reality rabbi 298 88.
(photo credit: TLC)
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach hates pornography, yet he publishes his writings in Playboy. He derides reality TV, yet he hosts one of the genre's biggest hits. Rabbi Shmuley, as he is called, has been a regular in the public eye for about 20 of his 39 years, but he says he does not seek fame. "Celebrity is a very noxious disease," he says.
But "America's Rabbi," as he's billed on his Website, has gained all kinds of attention being something other than a conventional Orthodox thinker. The author of 1999 best-seller Kosher Sex and 15 other books, Boteach has participated in high-profile debates in which he's tried to persuade the likes of porn mogul Larry Flynt and Jewish Playboy centerfold Lindsey Vuolo to be a little more righteous. His column appears regularly in prominent newspapers and Web sites and for five years he enjoyed his own talk radio pulpit on a network owned by the Church of Latter Day Saints. He's served as a personal spiritual coach to celebrities like Roseanne and Michael Jackson, with whom he had a falling-out last year.
He's achieved perhaps his most sustained and visible public exposure only recently, however, as the host of The Learning Channel's Shalom in the Home, a reality TV hit in the US in which the New Jersey-based rabbi visits families across the country to help them work through problems in their domestic life.
The show's format is by now familiar to fans of the series: near the beginning of each episode, Boteach parks his Airstream trailer in his host hosts' yard and observes the family before counseling the parents and instituting shared activities like weekly dinners or aquarium visits - activities that bring family members closer together and encourage real communication between them. Family dynamics improve - TLC aired a "reunion" episode checking in on families' progress earlier this week - and America has responded, with fans approaching Boteach in places like Idaho, North Dakota and Minneapolis to tell him how much his show has touched them.
Critics have also responded warmly to the series, distinguishing the family-oriented Shalom from its less highminded competitors. "A lot of reality television is exploitative," Boteach says. "It is inane. A lot of it is downright embarrassing."
On Shalom in the Home, he continues, "We know it has to be entertainment, but this is a show that celebrates family life. It really goes deep into peoples' issues." Of the family problems explored on the show, Boteach says, "We try very hard to make sure they represent a cross-section of America. We choose shows with relevance, not to be sensationalistic."
He's sees his role on the show as that of a helper, not a theologian, though he acknowledges that religion affects the advice he gives. "I won't throw Judaism in people's face. I'm not there for that. I'm there to heal people's families." Nonetheless, advice influenced by his work as a rabbi "comes organically and naturally, because that's how I myself think."
Boteach says he was surprised to be selected as the show's host from a pool of mostly secular candidates, and he's resisted PR consultants' suggestions that he groom his beard a certain way or tuck in the fringes of his tallit. On Shalom in the Home, "not only do we not hide my religiousness, my rabbinic title and the fact that I emerged from a womb of religious tradition, we celebrate it," he says. "It's probably the first time that a religious Jewish personality is hosting a prime time [US] show. It's not my accomplishment - it's Judaism's. That's the brilliance of Judaism that we're not cognizant of: that it has a universal appeal."
He cites his book Judaism for Everyone, which outlines the distinction between Jewish ritual - something mostly for Jews - and Jewish wisdom, which can help all mankind. "God loves us all equally, but he did give the Jews a special mission to spread his light into the world," Boteach says. "The work that I do is about using Jewish wisdom to heal people and families, God willing, throughout the world."
Boteach's own parents divorced when he was young, a domestic development followed later by the admission by his brother, an Orthodox Jew, that he is gay. It's an identity his family learned to see as something other than a paradox. "The Torah has 613 commandments," Boteach says. "Just because you don't keep one doesn't mean you should not keep all the others."
Sexual practices of all kinds have long been a source of interest for the rabbi, who in addition to writing Kosher Sex has made a name for himself by mingling with celebrities with all kinds of sexual identities. After Israeli-born illusionist Uri Geller introduced Boteach to Michael Jackson, "I wanted to get [Jackson] to stop this mystique that he was above other people," Boteach says. Their association ended when Boteach saw Jackson reverting to destructive behavior. "I couldn't help him anymore," he says.
Around the same time, Boteach staged a series of public debates against Hustler publisher Flynt. "I was out to change him," he says, and claims to have made some headway in efforts to convince Flynt to publish a magazine about spousal fidelity. An Upper West Side event once had Boteach sharing the marquee with Vuolo, the first openly Jewish Playboy centerfold. Boteach says that their dialogue helped him at least partially convince Miss November 2001 about the sanctity of modesty and the perils of exploitation. But it's been through the new TV show, which aims to help average Americans, that Boteach has earned the most recognition.
Boteach is currently visiting Israel to enjoy the autumn holidays and help his oldest daughter (one of eight children) get settled into a year of seminary studies. But he's also working, meeting with big names like Natan Sharansky to discuss participation in a book series he edits, meeting with executives from satellite cable provider YES about the possibility of broadcasting Shalom in the Home locally ("There was some interest expressed," he says), and lobbying publishers to market Hebrew translations of his self-help literature (so far, only Kosher Sex is available in Hebrew). He's also doing some publicity, turning his attention to this interviewer only after lovingly but firmly instructing one of his sons to recite his morning prayers.
He's been in the public eye ever since Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson sent Boteach to Oxford University as his emissary in 1988. "I've only worked among non-Jews and secular Jews â€¦ That was essentially my career," he says, adding that his books are also read mostly by people who aren't religious Jews.
Not that religious Jews wouldn't also benefit from some guidance. Observant Jews have fallen prey to the "corrosive influences of western culture," he says, referring in part to TV, drug abuse and materialism. "We're seeing terrible things in the Orthodox community nowadays."
He believes the best way to influence Jews is to make the secular world see the beauty of Jewish wisdom. "It was organic," Boteach says of his global vision. "It was a product of being at Oxford."
Boteach says he knew his mission was bigger than traditional Jewish outreach soon after arriving at Oxford. After establishing the university's L'Chaim Society, Boteach hosted guests ranging from Shimon Peres, Elie Wiesel and Mikhail Gorbachev to Deepak Chopra, Boy George and Stephen Hawking - names that began to draw largely non-Jewish crowds of thousands to Shabbat dinners.
His approach alienated some in his movement, but he remains firm about the source of inspiration for his work. "I'm doing [it] in a slightly different way â€¦ What I do cannot be embraced by the Chabad mainstream, and I accept that," he says. "So I turn to Halacha as my guide. But there's no question that the main inspiration in my life is Chabad teaching and the Rebbe."
With or without the approval of his religious peers, Boteach's life-long efforts to heal continue to gain momentum. Shalom in the Home drew unexpectedly high ratings each week of its first season, with thousands of new devotees e-mailing Boteach their reactions every week. Production on Season Two will continue after his return to the US, with new episodes of Shalom set to air in the coming months.