During a recent New York "debate" between "Kosher Sex" Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and the authors of the dating guide "The Rules," the largely Jewish audience was as raucous as that for any daytime talk show. Boteach, a 33-year-old Lubavitch showman whose provocative books and flair for marketing have drawn international attention to Jewish teachings on sexual ethics, is no newcomer to such staged debates. He duked it out with Hustler editor Larry Flynt on pornography in April and discussed the meaning of life last year with New Age guru Deepak Chopra.
But the Rules Girls, as they refer to themselves, are also savvy media handlers, and, as the two-hour event moderated by talk show host Judith Regan progressed, they grew increasingly aggressive - some might say shrill - in challenging Boteach and the audience.
Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider's 1996 book created a media stir, with such dating commandments as: Wear lipstick when you go jogging; get a nose job if you need it; never accept a date for the weekend later than the preceding Wednesday; never, ever call a guy before he calls you.
Boteach, a short, bearded man with the self-effacing style of a Jewish stand-up comedian, was clearly there to plug JDate.com - a Jewish singles Web site that gave him the title "matchmaker in chief" - and to promote his books. He joked that a forthcoming book might be called "Sex in the Synagogue." At the same time, the heavily made-up, tanned and now-married Jewish ladies were eager to promote the various offshoots of their book, including online "Rules" support groups and $250 per-half-hour phone consultations.
Since it was Wednesday night, Fein - the bottle-blonde half of the duo - started the event by reminding women that this was the deadline for accepting any weekend dates. She packaged the philosophy of "The Rules" as one of self-esteem and setting boundaries.
Boteach championed modesty and challenged women to elevate and inspire men. "If he calls Friday night and asks you out for Saturday night, tell him no, invite him to go to synagogue with you instead," he urged, to applause.
The Rules Girls told the audience that were he not married, Boteach would be a "not-a-waste-of-time kind of guy" but denounced his tips as impractical at best.
"If you want to go to synagogue and hear a sermon, that's fine," said Schneider. "But if you want to get a guy, you need to call us."
Most women, explained Schneider, are not "born Rules Girls" and risk committing feminist-inspired no-no's like calling men and then sleeping with them too quickly.
But isn't following the Rules acting fake, asked some?
"Sometimes only diet metaphors work in this world!" exclaimed the svelte Schneider. "You're overweight? You've got to eat salad!" she yelled passionately. "You say you want to eat cake? OK, then you'll be fat! Is it artificial to use an alarm clock in the morning instead of waking up when you feel like it?"
In the standing-room-only pink social hall of Manhattan's modern Orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue - where the crimson high-backed chairs filled up a good 10 minutes before the 8 p.m. starting time - Boteach appeared to come out the winner with the 800 audience members. Three hundred apparently were turned away due to space constraints.
The majority appeared to be Jewish women in their 20's and 30's, but there were a sizable number of men, including an elderly Orthodox man seated in the center of the audience.
Two 24-year-old women, Lianne Pinchuk and Hayley Lattman, said they viewed the event as entertainment, not advice, and were taking a break from studying for the New York State bar exam. As the Rules Girls commented that most "girls" are eager to "get married and have babies," Pinchuk rolled her eyes and said quietly, "Maybe in a few years. Not right away."
The Rules Girls fiercely stood their ground when pummeled with questions - and grandstanding speeches masqueraded as questions - from indignant audience members who accused them of being manipulative. "How long did it take you to get married?" demanded Fein, when a 30-something woman announced that she had broken all the rules and is now happily married.
Upon hearing that the woman's prewedding courtship lasted several years, Fein triumphantly announced, "Most girls don't want to wait that long."
However, in the end, the general feeling was that the two sides in the debate were actually not so far apart: Both Boteach and the Rules Girls believe that men and women are fundamentally different and that women need to retain some modesty and mystery in their relationships with men.
"The man is the days of the week, the woman is the Shabbat," concluded Boteach. "Do not become corrupted by agenda-driven men and don't lose your femininity."
Schneider, who broke into giggles frequently during the debate, ended with, "I think the rabbi's very nice, but if I were single I'd call [us] for advice. We get you from date one to two to three and married." Slowly exiting the synagogue, one woman was overheard observing that the event illustrated the "eternal conflict" between men and women, but her male companion said, "I thought they all came off as superficial."
Outside, 36-year-old Wayne Borges, who is single, said he liked Boteach's philosophy. "He had very positive messages: focus on virtues, not manipulating men."
"I thought he would be more wild and left-wing, but actually he had very positive things to say," said kippah-wear-ing Chaim Davis, a single 37-year-old.
The Rules approach "makes me feel uncomfortable," she added, "but generally what they're saying probably works.''