Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
A funny thing happened to me as I surveyed all the tragedies that have filled our newspapers over the past few weeks. I discovered that I was slowly becoming inured to the murder of children and the loss of human life.
From the freeing of Casey Anthony who partied while her daughter decomposed in a Florida wood, to the dismembering of Leibi Kletsky, whose only sin was to inquire of Levi Aron how he might find his way to a place called home, to the indiscriminate slaughter of 76 Norwegians, mostly young campers, by a heartless, right-wing villain, to the senseless death of Amy Winehouse, I concluded that for all our society’s protestations as to the infinite value of every person, human life is cheap and being further discounted by the day.
The death of Amy Winehouse is particularly indicative of that thrift. Not because she was more famous that the other victims or had more fans to grieve her loss, but because all the other deaths might not have been entirely preventable. We simply can’t stop every neighborhood monster from chopping up children and one would be hard-pressed to imagine what could have been done to anticipate a summer camp turned into a killing field. But we did know that Amy Winehouse was drugging herself to oblivion and had terrible influences in her life that were keeping her flying higher than the Hindenburg. We knew that her lyrics, “They tried to make me go to rehab, I said, “No, no, no,” were shockingly personal and biographies of the singer list so many public drug incidents that her body had become a walking pharmacy. Still, the paparazzi gathered. Still we amused ourselves with tabloid reports of her drunken concerts and slurred lyrics. Still we were regaled by media tales of her punching people in the face. Until, one day, she didn’t wake up and it wasn’t entertaining any more.
Michael Jackson was also a source of unending tabloid delight until his sleeping pills closed his eyes forever, orphaning three children and leaving us to wonder to whom we could now turn for further water cooler delight.
There is something sick about a society that has so caricatured celebrities that their suffering makes no human indentation, as if they were all cartoon characters who get squashed by a giant hammer only to pop right back up. But seeing the contorted faces of Janis and Mitch Winehouse was enough to remind us that Thor, Captain America, and the Green Lantern are fictional characters while drugged, drunk, and dead celebrities are all too human and frail.
My conclusion that we are all becoming desensitized to the value of life – especially children – was cemented by the bizarre criticism of the one tabloid story that should have brought us some cheer. Instead, the announcement that David and Victoria Beckham had just given birth to a fourth child brought derision in many British circles for the couple having too many children and overpopulating the earth, a sad fact that parents of large families, like me and my wife who thank G-d have nine, have encountered on many occasions.
Why is innocent life becoming so cheap? There are a number of factors.
First, there is the rampant materialism of a culture that values objects more than people. From parents who ignore their kids as they work long hours to keep with the Joneses to even spiritual rights of passage, like weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, that have become more about impressing friends than celebrating family milestones, money and fame are becoming more important than life and children. Just the other day a couple came to me for counseling because the wife wants a second child while her husband complains they can’t afford it. When the session was over they drove away in their Porsche.
Second, there is the shocking failure of religion to instill values in a culture that so desperately needs to be reminded of what is truly important. Even as we mourn the senseless deaths of so many children in so short a timeframe, religious leaders continue their obsession with fighting gay marriage which has just been legalized in New York. No doubt if gays were prevented from getting married society would become immediately healthy again and all the dead children would come back to life. Furthermore, with so many ostensibly religious people being guilty of perpetrating the horrors in the first place – from the Hamas anti-tank Missile fired against an Israeli school bus to Norwegian killer Anders Breivik being a self-declared Christian to Levi Aron’s credentials as orthodox Jew – the authority of religion is compromised from the outset by the evil still perpetrated by those who claim its name.
Third, and perhaps most important, is the immediate tendency to declare anyone guilty of heinous crimes – especially against children – to be immediately insane. In a televised debate on the Joy Behar show between me and Father Edward Beck, the prominent Catholic cleric excused Caylee Anthony’s clubbing after the death of her daughter by claiming she probably snapped and said that Levi Aron was insane and not responsible for his actions, even though Aron himself told police, “I understand this may be wrong and I’m sorry for the hurt that I have caused,” thus clearly demonstrating his ability to distinguish between righteous and immoral action. Anders Breivik’s own attorney is already claiming his client is crazy, even as the mass murderer argues that his actions were a European declaration of war with Islam. Is it not equally possible that each of these individuals was evil rather crazy, wicked rather than insane?
