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Jews unable to ignore the "Sex Book Rabbi'

Published Sep. 27, 2005

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is called a self-promoter and debaser of his faith. He's also called a spiritual pioneer.

He's rabbi to the stars, even when the stars aren't Jewish. He's been Michael Jackson's confidant, Howard Stern's relationship counselor and Roseanne Arnold's matchmaker.

Meet Shmuley Boteach, Lubavitcher Jew and best-selling author of last year's Kosher Sex (Doubleday, $11.95 paperback) and Dating Secrets of the Ten Commandments (Doubleday, $21, hardcover), published in January.

Hoping to pitch his message of passionate monogamy to Americans, Boteach recently moved to Englewood from England, where, as resident rabbi of Oxford University, he outraged Orthodox Jews and made headlines as the "Sex Book Rabbi."

In his role as love expert, Boteach claims that Judaism offers valuable insights for Jews and non-Jews alike on love and sexuality.

"The Talmud says married people of leisure should be making love every night," says Boteach, who, with his beard, cigar and ever-present cell phone looks like Sigmund Freud on the line to his agent. "A man must pleasure his wife, and that's not just for procreation, that's during pregnancy and post-menopause."

This isn't "Matzo Ball Soup for the Soul." Boteach writes about masturbation (he's against it), whether size really matters (no) and uses phrases like "joining fiery and watery love."

While some praise Boteach's provocative attempts to make Judaism relevant to everyone, others condemn him as a self-promoter who trivializes the faith and demeans the rabbinical tradition. In England, he also faced questions about the financial management of the L'Chaim Society, an inter-faith group he founded at Oxford about a decade ago. The questions were eventually resolved.

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg of the United Synagogue in Hoboken, N.J., which has invited Boteach to speak sometime this spring, says Boteach has enlivened discussions of the faith.

"He's one of the few people in Jewish life today who is especially talented at bringing traditional Jewish method and teachings to a wide audience," says Scheinberg. "So few rabbis are as comfortable with popular culture as he is. Our congregation is so excited to host him, not necessarily because we endorse everything he says, but because he provides an approach that is so refreshing."

But Allen Nadler, director of the Jewish studies department of Drew University in Madison, N.J., says Boteach is typical of a narcissistic culture that perverts genuine spirituality. In a world where celebrities such as Madonna and Roseanne dabble in cabala _ a school of Jewish philosophy based on mystical interpretation of the Scriptures _ Judaism, which Boteach calls "the new Buddhism," becomes, in Nadler's view, just another trend.

"To use religion to enhance people's sex life is a whole new thing," says Nadler, a former rabbi. "It used to be about asceticism and self-denial. Maybe I'm a purist here, but is this what religion is for?

"Boteach's about great marketing, that's what he's about. If rabbis aren't going to set high standards, who will? I think he's setting the bar as low as it gets."

Boteach's response to his critics?

"If Judaism were a company like Macy's which had huge customer loyalty and growing sales, then people could come along and say, "Why should we do things differently?' But the fact is that the rate of intermarriage is about 50 percent," he says. "For people to say we shouldn't do things differently is really bad advice."

By writing about the spiritual and moral side of sex, Boteach _ who, at 33, is married with six children _ hopes to find a mass audience for Jewish wisdom.

"Here we have the oldest monotheistic tradition in the world (But) It's always been seen as a peripheral religion," he says. "Since I was 16, I wanted to be a global exponent of Judaism."

Critics wonder whether he can best do that by appearing on TV talk shows with Larry Flynt and porn star Madelyn Night _ as he did recently on Tonight with Judith Regan.

Until a few years ago, there was barely a hint that Boteach, who grew up in Miami, would go on to earn nicknames like "Dr. Ruth with a Yarmulke."

A child of divorced parents, both Orthodox Jews, and raised by a single mother, he joined the evangelical Lubavitcher branch as a teen. The Lubavitchers stress strict adherence to all Jewish laws, but Boteach was initially drawn to them mainly because they gave him reduced tuition to their summer camp in Miami.

When the Lubavitchers needed a promising young rabbi to head their center at Oxford University, they chose Boteach, who arrived there in the late 1980s. Only about 10 percent of the students were Jewish, by Boteach's estimation, but Boteach _ who can quote Zoroaster, Einstein and Woody Allen in the same breath _ quickly became a campus personality.

He founded the L'Chaim Society, a group promoting Israel, "values-based leadership" and "Judaism as a vibrant way of life among Jews." The society landed serious speakers such as Mikhail Gorbachev and former Israeli prime minister Shimone Peres, along with not-so-serious but entertaining speakers _ like Boy George, who spoke about redemption.

Although L'Chaim attracted Jewish students, about half its members _ which total 7,000 in England, according to Boteach _ were non-Jewish.

When Kosher Sex _ inspired by the failure of the marriage of Boteach's parents and by Boteach's wish to give guidance to his community on an area of Jewish life little spoken about _ was published in England two years ago, no one predicted it would be a hit.

Boteach acknowledges that a rabbi talking about sex has a gimmicky appeal. But Kosher Sex would have flopped if no one liked its message, he says. Although the book advocates some Jewish sexual customs (men and women should never wear clothing during intercourse, for example ) much of Boteach's advice is generic and non-denominational: tips on finding a date and spicing up your marriage.

In Britain, Kosher Sex was so popular it was serialized in London's Daily Mail newspaper and landed him a weekly segment on Britain's most popular morning talk show. Before the book's stateside publication last March, excerpts appeared in Playboy magazine.

But not everyone was thrilled by Boteach's success. The rabbinical court of Britain's United Synagogue, to which most of the country's Jews belong, condemned Kosher Sex for sensationalism. Boteach was denounced by many Orthodox Jews in England, and amid the backlash, he resigned from his post at Oxford.

In September, the Charity Commission of England and Wales launched an inquiry of the L'Chaim Society and froze the charity's accounts, although in December it released them. There were questions about payments made to the mortgage on Boteach's London home, which he says was used as a communal center for L'Chaim.

So far, says Boteach, American Jews have welcomed him.

Although he has his detractors _ a Massachusetts Kosher Sex reader, posting a review on amazon.com, compared him unfavorably to Dr. Ruth Westheimer _ others think he has much to offer.

David Mallach, assistant executive vice president of the United Jewish Federation of MetroWest, says Boteach addresses a rising concern among Jews about how faith fits into their everyday lives.

"You can't simply be Jewish anymore because your grandfather escaped the Czar or Hitler wanted to kill him," says Mallach. "If we want our children to be Jewish, which kind of Jewish should they be, and for what?"

If Boteach's focus on sex helps answer that question, Mallach is all for it. "Relationships aren't something we usually think of in a spiritual dimension, but they're part of your soul," he said.

_ Carrie Stetler is a staff writer with the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.

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