To understand why Shmuley Boteach is one of the world’s most prominent rabbis, you do not have to pore over learned Talmudic disputations (he isn’t known for his erudition) or attend a Sabbath service (he hasn’t led a congregation of his own for several years). You simply have to scan the dedication to one of his latest books, Dating Secrets of the Ten Commandments. “To Michael,” it reads, “who taught me of humility.” Michael, of course, is none other than Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, and Boteach manages to slip references to their relationship into most of his interviews and writings. The rabbi is currently co-authoring a parenting book with the blanched superstar and sponsoring a Jackson-led charity dedicated, unbelievably enough, to ensuring that children receive appropriate amounts of affection. And just a few weeks ago, Boteach orchestrated one of the most bizarre coups in the annals of American pop-cultural imperialism, arranging for Jackson to speak at the Oxford Union, that university’s august debating society.
Shmuley—he is known universally by his first name—is the best-selling author of Kosher Sex and has marketed himself as a rabbi to the stars and an expert on Jewish attitudes toward relationships and marriage. (“Dr. Ruth with a yarmulke,” the Washington Post called him.) Despite Jackson’s lesson in humility, he approaches self-promotion with religious fervor. As he told one reporter, his own Eleventh Commandment is “Thou shalt do anything for publicity and recognition.”
Shmuley learned his talent for outreach from the experts. Though he had been brought up in a modern Orthodox home in Miami and Los Angeles, as a teen-ager he became increasingly involved in the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch, or Chabad, movement. Founded in 18th-century Russia as an offshoot of Hasidic Judaism, the Lubavitch are dedicated to making Jewish ritual accessible to even unlearned Jews. When Chabad moved its base to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, after World War II, its emphasis on outreach to secular Jews intensified; the group founded schools throughout the country and outposts around the world, all in the belief that when all Jews embraced their religion, the Messiah would arrive. (The guys with the beards and dark suits who stop you on the street and ask, “Are you Jewish?” and then hand you a pair of phylacteries are Lubavitchers.)
When Shmuley was 13, he met the movement’s charismatic leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whom some considered then to be the Messiah and still do today, even after his death seven years ago. The Rebbe, as Schneerson was called, bestowed upon Shmuley a generous blessing—friends joked that perhaps Shmuley was the Messiah—and later dispatched him, at age 22, to Oxford to serve as a religious emissary. There Shmuley founded the L’Chaim Society, which he quickly turned into the university’s second largest club by recruiting high-profile speakers to address topics often only tangentially related to Judaism. Boy George spoke about redemption after drug addiction, and Argentinian soccer star Diego Maradona told of praying at the Western Wall in preparation for the World Cup.
As Shmuley’s stature on campus grew, his relations with the Lubavitch leadership began to fray. The L’Chaim Society attracted as many non-Jews as Jews—its president one year was an African-American Baptist—and his peers felt Shmuley was spending too much time courting gentiles, thereby diluting outreach efforts and possibly even encouraging intermarriage. Shmuley replied with what would become his signature defense: that broadening the visibility of Judaism to the general public would inevitably, if circuitously, attract Jews. “To get Jews interested in the Jewish world,” he later said, “you have to get the non-Jews interested. The Jews will follow what the non-Jews are doing.”
Few in the Orthodox Jewish establishment agree. In 1994 Shmuley was officially rejected by Crown Heights after inviting Yitzhak Rabin to speak at L’Chaim against the orders of the Rebbe, who strongly opposed Rabin’s land-for-peace position. The penalty was largely symbolic, since Shmuley had become a master fund-raiser (using British parsonage laws to purchase a second home in North London) and was financially independent. In 1998, Shmuley entered the Preacher of the Year Contest, sponsored by the London Times, becoming the first Jew to reach the final rounds. (He took second place; the next year he won.) And he churned out a stream of articles and books on relationships, an authorial fecundity climaxing in 1999 with Kosher Sex. With its gleeful discussions of intercourse, the book shocked the British Orthodox community, which forced him out of his North London synagogue. Shmuley moved to New York, where he published excerpts of Kosher Sex in Playboy and debated the merits of pornography with Larry Flynt. He became a fixture of celebrity culture, ushering Michael Jackson to an Upper West Side synagogue, setting Roseanne’s daughter up with a nice Jewish boy, and trading spiritual recipes with Deepak Chopra.
For all of Shmuley’s iconoclastic reputation, Kosher Sex is a deeply traditional book, extolling monogamy, female modesty, and premarital sexual naiveté. Its basic thesis is that the contemporary fascination with sexual compatibility has led to what Shmuley terms a “crisis of intimacy,” with too many people entering into matrimony as sexual experts scarred by previous relationships. Don’t obsess over finding the perfect mate, he counsels, because that partner will in fact become perfect through the raising of a family, the establishment of a home, and yes, the transformative act of sex. Shmuley is no prude: He makes much of Judaism’s rejection of Christian asceticism and sees nothing wrong with kinkiness within the bounds of marriage, as long as it furthers the couple’s sense of intimacy and unity. So oral sex and erotica are kosher; porn and masturbation, which lessen one’s dependence on one’s spouse, are not.
Despite a generous sprinkling of Talmudic anecdotes and wisdom from the sages, there are large chunks of Kosher Sex that do not seem especially Jewish. That’s because, fundamentally, Judaism is not about a set of attitudes toward life but about adherence to a certain body of laws, rituals, and customs, and Shmuley seems uncomfortable actually prescribing them. When he encounters a ruling that seems to contravene his counsel—such as the one in the code of Jewish law explicitly prohibiting oral sex—he dismisses it as simply “an individual commentator’s personal taste and advice.” In fact, Kosher Sex fits more squarely within the genre of the romantic self-help industry. It’s full of bland advice (look into your lover’s eyes during sex), gender stereotypes (most men act romantic just to get laid), and banal, pop-psych blather (“life is an uphill struggle”).
Perhaps this is because, like the L’Chaim Society, this book was conceived for an audience of Jews and gentiles alike. (Jay Leno gave a copy to Dennis Rodman.) Shmuley says he wants to turn Judaism into “the next Buddhism,” “mainstreaming” the religion in order to strengthen it. To this end, he has given up many of his day-to-day duties with the L’Chaim Society, devoting himself to establishing an online relationship advice Web site, scheduling more speaking engagements (at one event in April, he’s discussing black-Jewish relations with the Rev. Al Sharpton), and composing more books (Confessions of a Rabbi and a Psychic, co-authored with the spoon-bending Uri Geller, came out earlier this month).
Shmuley claims that all the attention bestowed upon him is really attention bestowed upon Judaism. But his ambition is clearly outpacing his spiritual mission; attracting secular Jews to the faith is only an ancillary preoccupation. After all, consorting with Michael Jackson might get Shmuley’s name in the papers, but it’s doubtful it will really encourage Jews to go to synagogue on Friday night. And even if these Jews did attend services, they might go expecting Kosher Sex-style Judaism, grounded in utilitarian justifications and stripped of inconvenient legalisms. Or they might go thinking they’d get to hang out with celebrities, too. Either way, they’d be terribly disappointed.