It is 7 a.m. on a Friday, 12 hours before Shabbat, and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has a dozen meetings ahead of him — an office Torah study, lunch with a network head, coffee with a potential employee, a new book to promote, a few TV shows to pitch and several family errands that will take him from Beverly Hills to Century City to Glendale to downtown Los Angeles and back again, plus a 40-minute walk from his hotel on Rodeo Drive to his brother’s house in Pico-Robertson — all before candlelighting.
In short, he’s in a rush. And it will be like this all day long.
But the rocketing nerves and rapid-fire movement are undetectable at his first stop, the 11th-floor boardroom of Canyon Partners in Century City, a $17.8 billion hedge fund helmed by Mitch Julis, an affluent and ardent supporter of Chabad who wears a yarmulke. Julis has invited his nearest and dearest finance brethren to a breakfast with Boteach, who sits at the head of the room, clad in a suit and an aqua-blue tie that accentuates a set of piercing indigo eyes. He sits with his jacket unbuttoned, elbows on the table, palms clenched into a fist, ready to gesticulate. He appears calm — almost serene — as he prepares to preach to a roomful of bankers about evil.
But talk immediately turns to Israel. And Boteach, who wears the badge “defender of Israel” with religious devotion, is transfixed. Julis brings up a chat he had with Elliot Brandt, the Western regional director of AIPAC, regarding escalating tensions between the United States and Israel (this all took place just after Vice President Joe Biden’s “embarrassing” visit, during which the Israeli government made an ill-timed settlement announcement concerning East Jerusalem).
“He says things are worse than ever,” Julis tells the group, lowering his voice to a whisper, as if he’s about to divulge state secrets. He further stokes passions by talking party-line politics about how rude Hillary Clinton was on a call with Netanyahu and how outrageous it was for Obama to insinuate American lives are being lost because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This being Los Angeles, Julis draws a parallel to Hollywood, between the Obama administration’s attitude toward Israel and Steven Spielberg’s in “Munich.”
Boteach has his bingo shot: “That’s exactly what I want to look at,” he says. “I want to look at the justification in Jewish theology, Jewish thought, and ask, ‘Did Israel do the right thing in targeting a terrorist group? Do we have a right to hate our enemies? Is hatred an emotion that has a place in the universe?”
He delivers an impassioned, discursive lecture that covers everything from the history of Christianity to the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal, lambasting evildoers along the way—from Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for failing to recognize the Armenian genocide to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, for imprisoning political dissidents, and, as a little joke, President Obama, for sending the Dalai Lama out the White House service entrance. Despite the range of examples, he sticks to his message, which is, “We never go right when we do wrong.”
“What I’m trying to say about evil is that it becomes someone’s nature — and we [as Jews] have got to bolster the good.”
The way to do that, Boteach believes, is to “export Jewish values” into the broader, secular world. And like his teacher and mentor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, he sees himself as a vessel for distilling Jewish wisdom and promulgating its core principles into the mainstream. He approaches this task with missionary zeal, inserting himself into spheres of influence that provide him with endless funding and high visibility. Self-branded “America’s rabbi,” Boteach has been acknowledged as such, at least in Hollywood, where he has carved out a reputation as spiritual adviser to the stars (earlier this year the NBC series “30 Rock” paid homage when Tracy Morgan’s character, fretting about how fame had insulated him from his roots, said, “I’m gonna talk to Rabbi Shmuley about this!”). Indeed, Boteach has counseled a coterie of troubled celebs over the years, most of them not Jewish — including actress Lindsay Lohan, reality star Jon Gosselin and, most famously, Michael Jackson — branding himself, along the way, an expert on marriage, family and relationships, which crested with his 2008 appointment as Oprah’s in-house guru.
But that is just the tip of the very large iceberg that constitutes Boteach’s rabbinic enterprise: The 43-year-old is the author of 23 books, including the international best-seller “Kosher Sex” and his most recent, “Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life”; he is the star of the TLC reality series “Shalom in the Home”; the host of a weekly radio show in his hometown of Englewood, N.J.; a frequent and sought-after lecturer; and a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, The Huffington Post and a blogger for this newspaper. He is also the founder of This World: The Jewish Values Network, the organizational hub of his rabbinate, which has branches in New York and Los Angeles.
