Several prominent rabbis in Israel leveled harsh criticism yesterday at the "kabbala festival," starring pop icon Madonna.

The criticism has to do not only with the actress/singer's participation in the event, but with what is perceived as its populist, common treatment of the kabbala. Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, who heads the religious kibbutz yeshiva at Ein Zurim, says "Unfortunately, I see that some people are exchanging the Torah that was given to us at Mount Sinai with a mystical Torah that they call kabbala, because the Torah that was given in Sinai contains commandments, which are difficult, and mysticism provides a convenient `replacement.'"

Bin Nun stresses that his criticism is not aimed at the study of kabbala as an integral part of a deep Jewish identity, which he terms as the "kabbala as a unique interpretation of the Torah of Moses." He takes issue with the phenomenon whereby the kabbala "turns into an independent religion." Nevertheless, he adds that even a "kosher" study of kabbala is not simple and is conditioned by restrictions.

"The kabbalistic interpretation of the Torah was always reserved for those with unique abilities, and turning it into a populist, common practice transforms it into a cheap, somewhat pagan substitute for the Torah," he says.

Bin Nun believes that "the phenomenon is part of a worldwide trend of mysticism that is occurring as a response to the huge failure of the scientific-rational pretensions to save man without involving God. This has failed miserably, and people are once again seeking God through the classic modes of paganism, turning to the dead and mysticism."

Rabbi Yuval Sherlo, who heads a hesder yeshiva in Petah Tikva, also levels harsh criticism at the phenomenon. "It's hard for me to express in words how much I despise this festival, and to what extent it has nothing to do with the kabbala," he says.

"The popularity of kabbala stems from the fact that it enables the removal of personal responsibility - everything is the fault of fate, of the numbers - anything but myself. The combination of cheap spiritual excitement and lifting of personal responsibility pulls in the crowds," he adds.