A rush of atrocities of this magnitude in so short a space of time should serve as a wake-up to our need to protect, value, and cherish children. We parents have no excuse to miss family dinners or bedtime stories. The boss and the office be damned. We need religious leaders that stop condemning gays and begin praising brave parents who adopt unwanted children. And if certain heterosexuals reading this are uncomfortable with gay adoption, then by G-d, adopt the kids yourself. We need Rabbis and priests who educate their communities in the value of visiting the sick in hospital, honoring and visiting elderly parents, and inviting guests to their Sabbath and festival tables, teaching children hospitality and caring for fellow beings.
Finally, we need the courage to call evil what it is. To point a finger at the real abominations in our midst so that those who devalue and destroy human life find no quarter in our sympathies or hearts.
Shmuley Boteach, ‘America’s Rabbi,’ is launching the Global Institute for Values Education and will shortly publish ‘Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself.’ (Wiley). Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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July 21, 2011 | 12:33 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
The Christians United for Israel dinner in Washington, DC was an experience I won’t quickly forget. Until you sit in a room with five thousand Christian lovers of Israel and absorb their enthusiasm for the Jewish state and the Jewish people you would be hard pressed to think it possible. But there I was, surrounded by Christians from all over the nation waving Israeli and American flags, pledging eternal love and support to the most vilified country on earth. The speeches came fast and furious. The statements bold and unapologetic. Israel must never trade land for peace. Every attempt to do so has led to terror bases for Hamas and Hezbollah. Israel is one of the freest and most democratic nations on earth. President Obama better stop pressuring Israel or pay for it at the polls. Iran is an existential threat to both Israel and the United States. Those who treat the Jews poorly are abandoned by G-d, as history has shown time and again. The American University campus has become a hub of anti-Israel hatred. We’re deploying our legions to fight it.
Sheesh. I could scarcely sit down. Nearly every line deserved an ovation.
The crowd was anything but monolithic. The head of CUFI’s campus operations is a young African-American student who pledged his life to fighting for Israel. Shades of all colors were to be found in the audience with a smattering of yarmulkes dotting the landscape as well. Glenn Beck, the keynote speaker, is a Mormon even though the vast majority of participants were evangelical Christians who are often suspicious of Mormonism. An orthodox Rabbi gave the opening benediction. My friend Dennis Prager addressed the crowd the night before the banquet, and my friend Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, gave a moving historical account of Christians over the last century who were moved to support Israel based on Biblical teaching. Israeli music filled the room, sung by Christians from Texas whom I could swear sounded indistinguishable from musical acts from Tel Aviv. “I am an Israeli,” declared CUFI founder Pastor John Hagee, swearing to forever defend Israel against attack at the risk of life and limb. “It’s not only the support we offer Israel,” said Beck, “that matters. The reason for doing so is also important. We can’t do this because we think it will bring final salvation or for any other reason. Rather, it’s about love. Why did Ruth declare to Naomi, “Where you go I’ll go. You’re G-d is my G-d. Where you die I’ll die, and there I’ll be buried. Because she loved her. This has to be about love.” His words directly addressed the discomfort some Jews feel with Christian support for Israel as being based on end-of-days prophecy and a necessary precursor for the return of Christ.
I sat there thinking, if only the Jewish community could offer such unequivocal support for Israel…
Evangelical Christians have emerged as Israel’s most stalwart backers. They have been at the forefront of calling out President Obama for his pressure on Israel to make concessions while requiring little if anything of the Palestinians. While many Jews made peace with President Obama’s reference to Israel’s 1967 borders, evangelicals have refused to give an inch.
In December of this year I will G-d willing be publishing my book, “Kosher Jesus,” through Gefen Publishers in Israel. It has been a project of more than six years research and writing. The book seeks to offer to Jews and Christians the real story of Jesus, a wholly observant, Pharisaic Rabbi who fought Roman paganism and oppression and was killed for it. While many Christians will be confused by its assertion that Jesus never claimed divinity and not only did not abrogate the Torah but observed every letter of the Law, they will find comfort in my tracing most of Jesus’ principal teachings back to Jewish sources, this before he was stripped of his Jewishness by later writers who sought to portray him as an enemy of his people. This is especially true of Jesus’ most famous oration, the Sermon on the Mount, which is a reformulation of the Torah he studied and to which he was committed. A small sampling:
Jesus: (Matt 5:5) Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Hebrew Bible: (Psalms 37) The meek shall inherit the earth, and delight themselves in the abundance of peace.
Jesus: (Matt 5:8) Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see G-d.
Hebrew Bible: (Psalms 24) Who shall ascend the mount of the Lord - the pure-hearted.
Jesus: (Matt 5:39) But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
Hebrew Bible: (Lamentations 3:30) Let him offer his cheek to him who smites him….
