What is Rabbi Shmuley Boteach? He is a lightning rod, an author, a speaker, a frequent talk show guest, a reality TV star, and now a candidate for a Congressional seat in New Jersey. He is loved by some and hated by others. He is at times the staunchest proponent of traditional Jewish life and values, while also doing things that make that same community cringe. What, exactly, is he?
On his website he calls himself “America's Rabbi”. That is a very apt description, but not in the way he intends. He fashions himself as the Rabbi Americans go to for their various questions on Jewish life and culture. In many ways he is just that. However, he is truly “America's Rabbi” because his persona and entrepreneurial nature is so very American. He is a brand, more than anything, minus his own clothing line. He has crafted a reputation as very traditional and yet very modern. It is essential to his brand that he be viewed as authentic, and his Chabad style beard and large velvet Kippah send that message home. He is also modern, as his clothing and his book titles can attest.
More than anything, he is uniquely adept at self promotion. Today, everyone is branding themselves. Through our Twitter handles and Facebook profile pictures we are very cognizant of the way we are presenting ourselves to the world. For many, the ultimate payoff is the attention received. Shmuley figured this out long ago, and was crafting his image in the late nineties. It was a two pronged approach: catchy and risqué book titles and attachment to celebrities. He succeeded at both. “Kosher Sex” (1999) was his first best seller and it put him on the map. It contained traditional Jewish sources and was daring, all at the same time. Plus, the title allowed your imagination to run wild with possibilities about the book's content.
That would have only taken him so far. By attaching himself to celebrities, especially Michael Jackson, he was giving himself attention and credibility in the secular world. Now he was not only a controversial author, but the “Rabbi to the Stars”. If you hang around celebrities in public long enough, eventually you become a celebrity too, and the A-List credibility you gain makes you a natural place for other celebrities to turn for all of their Rabbinic needs.
Now, you can't do all this without talent. Shmuley is energetic, intelligent, likable, articulate and very shrewd. He has a tremendous amount of confidence, and seems comfortable in his self assigned role as “America's Rabbi”. Rabbi is a cryptic title. It can be used to proclaim oneself a scholar, spiritual advisor, therapist, author and general Jew about town. It is catch-all instant credibility and can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Rabbi Shmuley is more talented and knowledgeable than many Rabbis who knowingly pretend to be something they're not, but he also makes it hard to believe that he can be a master of so many trades. He is an author and a relationship expert and a scholar and a political pundit and a social commentator and a parenting expert. I was not aware that Chabad-Lubavich's Semicha program provided such an extensive education. The lengthy bio on his website is missing one central component: his educational background that would give him the credentials to be “one of the world’s leading relationship experts and values and spirituality exponents”.
Rabbi Shmuley is smart. His target audience is predominantly secular Jews and non-Jews, and his level of scholarship far exceeds what he would need for the vast majority of his audience. He will almost always be the most highly educated Jew in the room, and it allows him to be many different things to many different people. I'm not saying he's a fraud, but he does allow people to believe he is an expert in areas where it is hard to prove he truly has the necessary expertise.
In that way he's sort of a Jewish Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann. A self proclaimed expert and advocate for his ideological brethren. He gets attention, is intelligent, articulate and authentic, and knows how to work the media. However, every once in a while he can make even his supporters cringe. He is truly the American dream.
This, I think, is what makes him so polarizing, especially in the Orthodox community. The Orthodox community, as a whole, has a greater collective Jewish knowledge and aren't impressed by his bona fides or scraggly beard. Plus, they know many other Rabbis who are greater experts in the fields he is purporting to be an expert. Their Rabbis are focused on serving their communities, while Rabbi Shmuley is who-knows-where debating God-knows-who about who-knows-what. Plus, his he is a constant TV presence, be it on the Oprah Show and Dr. Phil, or starring in his reality show “Shalom in the Home.” Just as Dr. Phil began to lose credibility once he fell in love with the cameras, many traditional Jews view Boteach the same way. It smacks of insincerity and misplaced priorities, and therefore many dismiss him as a Rabbinic impostor.
However, the Orthodox community is missing another side of Boteach that can teach us a lot about ourselves. He is one of the strongest supporters of traditional Jewish life and a public defender of those values. He takes on controversial issues, such as homosexuality and sexual promiscuity, and provides well thought out and nuanced opinions. He is a go-to commentator for the Orthodox take on the world around us, and all in all, he does it well.
These two sides of Boteach can be at odds with each other. In his recent appearance on the Dr. Phil show, an uncomfortable Boteach seems shocked and appalled at the accusation that arranged marriages take place in the Chassidic community. He looks like he would rather be at the Michael Jackson trial than on that set. To be sure, Boteach is no Pollyanna about the nature of Chassidic communities. He was very outspoken in his recent article “Rise of Jewry’s Right Wing Religious Radicals” (Jan 11), especially against the Charedim who spit on an eight year old girl in Beit Shemesh, and even worse, those who instituted a ban against his new book “Kosher Jesus”. He seems to have no problem critiquing the values of their community from afar.
So how could he be caught unaware of Chassidic arranged marriages? Anyone with a Chassidic cousin, friend or coworker knows all about it? The answer is that while social commentator Shmuley Boteach has a lot to say on the issue, author and TV star Shmuley Boteach needs to be very quiet. He needs to be attached to the observant community to gain credibility to the outside world. That's what makes him authentic. If he questions the sincerity and righteousness of religious Jews, HE will be called into question, so he needs to defend the Chassidic community whether he personally aligns with them or not.
The question is, why aren't there others in the Orthodox world challenging him in the role of social commentator? Certainly his celebrity helps push him to the top of the list for news organizations, but there is no real arm of the Modern Orthodox community who is competing with him in a serious way. Rabbi Shmuley biggest advantage is his independence. He only represents himself and is self supporting. If he were to write a controversial article, the attention garnered would be to his benefit. It gives him the freedom to do things most Orthodox Rabbis would never do, such as public debates with Priests and Imams, and writing about controversial topics. There are some positives in having a traditional Jewish voice certain parts of the country never hear. Most prominent Rabbis have institutions they represent, and they need to be sure their public opinions aren't too controversial.
On top of that, Orthodox institutions are notoriously gun shy in taking on tough issues. We are always looking to our right and our left in fear of reaction and condemnation. It is like being a pro-choice Republican. You can think it, but you're very aware that the moment you say it you've been labeled forever. Shmuley is independent, fearless and famous, and so he is allowed to be the de facto voice of the Orthodox community to the outside world. The question is, will we promote and publicize those within our ranks to do what he does and be willing to take some criticism along the way?
Ultimately I think he is good for the Jewish people, but it will always be a complicated and polarizing relationship. We can love him or we can hate him, but he never lets us ignore him. Most importantly, I think the Orthodox community has a lot to learn from him in spreading our message and representing our community. Does anyone happen to have Jay Z's cell phone number?