Madonna, the Jewish mystic?
The pop star arrived in the Holy Land on Wednesday on a spiritual quest, including visits to the graves of revered rabbinical sages, and Israel was abuzz with excitement over the presence of a major star.
However, some were perplexed by the raunchy diva's interest in a particularly esoteric side of Judaism, and rabbis said she had no business studying holy texts.
Madonna was raised a Roman Catholic, but she has taken an interest in Jewish mysticism, or Kabbalah, 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.
She also has incorporated Jewish symbols into some of her music videos, much to the consternation of religious leaders. The organization hosting her in Israel ordered news reporters to wear white clothes and not to take notes when covering Madonna's appearances during the New Year's holiday, or Rosh Hashanah.
"This is entertainment, not Judaism," said Uri Orbach, a popular talk-radio host. "I think the general public will celebrate this, but the religious public will be indifferent," said Orbach, an Orthodox Jew.
Madonna joined a group of some 2,000 other students of Kabbalah from 22 countries, according to the Kabbalah Center, sponsor of the trip.
The Los Angeles-based center, which teaches Jewish mysticism as a spiritual tool regardless of religion, has attracted several celebrities in recent years. Designer Donna Karan and Marla Maples, an ex-wife of Donald Trump, were among those traveling with Madonna, the center said.
Madonna and friends flew into Tel Aviv Wednesday evening on a private jet and drove straight to their downtown hotel in a convoy of limousines escorted by police. They did not speak to journalists, who were kept well away from the celebrities.
Shaul Youdkevitch, of the Kabbalah Center, said Madonna has contributed money and has been very active in promoting spirituality for children.
Madonna is not scheduled to perform during the five-day visit. Earlier this year, Madonna canceled three concerts scheduled in Israel, citing security concerns after Israel assassinated the leader of the Hamas militant group.
Israeli police spokesman Gil Kleiman said more than 1,000 officers were being deployed to protect the Kabbalah delegation, although no special precautions were being taken for Madonna. He said the singer would have a private security detail.
Many Israelis were excited to have a major pop star in their midst. Madonna is the biggest star to visit the country in years.
Liora Goldenberg-Stern, a culture writer at the Maariv daily, said Madonna would be welcomed by Tel Aviv's rich and famous. She said Kabbalah has become popular among the local jet set. "It's a social thing, very trendy," she said.
Madonna's picture appeared on the back page of the Maariv daily, while the mass circulation Yediot Ahronot announced the visit on the front page.
Inside Yediot, a half-page spread included a photo of Madonna's luxury hotel suite as well as the special holiday meal she would be eating, including salmon mousse, steak and chicken in mustard sauce and honey cake.
Israeli tourism officials were thrilled. Officials said they hoped her visit would boost the vital tourism industry, which has been battered by four years of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
"There's no question having stars in the country is a wonderful way to show the world the wonders of our nation," said Rami Levi of Israel's Tourism Ministry.
On Sunday, Israeli Tourism Minister Gideon Ezra is expected to give Madonna an ancient oil lamp and a coin from the Byzantine period, the ministry said. It also said it hopes to use images of Madonna to promote the country abroad.
But not everyone was so welcoming.
A small group of peace activists demonstrated at Rachel's Tomb in the West Bank one of the stop's on Madonna's itinerary to draw attention to the plight of Palestinians living under Israeli military rule.
"I hope she's aware of where she is going," said Angela Godfrey-Goldstein, one of the protesters.
The itinerary also includes stops at the Western Wall in Jerusalem; the northern city of Safed, a center of Kabbalah; Rachel's Tomb, the traditional burial place of the biblical matriarch; and the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, the core text of Kabbalah.
Rabbi Yaakov Silber of the Merkaz Harav Jewish seminary in Jerusalem said it was hard to imagine a rabbi would be willing to teach Madonna.
He said religious study frowns upon raunchy, materialistic values the singer has promoted in the past. "Maybe she has changed," he said.
Other religious leaders have been harsher. Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri, a leading Kabbalist and revered rabbinical sage, said in a recent newspaper interview that non-Jews, and women in general, are banned from studying Jewish mysticism. "It is forbidden to teach a non-Jew Kabbalah," he said.