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October 31, 2002

"Die another day" is the new Madonna single

"DIE ANOTHER DAY" IS THE NEW MADONNA SINGLE attached to a forthcoming Bond film. The video may provoke controversy (Madonna? Say it ain't so.) as it features elements of her continuing interest in kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism. A tattoo written in Hebrew sports her shoulder and Madonna wraps a leather band - or teffilin - around her arm echoing a practice of morning prayer. Is this mere posturing and self-indulgence? Is it appropriate to show religious practices in a music video? Or is Madonna expressing new spiritual insight in a popular context?

Kabbalah finds its main source in the Zohar, a text revealed to Moses de Leon in the thirteenth century based ostensibly on the writings of a second-century scholar Simeon bar Yochai. The Zohar parallels a tradition of commentary on the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, but claims there are hidden meanings in the arrangement of and comparisons between letters and words in which these books are written. This form of interpretation becomes quite complicated when the numeric significance of each word (Hebrew letters are each associated with a number) is taken into account.

Kabbalah is interpreted in almost as many different ways are there are kabbalists. For some, the study of kabbalah is a primarily scholarly enterprise which informs other aspects of religous belief while for others it is an intense mystical practice.

Madonna began attending the Kabbalah Centre, an international school of kabbalah studies, in 1997 in an attempt to explore spiritual aspects of her life beyond her family or her success as a Material Girl. She was following in a long line of celebrities who, having become disatisfied with mere fame and fortune, turned to mysticism for new insight. The Beatles anticipated this spiritual turn and the seemingly inevitable irritation it provokes in many people. It can be difficult to empathize with the psychic dilemmas of fame and wealth or to credit spiritual depth where naked ambition had been so evident. Equally, pop star mystics attract accusations of cultural appropriation or the "dumbing down" of complex beliefs. Rick Ross, an American lecturer on "cults", suggests a more sinister aspect of Madonna's specific spritual path by providing links to numerous news articles calling the practices of the Kabbalah Centre, and its director Rav Berg, into question.

Anthropologists tend to favour the term "new religious movement" in order to avoid the negative value associated with the word "cult." Contemporary examples such as Tibetan Buddhism or Falun Gong are called cults as a means of discrediting them for the purposes of the government of the People's Republic of China. Others espouse beliefs which seem odd or quirky to majority opinion and attract ridicule as a result. It is important to remember all of the world's major religions were at one time small, new philosophies often at odds with conventional wisdom of the day. Many modern secular philosophies (psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, or anthropology for that matter) might pejoratively be described as cults. That said, the particular practices of any given group - such as the Kabbalah Centre - may or may not be considered exploitative or insincere.

What might the kabbalistic elements of "Die another day" mean if we assume Madonna's interest is sincere? The main question is the meaning of the tattoo which appears on Madonna's right shoulder: the letters "lamed", "alef" and "vav" (from right to left). Several intepretations present themselves.

A fan writing to Madonnapolis (the story is about half way down the news page) claims LAV is the Hebrew word for "not", a word which recurs in the the ten commandents in the form of "thou shalt not". The tatoo would then be a kind of "mark of Cain" representing the sins she needs to overcome. The fight between the White Madonna and Black Madonna of the video is concluded as the White Madonna wraps the tefillin around her arm thereby taking responsibility for the condition of her soul. I like this reading. The word "not", however, is spelled "lamed" "alef" (loh) and does not include the letter "vav" (I would be delighted to be corrected on this subject. Perhaps "vav" is added for grammatical purposes in particular sentence constructions.) I find a better fit in the word LAV, or heart, as this expresses the idea of a guide to understanding or full manifestation of consciousness. Unfortunately my theory fails the same test as LAV is spelled "lamed" "vav" and does not include the letter "alef".

The Kabbalarians, a group whose philosophy is inspired by kabbalah, claim the name Lav is associated with an "independent, practical, analytical nature with skillful business abilities." This describes Madonna but does not shed led either on the process by which the Kabbalarians came to their analysis or the "Die another day" video.

Sadly, a simpler explanation presents itself. "LAV" is only an approximation of the Hebrew pronounciation of the tattood word. "LAV" sounds like "LOVE".


Furthermore...

For more on Madonna's tattoo in the "Die another day" video click here for links to my subsequent posts and a letter to the Flea from Rabbi Yehuda Berg. As the spiritual leader of the Kabbalah Centre which Madonna reportedly attends regularly his may be considered to be the official interpretation.

Posted by the Flea at 01:33 PM | Comments (2)

October 28, 2002

DC Sniper and Islam

THE RECENT SHOOTINGS IN WASHINGTON DC were the source of much speculation by criminal profilers. The icy-white loner theory was disproved by events only to be replaced by the image of Islamic extremists. It remains to be seen what the specific motivation of the two shooters may have been. Islamic extremism, however, is as poor a fit as the white loner stereotype turned out to be.

The alleged snipers are said to have left a note at a shooting site which read: Hey Mr Police "Call me God". It is difficult to imagine a claim less likely to be made by a devout Muslim whatever their politics, ideology or personal motivation. The supremacy of - and submission to - God is the central tenet of Islam.

The Rev. Louis Farrakhan today revealed that the older of the two shooters, John Allen Muhammad, was a member of the Nation of Islam, an American schismatic Islamic movement. The Nation of Islam advocates an idiosyncratic understanding of Islam which is not acknowledged by mainstream or conservative Muslims. Teachings such as the arrival of humans on earth sixty-six trillion years ago or the creation of "white people" by the mad scientist Yakub some six and a half thousand years ago better echo other twentieth century new religious movements such as Scientology or Raelianism than historic Islam.

It appears from the claim "Call me God" that Muhammad was a member of a splinter group within Farrakhan's movement: the Five Percenters, a group characterized as a gang by the FBI. The term "five percenter" is derived from the claim that five percent of Muslims smoke and drink. The proper name for the movement, however, is the Nation of Gods and Earths.

Among the distinguishing features of the Five Percenters is the practice of referring to all women in the movement as "Earth", children as "Stars" and men as "God". This practice is inconsistent with Islam but is a direct echo of the demand made by the DC Sniper to "Call me God". The claim reflects a religious convention among the Five Percenters rather than a personal psychosis.

We should be careful not to draw a direct link between the actions of the author of the note and his (their) participation in the Nation of Islam or its Five Percent schism. While aspects of Nation of Islam or Five Percent theology are racially based the shooting victims do not demonstrate a clear bias for or against targets of any particular ethnicity, sex or social group.

I have seen no comment in the mainstream media with regard to the actual religious convictions of the two murder suspects. I have seen no comment from advocates of the Five Percent movement within the Nation of Islam about the character or convictions of either of the suspects. The description of John Allen Muhammad as motivated by Islamic extremism, however, is inaccurate.

"Oh people! Verily your Lord is one and your father is one. All of you belong to one ancestry of Adam and Adam was created out of clay. There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab or for a non-Arab over an Arab; nor for white over the black nor for the black over the white except in piety. Verily the noblest among you is he who is the most pious."

UPDATE

Someone had the same thought over the weekend. Today's Boston Globe runs a story connecting Muhammad to the Five Percenters which distinguishes this movement from traditional Islam.

Posted by the Flea at 05:37 PM | Comments (4)