Jesus: (Matt 6:33) But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.
Hebrew Bible: (Psalms 37:4) Delight yourself in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.
Jesus: (Matt 7:7) Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.
Hebrew Bible: (Jer 29:13) When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.
Jesus: (Matt 7:23) Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”
Hebrew Bible: (Psalms 6:9) Depart from me, all you workers of evil…
But the book is also for Jews who remain deeply uncomfortable with Jesus because of the Church’s long history of anti-Semitism, the deification of Jesus, and the Jewish rejection of any Messiah who has not fulfilled the Messianic prophecies. We Jews will forever reject the divinity of any man, the single most emphatic prohibition of our Bible. And we can never accept the Messiahship of any personality, however noble or well-intended, who died without ushering in the age of physical redemption. But as Christians and Jews now come together to love and support the majestic and humane Jewish state, it’s time that Christians rediscover the deep Jewishness and religious Jewish commitment of Jesus, while Jews reexamine a lost son who was murdered by a brutal Roman state who sought to impose Roman culture and rule upon a tiny yet stubborn nation who will never be severed from their eternal covenant with the G-d of Israel.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of This World: The Values Network, was the London Times Preacher of the Year at the Millennium and is winner of the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. The best-selling author of 25 books, Newsweek calls him ‘the most famous Rabbi in America.’ Follow him Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
July 19, 2011 | 4:09 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Attacks on Eric Cantor are gaining steam. Harry Reid called him childish. Many in the media have portrayed him as the obstinate Republican who will destroy American credit by blocking a deal on raising the debt ceiling. But for those of us who feel constantly ripped off by a government addicted to irresponsible spending, he is a hero.
I know Eric personally. He is a modest, focused, and unassuming man who speaks up with something important and wise to contribute. But beneath the calm exterior is a steely core which President Obama is now brushing up against first hand. This is not a man whom you can intimidate. He is not flashy and is not desperate to be loved. He pursues principles rather than popularity contests. A man of faith and conviction, his salt-of-the-earth values stem from his upbringing in Richmond to a family with deep communal involvement. They are committed Jews who till today serve in leadership positions in Synagogues and educational establishments. Eric’s mother is a warm Southern matron with a caring smile who converses freely and kindly. You could never guess that she has a son in high position of power.
But what is most responsible for Eric’s meteoric rise to House Majority Leader is that he is a people person. When you write to him, no matter how busy, he writes back. When you speak to him in his office, he listens attentively and he seeks to learn from all whom he meets. I remember feeling, the first time we met, that I was in the presence of the consummate Southern gentleman.
And because he’s a people person he knows that people are plain fed up. We work hard to support our families and raise good kids. We feel let down by undisciplined politicians who think the American tax-payer is a piggy bank. We’re drained from bloated government waste. Yes, we want America to be a compassionate country that takes care of the needy at home and fights bad guys overseas. But we’re tired of being pawns in a game of vote-buying by political figures appealing to special interests. We feel no guilt at protecting that which we have legitimately earned and we want our generous charitable giving to be at our own, rather than the government’s discretion.
Those who criticize Eric for refusing to raise taxes accuse him of harming America over a financial issue. They forget that the American revolution was a call to resistance against unfair taxation. And while the circumstances were, of course, different, and the British levied taxes without giving us elected members of parliament, the principle remains the same: fair taxation, by the will of the people, that inspires citizens to live by the sweat of their brow.
The national debt has increased by a third in the two-and-a-half years since Barack Obama became President. Is the solution to closing this gap really to tax us more rather than to finally reign in spending?
We Americans are taxed up the wazoo. We are taxed when we wake up and we are taxed when we sleep. We are taxed when we breathe and we are taxed, ironically, when we stop breathing. We are taxed when we work and we are taxed when we rest. Yet still, our governments is bankrupt.
Aside from Federal, State (in New Jersey it’s nearly 10%), and local tax, owning a home requires me to pay exorbitant property taxes of which not a single dollar can go to my children’s education because they are in a private Jewish day school. You’d think that some of my tax money could go to their school’s mathematics or social studies departments, which are not religious. But I and other religious parents across the nation are being bankrupted by high property taxes and high tuition rates that are becoming unaffordable. So were we to feel when we read in The New York Times in early 2009 that President Obama’s trillion dollar stimulus package forced public schools who did not request nor require stimulus funds to accept the money and spend it? We middle-class Americans are paying about half all we earn to the government. On top of that we want to give charity. Is it reasonable to ask for more?
