June 15, 2010
Shmuley Boteach’s 18-Hour Day
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.