How Michael Jackson’s rabbi moved on to Oprah
Minister Shmuley Boteach left Britain nine years ago amid controversy. He talks about embracing fame, TV Judaism and his London appointment with a leading evangelical
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.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
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 non-Jewish 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 country 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.
Born: November 9 1966, Los Angeles
Early life: When his parents divorced, Boteach moved with his mother to Miami, Florida, where he attended his first Chabad camp aged eight. By 14, he had left home and was studying at a Lubavitch yeshivah
Career: Was ordinated as a rabbi in 1988 and was immediately sent to Oxford to become Chabad’s emissary there. Founded the L’Chaim Society. He returned to the US in 1999, where his media work includes the Rabbi Shmuley Show on the Oprah and Friends XM radio network and Shalom in the Home, broadcast in the UK on the Discovery Home and Health channel
Awards: Was The Times Preacher of the Year in 1999, and was named in Newseek’s top 10 most influential rabbis in 2007
Family: Lives in the New York suburb of Englewood with his wife Debbie and their eight children