Yes, we’re fed up. President Obama can storm out of all the meetings he wants with Cantor. But he cannot break the man because Cantor is backed by people who are already broken and who have had enough.
Amid a flawed nature and an imperfect character I try to live by the values of justice and compassion. I believe in helping all those who are in need, and Lord knows, I have been in need at times of my life as well. But I also know that greater even than the necessities of food, clothing, and shelter is that of human dignity, which derives from self-sufficiency. Dignity accrues to the man or woman who, with G-d’s blessings, provides for their family’s daily bread. The role of government is to facilitate the acquisition of human dignity by giving men and women the opportunities to be self-sufficient. In life we all seek redemption. But we wish for it to come through our own devices.
A bloated, nannie-state government is an impediment to that self-sufficiency. We want teachers who are effective rather than teachers who are guaranteed jobs which stunts student development and undermines the dignity of faculty. We want unions who understand that collective bargaining that drains a government’s coffers is bad for workers as well as for business.
I have had jobs and I have lost jobs. But the last thing I want is to be kept on in a job because I am pitied. If I have had to lean on others in difficult times – and I have – it has eroded by self-esteem and I have therefore endeavored to get back on my own feet rather than develop, G-d forbid, a stultifying and painful dependency. The sentiment is best captured in a beautiful Jewish prayer, recited on the graves of the righteous: “May my sustenance be conveyed to me by Your hand and may it be sweet. May it not be conveyed to me by the hands of mortals, for then it would be as bitter and tough as wormwood and shamefully degrading. Therefore may You, in Your abundant mercies, prepare my sustenance from Your good and full hand, and may it be complete.”
Hence, my support for Eric Cantor. He, more than anyone else currently in government, is the dam holding back the torrent of spending that would deepen our national depth and increase the unhealthy dependency that government sometimes creates. His efforts may not be fully appreciated now, but in cutting government waste he will earn the gratitude of the American people for saving our country from financial calamity and saving the rest of us from the plundering of private pockets to facilitate that oblivion.
July 14, 2011 | 3:32 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
There are three reasons Hassidic Jews live together in tight-knit and often insular communities. The first is shared values. The second, a strong support network and security in number. And the third is a desire to filter out some of the corrosive elements of outside society from corrupting their children.
All three have been undermined by the brutal murder of Leibi Kletsky by Levi Aron. Where did Mr. Aron stem from? Yes, he dresses like an orthodox Jew. But one can only pray he is mad. Because Judaism, as a religion, commands the highest sensitivity to all life and even inanimate objects. Moses was not permitted to smite the waters of the Nile or dust of Egypt because both had saved his life. Cruelty to animals is one of Judaism’s most severe sins. How could a man schooled in the Jewish tradition of the infinite value of life butcher a boy into pieces?
As for a strong support network, one assumes that this is the reason Leibi’s parents agreed for him to walk home from camp. Noone can now imagine how their unspeakable pain is being now compounded by extreme and unjustified guilt. Why did the boy walk home? But that’s the whole point. Borough Park is a safe neighborhood. It’s the reason you choose to raise a family in a community surrounded by people who are never total strangers. They share your faith, your values, your way of life. So your kids are never in danger. When one family is in trouble, all come to the rescue, as was evidenced by the outpouring of help to find Leibi in the first place. Therefore, when Leibi got lost he walked over to someone who, though unrecognizable as an individual would have been very familiar to him as a member of his community, in other words bearded and with a yarmulke or a hat. Someone safe.
I have long argued that one of the factors that has led to the national child obesity epidemic is parents’ fears for their children’s safety, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Children are no longer permitted to walk to school because parents’ don’t want them to bump into sickos. The net result is that they don’t get the exercise they need. But in the case of a child in a highly orthodox community the thinking would be that the child is safe because unzere, ‘our own people’ are around to help and protect.
But Levi Aron is not unzere. Not only is he not part of the religious Jewish family, he is not part of the human family. He is a beast of the field, a cold-blooded predator, devoid of any spark of G-d or hint of humanity. He is a man without a soul, a spiritless hominid.
Which leads to the most important question of all. In most cases where a child is abducted or brutally murdered by a predator, the child had already been a mark. A pedophile would have been at a playground or on a street corner studying a child who is then abducted. But in this case, a child became lost and he approached a man for directions who turns out to be a diabolical fiend. One can only hope and indeed assume that there aren’t that many crazed killers stalking Boro Park. So how could it be that the child ends up asking the one psychopath who just happened to be at his dentist to pay his bill? In other words, what was G-d thinking? We Jews believe in divine providence. Nothing happens by accident. So a child gets lost and the only person who is around for him to ask ends up being a schizoid killer?
