Sage counsel

Following his TV show, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach offers a Jewish take on family counseling in a new book.

shmuley book 88 298 (photo credit: )
shmuley book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Shalom in the Home By Rabbi Shmuely Boteach Meredith 288 pages; $14.95 The Ladies' Home Journal monthly column "Can this Marriage be Saved?" was introduced 40 years ago and remains among the most popular magazine features ever. The old adage about not knowing what takes place behind other people's closed doors remains true today, despite the vast expansion of communication. We're fascinated by the removal of the veil of secrecy on other people's marriages and getting a glimpse of the inner successes and dysfunction of family relationships. It follows that we're captivated by strategies to improve marriage and family life. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has taken intervention into marriage and family life to a new level. He travels around the US with a camera crew and a studio trailer, living with distressed American families and making strong recommendations to solve their problems. He videotapes the families, coaches them with headsets though difficult interactions and invents corrective exercises to pull them together. The results are broadcast on TLC, a national educational TV network. The show is called Shalom in the Home. Boteach admits that the program is a childhood dream come true. After his parents divorced when he was eight, he went beyond the typical child's fantasy of getting his own parents back together to develop a missionary zeal to heal everyone else's troubled marriages. Now millions of viewers now can apply the lessons he models on TV. What are his qualifications for healing marriages and family rifts? First, he's smart, intuitive and articulate. He has read widely in classical and popular psychology as well as rabbinic literature. He's a happily married man with eight children. But most of all, he's an Orthodox rabbi who has been counseling singles, couples and families, heterosexual and homosexual, Jewish and non-Jewish, for more than two decades, ever since his first posting as the Chabad rabbi at Oxford University at age 21. The Bostoner Rebbe, Levi Yitzhak Horowitz, once told me that many of those who approached him for advice prefaced their question with "Rebbe - this is going to shock you!" but that he'd already heard everything they told him many times before. Congregants and even strangers bare their souls and share their most intimate problems with rabbis. Because Orthodox rabbis are used to making actual rulings in religious matters, they are less hesitant about giving concrete advice than many other counselors. They draw on a rich tradition relating to family matters as well as their own experience and judgment. Although Boteach is no longer formally associated with the centralized Chabad movement, you might think of him as the ultimate Chabad outreach rabbi - reaching out to America on TV - not to make them Jewish but to allow them to take advantage of important Jewish ideas that can improve their family lives. THE BOOK version of Shalom in the Home recounts 10 TV episodes. They include conflicts between spouses and ex-spouses, bringing up children, facing up to adultery and reigniting romance. The book, written with some distance from the actual intervention, allows Rabbi Shmuley, as he's called on the show, to reexamine the cases he's dealt with on the show. For readers like me who aren't privy to American TV, it's important to remember that all of these families applied for a Rabbi Shmuely life makeover and have implored him to intervene into their lives. For example, Rabbi Shmuley gets deeply involved in an attempt to reconcile a divorced Philadelphia couple, Beatriz and Luis Romero. Truck driver Luis brought chaos into the home when he carried on a year-long affair behind the back of Beatriz, his wife of 17 years and the mother of his four children. She was furious with him, divorced him and didn't want to have him in the house. But she called in Rabbi Shmuley because after the breakup the bickering among the three Romero girls escalated to horrendous fighting, both verbally and with fists and a broom. Beatriz felt overwhelmed. Rabbi Shmuley determined that despite all the pain the Romeros still loved each other and should try to get back together. Even though Luis was an adulterer, that didn't mean he couldn't rectify his behavior and become an honorable man through repentance, he argued. He suggested that Beatriz's newfound toughness as a divorcee and single mother modeled bellicose behavior to her daughters. In addition to talking, Rabbi Shmuley brought the parents back together with a mixture of moxie and imagination. He got the family out on the basketball court, where the kids learned teamwork and the Romero parents were once again playing on the same side. With his encouragement, the family also worked together cleaning and reorganized their flooded, messy basement, an activity that even sparked a romantic moment between the divorcees. He encouraged Luis to woo Beatriz and try to win her back. He also urged Luis to reassert his lapsed fatherly authority and to terminate the sexual relationship his teenage daughter was having with an unsavory boyfriend. The possibility of Luis and Beatriz reuniting looked promising, but ultimately failed. Rabbi Shmuley takes the blame on himself for making Luis dependent on him. I personally think the seeds of failure were in Luis continuing to see his lover while protesting that he "would do anything" to get his family back. But the intervention wasn't a complete failure. The sibling warfare diminished and Luis did take on a more significant paternal role despite the divorce. RABBI SHMULEY gets but a couple of days to try to bring healing and peace to families, which means, like a physician doing triage, he has to decide which is most important and what has to be done first. Trauma physicians speak of a "golden hour" they get to save a patient's life. In the rabbi's golden hour with families, he manages to bridge gaps between parents and children, open channels of communications in blended families and to help couples get their kids to bed and get back into bed with each other. He often returns to the theme of several of his other books, the most famous of which is the best-seller Kosher Sex, about the importance of enhancing marital intimacy. Should an Orthodox rabbi take on such a celebrity role? I don't see why not. A kippa-wearing marriage-healer is a far more positive role model than many of the Jewish images that proliferate in the media. Esteemed Jewish sources and principles get wide exposure as Rabbi Shmuley promulgates them before millions. For example, when he wants to alleviate the depression of Robert, a man whose ex-wife is trying to banish him from their children's lives, he quotes Maimonides about creating positive habitual actions (like giving charity) even before you have an emotional commitment to them. To show a way out of the prison of selfishness in a troubled family, he gets them to help the homeless in the Bowery Mission, comparing the fun they have to the selfless tasks kids enjoy on Purim. Few goals could be worthier for a rabbi than trying to help families achieve a peaceful empowering existence. Because he's ultimately a rabbi and not a psychologist, he feels free to break the rules of classical psychotherapy by telling his counselees about his own experiences and inviting them home to meet the Boteach tribe, even to attend his Pessah Seder. My main difficulty with accepting the family advice in the book is the niggling memory of the author's own lack of good judgment in linking his name with Michael Jackson's in the "Heal the Kids Foundation." Even though he's distanced himself from the controversial singer's behavior, the shadow remains of his endorsing Jackson as a child advocate. My second concern is with the glorified ideal of family life that sometimes surfaces in the text. Even given Boteach's pardonable love of hyperbole, his assertion that "we cannot allow our family life to be another stressor in our lives. Our kids should inspire us rather than drain us" is irksome. It reminds me of how people are forever telling tired, isolated and often depressed young mothers that this should be the happiest time of their lives. For all the wonder, joy and pleasure of parenting, bringing up children is an ongoing challenge, a humbling experience that elicits our strongest positive and negative emotions, and a font of worry as well as bliss. And, yes, it's often draining, even in high-functioning families with a lot of love and respect. Rabbi Shmuley himself speaks of how devastated he felt when he realized one of his daughters was afraid of him and tried to gauge his changeable moods. You have to wonder about the reaction of his wife, Debbie, as she's running the household while the rabbi is traveling around America in the studio trailer. Despite these reservations, Shalom in the Home is compelling and thought-provoking reading with lots of valuable ideas and worthwhile advice for couples and for families. Reading it with your partner, in havruta, can be good springboard for couples to address issues within their own lives. In America, the new season of Shalom in the Home has begun and I look forward to reading about the results of the rabbi's latest tilting against the many fierce dragons that threaten family life.