How Michael Jack­son’s rabbi moved on to Oprah

Min­is­ter Sh­mu­leyBoteach left Bri­tain nine years ago amid con­tro­versy. He tells Si­monRound about em­brac­ing­fame,TVJu­daism and­hisLon­don­ap­point­ment with a lead­ing evan­gel­i­cal

The Jewish Chronicle - - FEATURES 27 -

SHMULEY BOTEACH is strug­gling with his chicken ke­bab. He is sit­ting out­side Reuben’s restau­rant in Cen­tral Lon­don, on a fly­ing visit to Bri­tain — his first in over two years. Such is the ve­loc­ity of his an­swers that the spe­cial of the day re­mains largely un­touched on his plate. In the short breaks in con­ver­sa­tion, he launches into his food like a man pos­sessed, but to no great avail. The Amer­i­can rabbi who did much to pro­mote Ju­daism and to ir­ri­tate many in the Bri­tish Jewish com­mu­nity dur­ing his stay here be­tween 1988 and 1999 is here on an­other con­tro­ver­sial mis­sion — to de­bate against reg­u­lar ad­ver­sary Michael Brown whether a be­lief in Je­sus is com­pat­i­ble with be­ing Jewish.

Boteach has re­ceived crit­i­cism from UK rab­bis for his will­ing­ness to “le­git­imise” Mes­sianic Ju­daism by shar­ing a plat­form with one of its fore­most de­fend­ers. He waves his fork de­ri­sively: “The thresh­old for con­tro­versy in An­glo-Jewry is very low. Peo­ple over here re­ally have to look at the way they prop­a­gate their mes­sage. They are al­ways say­ing ‘don’t do this’. Why? Be­cause it has never been done. Well, I think this is a very im­por­tant sub­ject.

“I don’t think I can be ac­cused of le­git­imis­ing Je­sus be­cause that hap­pened 2,000 years be­fore I was born. Ju­daism re­ally needs to get its mes­sage out there, oth­er­wise peo­ple will think we have no re­sponse to the great chal­lenges, that Ju­daism seeks to avoid the great de­bates be­cause it lacks the an­swers. I want to dis­pel that no­tion.”

It is not only in this coun­try that de­bates in­volv­ing Boteach have at­tracted con­tro­versy. His duel on the sub­ject of athe­ism with Bri­tish jour­nal­ist Christo­pher Hitchens in New York ear­lier this year spilled over into some­thing of a feud be­tween the two men.

Boteach, who says he used to be very friendly with Hitchens, has lit­tle time for him now. He says: “Hitchens speaks very dis­re­spect­fully of re­li­gion. His approach to the de­bate is to pour as much vit­riol and scorn and to be as provoca­tive as pos­si­ble. I fa­mously chal­lenged him to find a source for his as­ser­tion that there is a law in Ju­daism that you can­not save a nonJewish life on Shab­bat. I said I would buy 100 copies of his book if he could find a source for it. He fi­nally con­ceded that he would make a change in his book. This is how our faith gets a bad name — that we are racist, xeno­pho­bic, ex­clu­sivist and elit­ist.” Boteach so en­raged an­other anti-re­li­gion­ist, the athe­ist Richard Dawkins, that Dawkins com­pared him to Hitler.

If Boteach is fa­mous for any­thing, it is his will­ing­ness to em­brace fame — celebrity friends have in­cluded Michael Jack­son, Uri Geller and lat­terly Oprah Win­frey. How­ever, he is adamant that he has only one mo­tive — to pro­mote Ju­daism in the most ef­fec­tive way pos­si­ble. “This is all about whether Ju­daism as a re­li­gion is still vi­able, whether it has been su­per­seded or whether it is just a small niche mar­ket sus­tained by an eth­nic­ity only to en­sure our own sur­vival, or whether Ju­daism has a wider mes­sage for the world. It pains me that our own faith — the old­est monothe­is­tic re­li­gion in the world — has no seat at the ta­ble where the great ideas are dis­cussed. I fo­cus on try­ing to bring Ju­daism to a wide au­di­ence through the me­dia.”

To this end, Boteach has a television show, Shalom in the Home, which has been broad­cast on the Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel, and in which he uses Jewish val­ues to heal Amer­i­can fam­i­lies. He also has a live daily show on the Oprah and Friends ra­dio chan­nel.