Which brings me to my final point. I said the third reason why religious Jews live together is to protect their children from corrosive influences, to filter out elements of the popular culture and the media which are unhealthy for a child’s development. My G-d, given that’s the case, how do we make sense of a child being killed in a neighborhood set up to protect children?
We will never understand a mind like Levi Aron. Nor should we try. I just read that he is on suicide watch and wish he weren’t. If he killed himself it would be no great loss. He is not human anyway. But I wish I knew what celestial purpose could possibly have been filled by an innocent child innocently bumping into someone who would murder him.
The G-d who we Jews love and to whom we have been, and will continue to be, so tenaciously attached for thousands of years has a lot of explaining to do.
July 11, 2011 | 10:29 am
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
The two sides of war – useless carnage on the one hand, necessary bravery and heroism on the other – were always in evidence as I toured with my wife and older children the WWI and WWII battlefields of Belgium and France.
In Flanders and at the Somme, where millions of soldiers lost their lives in the First World War to capture a few yards that were quickly recaptured by the enemy, the feel of death lingered nearly a century after the fearsome clashes. Everywhere around the towns of Albert at the Somme, and Ypres in Flanders, there are graves. Endless mounds of graves. So many that it would take weeks to visit them all. Military cemeteries dot the landscape with the ubiquitousness of Starbucks and Macdonald’s. The cemeteries each have hundreds and often thousands of headstones. Never in my life have I been surrounded by so much death. A single British memorial at Thiepval lists the names of seventy-two thousand soldiers whose bodies were never recovered.
The pock-marked, cratered battlefields where so many soldiers died in vain are likewise everywhere along the truly massive Western front, which extended from Switzerland to the North Sea. Nearly a hundred years later, the cemeteries are still richly maintained by the British, Canadian, Irish, and South African governments. The famous poppies which came to define the First World War still grow between the graves and on the side of the road in a manner reminiscent of John’ McCrae’s unforgettable poem, Flanders Fields. And the overwhelming emotion felt by the visitor a century later as he views this most quintessential of European wars is the utter stupidity, futility, and uselessness of war. Painful as it is to say, these millions of men, including the 400,000 British casualties of the Somme offensive which yielded but a few hundred yards and which the Germans retook just a few months later, died for nothing.
Not that the military cemeteries would ever admit as much. In nearly all the first words you encounter, etched in bright stone, is ‘They Fought for Freedom,’ or some such banner. But the truth is they fought for the limitless egos of European imperialists and the megalomaniacal stupidity of clueless generals, all of whom – Wilhelm II, Nicholas II, Kitchener, Haig, Bethman, and the Ottomans – have been utterly discredited by history.
By the time you drive southwest, however, for just three hours, the beaches of Normandy yield a uniquely American face of war. Just as I can scarcely describe the feelings of horror I experienced amid the tombstones of poppy country at the Somme, I struggle equally to convey the inspiration of living out my lifelong dream of standing on the invasion beaches of D-Day. From the British and Canadian beaches of Sword, Juno, and Gold and especially to the American beaches of Omaha and Utah, there is heroism glimmering from every particle of sand and bravery shimmering from the crest of every wave. Here was war with a noble, human objective. Not to win glory but to defeat evil. Not to expand empire but to crush tyranny. Not to subdue a foreign nation but to stop the genocide of a defenseless people.
Omaha Beach should be the American Mecca, a place of required pilgrimage for every US citizen at least once in their lifetime. As I stood on the vast expanse of Omaha beach I closed my eyes and tried to see the nearly three thousand Americans who died storming a heavily fortified beach, dodging machine gun nests, evading mortar fire, jumping from tanks hit by German 88mm cannons, until they could fight no more, falling amid the withering German crossfire in defense of people they had never met. Walking among the silence and perfect rows of Crosses and Magen Davids of the ten thousand Americans interred at the Omaha Beach cemetery overlooking the invasion site, you can still feel the tremor of millions of American soldiers hurling themselves against Hitler’s Atlantic wall to liberate a continent that Americans had themselves abandoned a century-and-a-half earlier because of its limits on human freedom. To witness the scale of the effort, like the remnants of the mammoth ‘Mulberry’ artificial harbor at Arromanches, built in the absence of a captured port to feed and supply the immense army, is to be rendered small as you stand amid the enormity of those justly labeled ‘The Greatest Generation.’
