Published September 20, 2004
TEL AVIV, Israel – Pop star Madonna (search) called for world peace Sunday at a conference on Jewish mysticism, a highlight of her five-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Israel hopes the star — the biggest pop celebrity to visit in years — will revive tourism battered by four years of Mideast violence, and government officials were on hand at a Tel Aviv hotel to share the spotlight, the glory and the photographs.
Madonna, wearing a low-cut dress with a black and white leopard pattern, said she was hesitant to come to Israel "after seeing so many news reports about terror attacks."
"I realize now that it is no more dangerous to be here than it is to be in New York," she told the gathering.
Madonna was raised a Roman Catholic (search), but she has become an avid devotee of Jewish mysticism in recent years. She has adopted the Hebrew name Esther, wears a red thread on her wrist to ward off the evil eye and reportedly refuses to perform on the Jewish Sabbath.
Tourism officials hope the singer's well-publicized visit to Israel will calm fears that have kept many potential tourists away from the Holy Land, despite its religious and other attractions.
Israeli Tourism Minister Gideon Ezra said Madonna's visit was better than advertising for tourism.
"If she comes here and goes back and was happy with her visit, it means for a lot of people who were afraid to come here that they can come without any problem," Ezra said.
Speaking without notes, Madonna said the people she met during her five-day Holy Land trip "have one thing in common — we want to create peace in the world."
"We want to put an end to chaos and suffering," she said, "but most of all we want to put an end to hatred with no reason."
The singer said she was not representing a religion. Rather, she said, "I'm here as a student of Kabbalah. A Kabbalist sees the world as a unified whole. A Kabbalist asks why."
While many Israelis welcomed the singer and her entourage, others were uncomfortable with the mission.
Over the years, observant Jews have considered Kabbalah (search) a powerful, even potentially dangerous undertaking to be tackled only by the most qualified and learned men. Now, many Orthodox Jews reject the adoption of Kabbalah by non-Jewish pop figures as a desecration of the holy.
Early Sunday, Madonna went to the Givat Shaul cemetery outside Jerusalem to visit the grave of a famous Jewish mysticist.
Guarded by police, Madonna and husband, Guy Ritchie, walked past rows of tombstones to the grave of the Kabbalist sage Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag.
Polish born Ashlag is the renowned author of the Sulam, the ladder, a commentary on the core Kabbalistic text, the Zohar. He died in 1954.
Led by a rabbi, Madonna and her small entourage recited blessings over food and wine, drank from small plastic cups and circled the raised stone grave. Toward the end of the ceremony, Madonna wiped tears from her eyes.
Adherents of Jewish mysticism believe that praying at the graves of sages can help achieve one's wishes. Millions make pilgrimages every year to the more than 100 of these burial sites across the Holy Land.