Boteach’s goal — to bring Jewish light to the secular mainstream — requires a level of media savvy and saturation more often associated with lowbrow reality stars or political pundits. But Boteach understands the tools of his trade — his interest is in using them for a moral purpose. And he isn’t above all kinds of self-promotion, name-dropping and — as some might call it — celebrity exploitation to achieve his end. In fact, he’s been ruthlessly criticized for it: The Web site Gawker once referred to him as a “ridiculous fameball crook.” But to see Boteach merely through the lens of self-marketing is to misunderstand him. His self-awareness runs much deeper than the venomous judgments of his critics. What you get, when you get to know “Shmuley,” as friends call him, is the wide-open, messy, loving, passionate and very real interior of a complex man.
But first, a meeting with the pope.
“So we have a car, we have the hotels, right?” Boteach asks his assistant in New Jersey while driving up Santa Monica Boulevard. He’s hurriedly maneuvering through traffic in his rental Prius, on the way to meet his friend Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey, senior executive producer of the celebrity news show “Extra.”
“You have to create an itinerary with everything, the phones — I want to know from Gary the exact schedule, like what time do we have to be at the Vatican on Tuesday? What time do we have the papal audience? And, by the way, that woman from Apple that called? If she can get us one or two iPads, ask her to, OK? And tell Lisa I’m happy to do publicity of the book in Italy — they still haven’t paid us for the last trip, but I’d like to further promote the book ...”
Although he is loath to admit it, he sounds stressed. “Oh this is my life,” he says, rummaging through his assortment of portable devices. “So, are you gonna write in this thing how environmentally conscious I am?” Even though the Prius is his for the day only, he’s made himself at home: In the console is a thick, half-smoked cigar. “I’m the occasional cigar-smoker, like when I’m really stressed, but I don’t like them, so I sorta start and then I leave them, as you see.”
Shouldn’t a rabbi be advocating prayer or meditation to relieve stress? “Gosh, meditation?” He sounds exasperated. “On one of the ‘Shalom in the Home’ episodes, they had me doing yoga — oh, I hated it; it was hard. I couldn’t do it. I discovered how inflexible my body was.” Boteach, who is medium height with a slightly rotund build, hates the contrivances of institutionalized exercise. “You know I’m this big advocate of marriage, and so often people say to me, ‘You know, what if I’m just not cut out for marriage?’ — the jury is still out on whether that’s true for anybody — but what if I am just not cut out for meditation? What if it’s like my temperament and meditation just don’t mix?” Instead, he prefers natural activities, like walking, bike riding and swimming, which he often does with his nine kids. Family time has become very important to him.
Boteach did not have a happy childhood. He was born in 1966 in Los Angeles to Yoav and Eleanor Botach, who divorced when he was 8 years old. (He later changed the spelling of his name.) Though the family lived comfortably — his father ran a successful real estate business and his mother worked as a bank teller — his parents’ split devastated him, and his mother quickly moved Shmuley and four of his five siblings to Miami Beach, Fla. The pain of the divorce and, especially, the separation from his father, who remained in Los Angeles, became “the most animating force” in his life. “I think divorce is the great tragedy of modern American living. It’s so common that we don’t even see it as tragic anymore; it’s like normal. But it was never normal for me, and it lasts forever. Divorce never ends.”
When his mother enrolled him in a Chabad summer camp when he was 9, Boteach was desperately seeking surrogate father figures. He became infatuated with the young rabbinical students he encountered at Chabad, and soon fell in love with the Lubavitch Chasidism they practiced, with its emphasis on community, piety and outreach. He first met the Rebbe — as Schneerson is called — when Boteach was 10, and he earned a private audience with the Rebbe two weeks after his bar mitzvah. The Rebbe gave him a special blessing, which he recalls with crystal clarity: “I met him at 3 a.m.; I was invited into this office, and he said to me that I would grow to be a source of light and joy and nachas to my family, my school, the Jewish people and the whole world. It blew me away; it was an incredible thing to say to a 13-year-old. No one takes 13-year-olds that seriously.”
