, well, I really wouldn’t expect the head of the Ari Yeshiva and the grave caretaker to be wild about the idea. I do wish they had just slammed the song and not the singer. But OK, considering their positions, this could not have been easy for them.

I do, however, hope that the average Jew does feel grateful to Madonna because she is doing stuff we should be grateful for but too often are not.

We need to take more notice of how good we have it. Most Jews feel the media is out to get us, to make us look bad. Most Jews feel that stereotypes are all people know about us, see about us.

That simply is not true. It’s about time we started dealing with the truth and stop focusing so much of our efforts and attention on fighting what we perceive as our negative image when the truth is we have an unbelievably favorable one. Indeed, a new poll shows that Americans think more highly of Jews than they do of Catholics or Protestants.

Please first try to notice how well Jews are perceived these days. And then please kvell from it. The reality of the 21st century is that Jews have it so good that now Madonna is even recording a song about a 16th-century rabbi.

Joseph Aaron is the publisher of the Chicago Jewish News.