NEW YORK — No matter what Madonna does, she courts controversy — and her latest album and documentary are no different.
Confessions on a Dance Floor made news last week when Israeli Kabbalist rabbis declared one of the album's songs to be a "great sin," while the tour documentary "I'm Going to Tell You a Secret" (see "Madonna's All Grown Up In New Doc: 'No More Evian Bottles!'") has just started making headlines for some of the religious commentary in it.
"What are you going to do?" Madonna asked in exasperation at the movie's premiere Tuesday night in Manhattan.
The song that has religious leaders up in arms is called "Isaac," which the rabbis said was about the 16th century Jewish mystic Yitzhak Luria, whose name, according to Jewish law, is not to be used for profit. Rabbis Rafael Cohen and Israel Deri told the Israeli newspaper Maariv that Madonna singing a song about Luria was "unacceptable" and that they're asking that she be thrown out of the Kabbalah community.
"The absurd thing is that it's not what they think it is," Madonna said. "It's not a song about Isaac Luria. I don't know anything about Isaac Luria, so I couldn't write a song about him. The song is called 'Isaac' because the man who is singing on it is named Isaac. I think one person saw that name and decided that they were going to go out and say I was doing something blasphemous, and it's just not true."
It is true, though, that religious ideas play a large part in the documentary — they're just not addressed in a shocking way, as the headlines would have you believe.
Yes, she read from the book of Revelations, and yes, her dancers dressed in religious garb and marched down a runway during "American Life" — but that's old news to anyone who saw her Re-Invention Tour (see "Madonna Twirls Rifle, Lifts Up Her Kilt At Tour Opener"). Madonna's glib commentary about priests and nuns shouldn't shock anyone who's seen her videos, but all the attention on those brief moments undermines the larger themes she tried to get across — bridging religions, bringing people together, hoping for peace.
Perhaps her message was most clearly expressed through her cover of John Lennon's "Imagine," which she played each night on the tour. "I think John Lennon was a prophet in so many ways," Madonna said. "It could have been written 100 years ago or 100 years from now, the words still mean the same."
The song doesn't present a message particular to her Kabbalist leanings, she emphasized. "I would make a distinction between spirituality and religion," she said. "To a large degree, religion does separate people, you know: 'This is my group; if you're not in this group, I'm better than you.' And there's a lot of discrimination in the world because of that. I'm a big fan of being spiritual. I'm not a big fan of being religious in that sort of elitist way."
Madonna said spirituality is even more powerful than politics when it comes to changing the world for the better. "Historically, you get rid of one despot, another pops in his place," she said. "You have to get involved in the community around you, and there's a way you can use politics to make a change, but I don't think it's going to change everything."
That's why she went to Israel, she said — an experience that caps the end of the documentary. She was originally supposed to perform there, but the shows were canceled for security reasons. While she was there, she gave a fundraising speech in Tel Aviv for Spirituality for Kids, a group whose goals include bringing Israeli and Palestinian kids together.
"They bring kids in from abused homes and they bring them in with their parents and teach them how to relate to one another and to relate to each other with human dignity," she explained. "My daughter, who attends classes, is learning about her ego and how she can control it. Who would have thought you could learn that when you were a child?
"I think it was important to show that aspect, and put my money where my mouth is," she added. "Because all during the show, all during the film, I'm saying we have to take responsibility not just for ourselves but the world around us. I talk the talk, do I walk the walk?"
"I'm Going to Tell You a Secret" premieres on Friday at 10 p.m. on MTV. That same day, you can catch the in-depth interview "MTV News Raw: Madonna" exclusively on MTV Overdrive.