Americans do not fight wars for medals or conquest. They fight wars for liberty and freedom. Colin Powell expressed it best: “Over the years the United States has sent many of its fine young men and women into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our border. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return is enough to bury those that did not return.”
Those noble ideals should guide the current debate as to whether America should be participating with the French and English in the fight against Kaddafi, as more Republicans join the criticism of President Obama for bombing Libya without Congressional approval.
Like any nation, there are limits to our manpower and resources. America should not have to be the world’s policeman, a goal that was originally set for a now toothless and corrupt United Nations. But as someone who has criticized President Obama in the past for showing weakness toward Iran in 2009 and doing next-to-nothing about Syria in 2011, I strongly applaud his efforts to bomb the hell out of Kaddafi’s thugs who are slaughtering their own people. I am amazed that any Republican would feel differently.
The British humiliated themselves by freeing the Lockerbie bomber over what seemed to be capitulation for an oil deal favoring BP. Likewise, the French condemned America for removing Saddam Hussein, a man who gassed thousands of children. But both nations have found a measure of redemption in their bold campaign to punish Kaddafi for brutalizing innocent people. And the thought that the United States should not, at the very least, participate with drones and the supply of logistics and ordinance, even as British and French pilots carry the heaviest load, to pummel a bloodthirsty tyrant runs contrary to the spirit of every American value.
It was we Americans who inspired our European brethren to put aside war as an instrument of glory and employ it solely as an apparatus to protect life and dignity. It was we who saved Britain from invasion and France from occupation. And now that they too are to fighting to protect complete strangers, we dare not retreat from values that were midwifed by generations of brave Americans.
Shmuley Boteach, the best-selling author and broadcaster whom Newsweek calls ‘the most famous Rabbi in America,’ will shortly publish ‘Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself.’ (Wiley) Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
July 8, 2011 | 10:52 am
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Ten years ago I tried to extract Michael Jackson from the hell of a tabloid life. Nothing hurt him more than being referred to as Wacko Jacko, something he always told me originated in the British tabloids. And it is worth mentioning, now that we have commemorated the second anniversary of his death, that the mountain of pills he regularly swallowed and which eventually killed him was an effort, more than anything else, to neuter the pain of being treated as a joke. Michael believed he had a serious message to share, that children were both special and innocent and the world had a responsibility to prioritize them and preserve their goodness. But he also understood that with the two boys alleging that he had acted indecently, though never convicted, his credibility had been irreversibly shattered. He was therefore doomed to a life of empty celebrity incarceration when, in truth, he so badly wished to use dedicate his renown to a cause larger than himself.
This lesson – that fame is nice but credibility is everything – has strong resonance for modern-day Britain, a country I arrived in at the tender age of 22, where I spent 11 years of my life and became a man, and where six of my nine children were born. Britain was once the most serious and influential nation on earth. It gave the world the Magna Carta and Parliamentary democracy. It produced William Shakespeare and Sir Isaac Newton. It peacefully freed its slaves decades before America and led the charge in saving the world from Hitler.
But those accomplishments seem a faint glimmer today as British society, once the most highly educated and sophisticated on earth, seems to have traded in seriousness and credibility for out-of-control celebrity. Having at times in my life made the mistake of prizing recognition over gravitas, I am not here to judge. Lord knows, I served as Michael Jackson’s Rabbi and revolved, at times, in constant celebrity society, I experienced how good it felt to feel famous. But having seen what the tabloid life did to Michael, I now run from it like the plague.
While living in Britain and serving as Rabbi to the students of Oxford University, I slowly noticed the change taking place in Britain. I still remember the day the Oxford Union – once the most celebrated debating society on earth – invited Kermit the Frog as one of their speakers. It was 1994 and the announcement still raised hackles. But this was before Britain became synonymous with the origin of reality TV like Big Brother, Project Catwalk, and many other programs that were imported into the US. It was before stories of John Terry, Wayne Rooney, Ashley Cole, and Ryan Giggs trumped by far the reporting on Britain’s laudable efforts in Libya. Serious newspapers were not yet published as tabloids and a strict line still seemed to separate thoughtful journalism from scandal saturation.
But all that seems to have changed now, with tabloid celebrity becoming the dominant headline in Britain. It is easy for me to bemoan the fall of British gravitas. Perhaps as an American who had the privilege of living in Britain’s most fabled university town for more than a decade I had too glamorized a view of Britain’s history. But still I have to ask, is it possible that the nation who was led, just half a century ago, by the world’s greatest statesman and orator is now reduced to no one who can strut the world’s stage aside from William and Kate?