Boteach had found not only a father figure, but the spiritual exemplar around whose teachings he would build his life. He dreamed of becoming “a disseminator of Judaism on a significant scale, a great Jewish ambassador, one of the Rebbe’s premier emissaries” — only, he had to acquire an education.
For the next seven years, Boteach immersed himself in yeshiva studies; attending Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon in Los Angeles, Torat Emet in Jerusalem and Tomchei Temimim, Chabad’s central yeshiva, in New York, where he received his ordination. At 19, just before Boteach earned smicha, the Rebbe dispatched him to Sydney, Australia, to open a rabbinical college, and later to Oxford University, where he stayed for 11 years. At Oxford, Boteach founded the L’Chaim Society, and it was there that he began to emerge as a force in the Jewish world.
“I didn’t want to build a Hillel or Chabad house only,” Boteach says. “I wanted the Jewish presence at Oxford to be so strong that the whole city would be affected by it.”
Boteach turned the L’Chaim Society into the university’s second-largest student club, recruiting an impressive array of high-profile speakers to campus, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Stephen Hawking, Shimon Peres and Elie Wiesel, as well as pop icons Boy George and Michael Jackson. As Boteach’s prominence grew, his relationship with Chabad-Lubavitch UK began to sour, however. Certain leaders felt his outreach to non-Jews was getting excessive — and might, therefore, encourage intermarriage. They were especially incensed at the election of an African American Baptist, Cory Booker (now the mayor of Newark, N.J.), as president of the L’Chaim Society. Boteach says he was ordered to annul the membership of some non-Jewish students; he refused, and a major falling-out ensued.
Though the choice cost him his community, he continues to defend his decision: “I reject Jewish insularity wholeheartedly,” he declares. “To take a myopic view and say we’re just gonna make falafel balls for Jewish students and only have Shabbos for Jewish students and not try to influence the entire university with Judaism seemed to be a waste, a total waste.” The price he pays to this day is living on the fringe of the Chabad community. He is a perpetual insider’s outsider, who feels Chabad “to the core” and practices a Chabad lifestyle but doesn’t really belong. And while he’s done well heading off on his own, he still feels the burn of a bad breakup.
“Chabad was the love of my life — it’s the path I continue to pursue; it’s the way I’ve raised my kids. I was in pain that I couldn’t continue working formally for Chabad — I miss it still today — but I had no choice. I disregarded a direct order; I could not do it, I would not do it, and Thank God I didn’t do it.”
For all his iconoclasm, Boteach’s teachings are, at their core, deeply traditional. Much of what he extols through his books — the importance of marriage, the failings of materialism — are Torah values dressed up with provocative titles. “Kosher Sex” is about rekindling emotional intimacy in marriage; “The Kosher Sutra” about sustaining erotic tension — and his advice, while clear and insightful, isn’t overly profound. Boteach’s intellect is not the product of a Ph.D. but of his own life experience filtered through the teachings of Jewish tradition. “Torah is supposed to teach you how to live; the word Torah literally translates as ‘instruction,’ so I draw upon Judaism’s wisdom to guide people.”
That Boteach is not perceived as too saintly or too cerebral actually endears him to people — there is no character too zany, or too debased, that he can’t find some way to relate.
“Shmuley! Shmeggegge! What’s going on with Rome?” Gregorisch-Dempsey squeals when he enters her office on the second floor of the “Extra” set. Tucked inside a nondescript building in Glendale, her large, cozy lair looks like a page out of a West Elm catalog. And Gregorisch-Dempsey, an attractive and vivacious 50-something blonde who speaks in punctuated spurts, is reclining with her knee-high-boot-covered legs resting on top of her desk. No need for any mug — she’s the boss.
Boteach arrives slightly flustered, 15 minutes late and nervous about pitching her on co-chairing a conference in October.
