LOS ANGELES – In a press conference held here in early August, pop icon Madonna told a select group of journalists that she now believes herself to be the Messiah of Kabbalah – the mystical offshoot of Judaism she joined in the late '90s.
"In these past few years of intense study of Kabbalah, I have felt an ever-growing presence of the one, true light inside of me," Madonna said, pausing to take a swig of her soul-cleansing Kabbalah water. "I was pleased to discover recently that this presence is the higher being's way of letting me know I'm the Messiah, the chosen one of Kabbalah."
Rabbi Philip Berg, the founder and leader of the Kabbalah Centre, was quick to let the public know that he is on board with Madonna's announcement.
"Madonna has brought much visibility and necessary funding to the cause of Kabbalah," Berg said in a conference call with the media from his office in Tel Aviv. "If she feels that she is the Messiah, we are willing to ride that wave of enlightenment wherever it might take us."
The announcement was perhaps the singer's most controversial move in her relationship with Kabbalah – a relationship that has drawn criticism from Jewish leaders who see Kabbalah as practiced by Madonna and her associates as a cult.
"There are a couple of good things about this announcement," said Phillip Abramowitz of the Task Force on Missionaries & Cults, a project of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. "First, it takes this whole Kabbalah thing out of the realm of Hollywood fad and places it firmly on the turf of first class lala land. Second, it really aligns this whole Kabbalah thing more with Christianity than Judaism now that they have a Madonna and a Messiah. The fact that they're the same person isn't our problem."
Madonna's enthusiasm for Kabbalah has drawn a number of other celebrities into the fold, including Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Britney Spears and Roseanne Barr, not to mention her husband, director Guy Ritchie.
"I'm really proud of her," Ritchie told THO in a phone interview. "With the way she's been scooping up the Hollywood types like a Scientologist on steroids, no one can say she doesn't deserve this Messiah thing."
But there are certainly those who see Madonna as undeserving.
"You don't just come out hold a press conference to declare yourself the Messiah," Abramovitz said. "At least Jesus had Peter do the revealing for him. Come one, at least throw out a shred of legitimacy."
The practice of Kabbalah is actually a 4,000-year-old tradition of symbolically interpreting sacred Jewish texts, but many have criticized Berg and his Kabbalah Centre of twisting a sacred tradition into a cult by making use of white outfits and red string bracelets that supposedly ward off negative energy, water that supposedly cleanses the soul and books that read more like self help tomes than spiritual texts. But some observers think Madonna's announcement will give Kabbalah the kind of staying power that eludes so many other spiritual movements.
"In a lot of ways it's very fitting that The Material Girl would become the Messiah of a movement that has so many accessories," said Robert Holmes, president of the Center for the Study of World Religion – a London-based religion think tank. "Whether other religious leaders like it or not, having a visible figure like Madonna is going to give Kabbalah some legs. I mean, it's in her videos and her music. You can't buy that kind of exposure. Well, it would be expensive to buy it, anyway."
As for Madonna, she plans to continue to spread the message of Kabbalah as the movement's new Messiah.
"I like to consider this the start of my public ministry," Madonna told reporters, taking another long pull on her Kabbalah water. "I plan to continue to lead others to the light through recording, writing, performing and bugging the hell out of other celebrities at parties."