De­spite the fact that Boteach claims that he and his gi­ant brood — he has eight chil­dren, rang­ing in age from two to 19 years — live a per­fectly con­ven­tional life in a New York sub­urb, Boteach did for a time have a friend­ship with one of Amer­ica’s least con­ven­tional celebri­ties, Michael Jack­son. Boteach main­tains that his only de­sire was to help Jack­son along the road to nor­mal­ity — help that Jack­son ul­ti­mately re­jected.

“I orig­i­nally met Michael through my good friend Uri Geller,” he says. “I tried to heal his life but our re­la­tion­ship dis­si­pated long be­fore his court case [in 2005 when he was ac­quit­ted of child abuse charges]. For I while I strongly be­lieved I could help him. He came with me to syn­a­gogue, he came to my house for Shab­bat din­ner reg­u­larly. I was try­ing to re­con­nect him with his own re­li­gion [his mother and sis­ter are Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses] and try­ing to get him to lead a nor­mal life. For a while he lis­tened to me, but as time pro­gressed I think my in­flu­ence waned. He thought that the more ac­ces­si­ble he be­came, the less in­ter­ested the world would be in him. Once I saw that he was not heed­ing my ad­vice, I said: ‘Michael, I will al­ways care about you but it’s time to move on’. About a year later he was ar­rested and I was very sad for him.”

Th­ese days, de­spite be­ing in­volved in me­dia, Boteach claims he has no time for celebrity cul­ture and is aghast that any­one might think he is part of it. “If you watch Shalom in the Home, you will see some­one with a yarmulke and tz­itzit coun­selling fam­i­lies.” This is how he en­vis­aged his

life when he ar­rived in this coun- try as a 22-year-old emis­sary of the strictly Ortho­dox Chabad move­ment to work among Ox­ford Univer­sity stu­dents. But the L’Chaim So­ci­ety was soon mak­ing waves. Boteach de­cided he wanted a to­tally new model. “We didn’t want to be a Jewish or­gan­i­sa­tion, but a Jewish-based or­gan­i­sa­tion. We opened up mem­ber­ship to non-Jews, we went for the big­gest speak­ers in the world. Sud­denly non-Jews were shlep­ping their re­cal­ci­trant Jewish friends to us.”

How­ever, Boteach’s bosses in New York be­came alarmed by his approach af­ter the death of the Lubav­itcher Rebbe Me­nachem Sch­neer­son in 1994. “My su­pe­rior said that now that the Rebbe was dead there was no in­sur­ance pol­icy for me to do avant-garde work. The great man was no longer watch­ing over us and this mix­ture of Jews and non-Jews was no longer some­thing that could be ac­cepted.”

Boteach made the de­ci­sion to part with Chabad and stayed in Bri­tain for five more years, but even­tu­ally he de­cided he had had enough of feed­ing stu­dents bagels.

He also says the fact that the L’Chaim So­ci­ety had at­tracted the at­ten­tion of the Char­ity Com­mis­sion had no bear­ing on his de­ci­sion to leave. He claims that “ide­o­log­i­cal en­e­mies” re­vealed to the com­mis­sion that the so­ci­ety was pay­ing the mort­gage on a house he had bought in Lon­don. The com­mis­sion froze the so­ci­ety’s ac­count. “It was all le­gal,” he in­sists.

He was also spend­ing an in­creas­ing amount of time pro­mot­ing his best­seller, Kosher Sex, and he had had enough of the in­fight­ing in the com­mu­nity. “The fights were un­be­liev­able. I didn’t think that the de­bates which were tak­ing place in our com­mu­nity were ra­tio­nal. So much of it was about per­son­al­ity.”

We have been talk­ing for about an hour when Boteach’s pub­lisher Robin Baird-Smith ar­rives and tells a story which il­lus­trates why Boteach makes such a huge im­pact wher­ever he goes. Says Baird-Smith: “When I met him for the first time, he was hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion on two mo­bile phones and was us­ing his lap­top to try to find some­one a job. I said I was in­ter­ested in get­ting him to write a book. He said, ‘I’ve got four books I want to do, you can have all of them or noth­ing.’ I took them all on the spot.” It is a won­der Boteach ever finds time to fin­ish his lunch.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach says his head­line-grab­bing celebrity friend­ships and TV ap­pear­ances are an ef­fec­tive way to pro­mote Ju­daism


Boteach with his pop-star friend Michael Jack­son in 2001. “I tried to heal his life,” the rabbi says

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