“I have an idea for the church that would end all their problems in an instant,” Boteach answers.
“Celibacy! Simple,” Gregorisch-Dempsey cuts in. “Is this why we’re meeting? You’ve got 15…”
“Two reasons, Lisa,” he says sweetly, his tone ever so delicate. “I’d like you to be the chair of something.”
“Oooooh,” she whines. “But I’m a recluse! I’m a people hater. I’m a bad Jew.”
“Listen, listen. It’s for a single day,” he explains. “There’s a guy here in L.A. — one of the biggest financiers in the country, look him up; he’s the No. 1 money manager in all of Los Angeles ...”
“He’s not like Bernie Madoff?” she quips.
“I’ve wanted to do a conference for the longest time on the media and values, a half-day devoted to discussion ...”
“I want to talk about menopause!” she screams. “It’s HOT!” She opens a desk drawer and removes a mini fan, which she turns on and holds up to her face.
“If you tell me you’re having a hot flash right now, I get it, I get it,” he says.
“Why do you want me to be on this?” she asks.
“Because you’re one of the most respected TV executives in the industry, the most connected, by far, you’re my dear friend who I really respect and look up to, you’re warm and loving, and I think that you represent something in the media.”
One of Boteach’s gifts is that he’s a good sweet-talker. He manages to stroke egos and convey genuine admiration at the same time, and he does this because he knows that big-name celebrities will draw attention to his cause. Fame, for Boteach, is about being relevant. But, for the most part, he’s entirely oblivious to the fact that a woman having a hot flash is impervious to even the most exquisite toadying.
Back in the car, he relaxes. A full morning of pandering to egos from Wall Street to Hollywood does wear on him. And he wonders aloud why the thrill of playing rabbi to the stars means so much to him. “As a rabbi, I’m forever torn between two realities,” he says, entering a bout of self-reflection. “I’m a representative of the world of the spirit, but trying to make an impact here in terra firma. You have to try to synthesize these contradictory impulses — the ascension to heaven and the progression to earth — I feel that struggle within me at all times.”
In both his writing and speaking, Boteach counsels on the vacuity of materialism and fame. He speaks of detachment from God, of satisfying spiritual emptiness with ephemera that have no lasting value. In this, he is also reminding himself of what matters, of spiritual guides, like the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa, who had no need for the glamours of the material world.
“When you’re filled with the spirit, do you really need to be filled with the stuff of the body?” he wonders aloud. “I love doing good things for people, I really do, but there’s ego mixed into it. He recalls a quote from President Harry Truman: “ ‘You can accomplish anything in life, provided that you do not mind who gets the credit.’ A saying like that haunts me. I love doing good, but I like being recognized for it; I only write books that I think will improve the quality of people’s lives, but don’t think for one minute that my name on the front isn’t important to me.”
For Jews, he says, righteousness equals struggle. “Judaism has no perfect people — the Bible is filled with flawed individuals,” he says. “We don’t trust the person who doesn’t have to fight to do what’s right. I’m being honest about this Jewish value of struggle, as I struggle, myself, between altruism and self-absorption, between selfishness and selflessness, between doing what’s right and what’s popular - that, itself, is a Godly act, engaging in that struggle.”
Even though he’s a teacher — and supremely media savvy — Boteach admits he doesn’t have the big answers, even when it comes to his own family. He credits his wife of 22 years, Debbie — whom he dated for just one month before they got engaged — as the most wholesome and virtuous force in his life. They have nine children together, six girls and three boys, ages 2 to 21.
“The reason I’m married — Thank God — is because I have a long-suffering wife,” he jokes, still ebbing his way through traffic. “My wife is a woman of extraordinary grace. She’s emotionally whole; she grew up amidst great stability. She doesn’t need attention. When you marry a man who is emotionally scarred — and I’m very open about the scarring — it’s difficult. My wife is married to a man whose life is a lifelong process of healing.”
Boteach says he feels whole only when he is purposeful.
“I never stop questioning if what I’m doing is really valuable, but I always come back to my belief that Judaism has extraordinary things to teach the world.”