As a lover of debate I used to sit in awe as I watched young Oxford students and British politicians at the Union eviscerate each other with a command of language that had little parallel in anything I had witnessed in the United States. It inspired me to speak and write better. But I was sadly not all that surprised when I asked a recent Oxford graduate who was the most memorable speaker he has heard at Oxford over the last few years and he responded, “Martin Sheen.”
Yes, we Americans have our trash TV and our celebrity scandals. We have politicians who self-destruct with disturbing scandals and supermarket tabloids who assure is that Elvis is still alive and is now married to Princess Diana. But that world still seems cordoned off – for the most part – from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Harvard, and Yale. The UK, however, has allowed some of its leading institutions to go tabloid and obsess over sensationalism.
Britain was once the most revered culture on earth. This was not merely due to the strength of its Navy or the fact that it was sovereign over one quarter of the earth’s surface, a fact of colonialism that rightly disturbs many in Britain today. Rather, it was primarily due to the high quality of its education, its world-renowned thinkers, and the striking quality of its ideas. And it is a tradition that Britain must once again reclaim if it is to significantly play on the world’s stage yet again.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom Newsweek calls ‘the most famous Rabbi in America,’ was the London Times Preacher of the Year in 1999 and is the international best-selling author of 25 books, including ‘An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Judaism.’ (Duckworth) Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
July 5, 2011 | 9:32 am
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
This one was really strange.
This past Sunday The New York Times did a magazine cover story based on the ideas of gay sex-advice columnist Dan Savage, whom it referred to as America’s leading sex advice guru (really?), about how infidelity just might save monogamy, the idea being that monogamy is tough and it’s about time we acknowledged it. Savage argues that couples should be far more understanding of infidelities and even discuss them before they happen so as to receive each other’s informed consent, should that prove appropriate to the relationship. Couples should trade in the straightjacket of strict monogamy, which essentially doesn’t work, and instead seek to be ‘monogomish,’ that is, being essentially faithful but allowing for outside liaisons which just might prevent the dissolution of the primary relationship.
Yawn. What a bore. This is what passes for news in the world’s leading publication?
The New York Times would devote an ocean of ink to an idea that has been unsuccessfully argued by scores of ‘experts’ who have caused couples untold suffering by arguing for open relationships that have later been destroyed by jealousy and woundedness?
Indeed, the argument for open relationships goes back to the beginning of time, its most famous modern advocate being the celebrated British philosopher Bertrand Russell who wrote long letters to his wife about his consensual infidelities. But his open-mindedness could not surmount his jealousy when his own wife starting taking lovers. When Dora had a child by another man, he left her, later commenting, “My capacity for forgiveness, and what might be called Christian love, was not equal to the demands I was making on it . . . I was blinded by theory.” Their daughter Kathleen Tait pithily remarked about her parents’ strange marriage, “Calling jealousy deplorable had not freed them from it . . . both found it hard to admit that the ideal had been destroyed by the old-fashioned evils of jealousy and infidelity.”
The great British writer Iris Murdoch was the same. Her hhusband John Bayley wrote a memoir of their 40-year marriage called Elegy for Iris. He explains that his wife would not allow her marriage to curtail her freedom or her need for adventure. She insisted by being allowed to have lovers and pursued other men intermittently. Still, she to be married because she desired the comfort, companionship, and sense of safety that marriage offered. Bayley was not happy with the arrangement but felt he had no right to object. “In the early days, I always thought it would be vulgar – as well as not my place – to give any indications of jealousy…” So he buried the terrible pain it caused him all in the name of relationship enlightenment.
But convinced he has actually stumbled on something novel, Dan Savage, breaking new ground in The New York Times, adds more. He believes that we have crippled men by expecting them to be monogamous. “The mistake that straight people made was imposing the monogamous expectation on men. Men were never expected to be monogamous. Men had concubines, mistresses and access to prostitutes, until everybody decided marriage had to be egalitarian and fairsey.” According to the New York Times Savage believes that “the feminist revolution, rather than extending to women “the same latitude and license and pressure-release valve that men had always enjoyed,” we extended to men the confines women had always endured. “And it’s been a disaster for marriage.”
In other words, the modern expectation for men to finally evolve from being indulgent boys and adolescents and become gentleman –honoring their commitments and not breaking the hearts of the women who are devoted to them by cheating on them – has been a disaster for marriage.
Hmmm. I wonder. Has Savage discussed his theory with women? Does the average wife believe that her husband ought to have ‘a release valve’ (I love these plumbing metaphors) that is not her?
