December 1, 2005
Madonna and the Elusive Isaac
Madonna and scandal have been virtually synonymous from the start of the pop star's career more than 20 years ago. There were songs about being like virgins touched for the very first time and girls getting pregnant and telling their fathers that they wanted to keep the babies. There were music videos of Madonna employing Jesus' stigmata on her own hands, and everything was augmented by conical bras and crotch-rubbing dances.
But since Madonna's famous conversion to kabbalah, she has been using Jewish religious iconography to shock -- or at least to make her point. In her "Die Another Day" video she wore phylacteries and had Hebrew letters tattooed on body.
Now, on her latest album "Confessions on a Dance Floor," the track that is receiving the most attention and critical acclaim is one called "Isaac." About a month before the CD's release on Nov. 15, rabbis in Israel claimed the song was about Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th-century kabbalist better known as the Arizal, and they blasted Madonna for using his holy name for profit.
"One can feel only pity at the punishment that she [Madonna] will receive from Heaven," Rabbi Rafael Cohen told the Israeli newspaper Maariv.
But Madonna swung back, claiming the song was not about the Arizal at all, but rather was named after Yitzhak Sinwani of the London Kabbalah Centre, who sings the Hebrew incantation on the song and provides the mumbled spoken word explanatory interlude at the end.
So what is "Isaac" about? It is hard to say, although it is clear that on this album it is the song most inclined toward Madonna's spiritual leanings. The beat throbs to the Hebrew lyrics, sung by Sinwani in a wailing rhythmic chant. The lyrics -"Im In Alo, Daltei Nadivim, Daltei Marom, El Hai, Marumam Al Keruvim Kulam Be-Ruho Ya'alu."
Translate as "If it is locked, the gates of the giving, the gates of heaven, God is alive, He will elevate the angels, and everyone will rise in His spirit."
In the verses, Madonna sings earnestly "Wrestle with your darkness.... All of your life has all been a test/ You will find the gate that's open...," and at the end, Sinwani intones, in what seems like an unrehearsed and unedited addition "The gates of heaven are always open, and there's this God in the sky and the angels, how they sit, you know, in front of the light, And that's what its about."
Hmm ... what exactly does all this mean? An attempt to reach Sinwani in London reached only his secretary, who said he is not talking to the press. The Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles was equally unresponsive and did not return calls for comment.
In the meantime, critics and listeners are praising the song (London's "The Sun" called it "Stunning") and Madonna herself has said the song moved her to tears.
"I had tears in my eyes and did not even know what he was singing about," she told Anthony Kiedis in an interview on AOL. "Then he told me and I cried even more."