Jewish Journal


July 1, 2009

‘Who is Shmuley Boteach?’



That’s a question you may be asking after seeing his name on this blog and far bigger news outlets in the wake of Michael Jackson’s death last week. Shmuley Boteach, the author of “Kosher Sex” who has said he wants to streamline Judaism into “the next Buddhism,” may be a rockstar rabbi but he’s not universally known.

Fortunately, Slate answer that question with a profile of the iconoclastic rabbi eight years ago. The article opens by showing just how important the King of Pop was to Boteach’s rise in that kingdom and finishes with his vision for God’s Kingdom.

In explaining where Boteach came from and how he fell out of favor with Chabad, Benjamin Soskis wrote:

Though he had been brought up in a modern Orthodox home in Miami and Los Angeles, as a teen-ager he became increasingly involved in the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch, or Chabad, movement. Founded in 18th-century Russia as an offshoot of Hasidic Judaism, the Lubavitch are dedicated to making Jewish ritual accessible to even unlearned Jews. When Chabad moved its base to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, after World War II, its emphasis on outreach to secular Jews intensified; the group founded schools throughout the country and outposts around the world, all in the belief that when all Jews embraced their religion, the Messiah would arrive. (The guys with the beards and dark suits who stop you on the street and ask, “Are you Jewish?” and then hand you a pair of phylacteries are Lubavitchers.)

When Shmuley was 13, he met the movement’s charismatic leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whom some considered then to be the Messiah and still do today, even after his death seven years ago. The Rebbe, as Schneerson was called, bestowed upon Shmuley a generous blessing—friends joked that perhaps Shmuley was the Messiah—and later dispatched him, at age 22, to Oxford to serve as a religious emissary. There Shmuley founded the L’Chaim Society, which he quickly turned into the university’s second largest club by recruiting high-profile speakers to address topics often only tangentially related to Judaism. Boy George spoke about redemption after drug addiction, and Argentinian soccer star Diego Maradona told of praying at the Western Wall in preparation for the World Cup.

As Shmuley’s stature on campus grew, his relations with the Lubavitch leadership began to fray. The L’Chaim Society attracted as many non-Jews as Jews—its president one year was an African-American Baptist—and his peers felt Shmuley was spending too much time courting gentiles, thereby diluting outreach efforts and possibly even encouraging intermarriage. Shmuley replied with what would become his signature defense: that broadening the visibility of Judaism to the general public would inevitably, if circuitously, attract Jews. “To get Jews interested in the Jewish world,” he later said, “you have to get the non-Jews interested. The Jews will follow what the non-Jews are doing.”

You can read the entire article here. As you can imagine, not everyone agrees with Boteach—I’ve heard more than a few Jews call him a phony, though I guess some have said worse things about me.

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