Let’s be clear. Yes, monogamy is challenging and does not come naturally. But neither does studying for an SAT, waking up at the crack of dawn to go to a job, or even remaining hygienic, for that matter. I suppose that cave men probably did far more of what came naturally. No doubt bopping a woman over the head with a club and taking her by force came much more naturally that having to wine and dine her, slowly wooing the commitment from her. But men, have thankfully, become civilized. Today we expect men to try and live honorably and live by their commitments. And the first commitment a man makes in marriage is to treat his wife like she is special, loved, and the one and only. And when a husband has sex with another woman, whatever Dan Savage things, it makes her feel discarded, secondary, and useless.
One woman I spoke to expressed it best. When I asked her why she had left her husband who had cheated on her twice, though I tried and keep them together, she told me, “It changed the nature of the relationship. Before he did this I felt like I was good enough. Now I feel inadequate, and it’s now what I got married to feel.”
Savage would probably respond, Exactly. That’s what I’m saying. We need to explain to this wounded wife that by her husband cheating he was never doing so because she was not good enough. He was not rejecting her, per say. Rather, it’s that monogamy, in Savage’s words, has “drawbacks,” including “boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death and being taken for granted.” I suspect, however, that the wife in question would respond, “Oh, really. Well, I want a husband who makes the effort to find me interesting, keep our love-life fresh, and who finds variety in exploring my sexuality and endless capacity for erotic fantasy. And if a man is not willing to make that effort, I’m better off with the company of a cat.”
Indeed, spurious arguments like those made by Savage, now given so much credence by The New York Times, is what has driven so many women off of men. Three quarters of all divorces today are initiated by women, and one third of all women of marriageable age are single. Why? Because they’re tired of men who want to act like boys. Who have wandering eyes. Who watch TV at night rather than make love to them. Who lose their sexual focus, and who treat them like they’re not attractive or interesting. Dan Savage might say this is inevitable, that men are hard-wired to require lots of different women. I’ve heard these arguments ad nauseam from hard-core evolutionists who tell us that men are genetically wired to inseminate everything with a pulse.
But I’m sorry. I am a man. Not a brute. And my actions are in my control. And if I screw up I cannot blame my nature but rather my bad choices. Period.
Savage is wrong. Catastrophically wrong.
Men, like women, are intimacy seekers. The men whom I know who had affairs had them primarily to find someone who made them feel good about themselves and to open up to emotionally. Men cheat out of a sense of brokenness. That’s why the most common refrain among married men to their mistresses is, “My wife doesn’t understand me.” And he thinks that some other woman would, when all along he could have made the effort to open up emotionally to his wife and find new erotic opportunities within the confines of monogamy.
Yes, there are marriages that crumble due to boredom, just as there are business that lose their customers due to a lack of imagination. But every company like IBM, or even Blackberry for that matter, whose stock is currently tanking because of a lack of imaginative new products, there is an Apple computer that continues to innovate and expand and broaden its customer base. And for every husband like Anthony Weiner who tweets his junk to strangers there are husbands who wrestle with a straying eye to always find new beauty and depth in their wives. Rather than masturbating to porn their take their wives personally to shop for clothes, telling them what looks great on them. Rather than fantasizing about other women during sex, they ask their wives to reveal to their most secret and dangerous fantasies. Any husband who has ever tried it knows that a woman’s fantasies are far more elaborate and exciting that a man’s.
In the final analysis the reason why the Savages of this world are so misguided is that monogamy actually accords with our deepest nature. What we all seek in marriage is the synthesis of novelty and intimacy. We want a lover who is also our best friend. We want an erotic bond that is both fiery but also friendly. It is a subject to which I devoted a full-length book, “Kosher Sex,” and it is eminently doable.
What we don’t want is to have to choose. We don’t a husband who is our partner, reliable and supportive, but is not simultaneously our lover, passionate and electrifying. We want a wife who is a nurturer and who is caring. But we also want to her to swing with the chandeliers. This may sound like a tall order. But it is no more challenging than asking people to focus on the professional while also excelling at the personal. Human beings are capable of this and we sell ourselves short when we so minimize our expectations. People should be well-rounded and it is the job of us relationship and sex advisors to give them the encouragement, the tools, and also the definitive knowledge that it can be done.
But advice columnists like Dan Savage, who have a shallow understanding of what eroticism really is, are doing their readers an injustice when men to devolve back into the bad behavior that has all too long characterized the male species.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the international best-selling author of Kosher Sex, Kosher Adultery, and the Kosher Sutra. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.