Shmuley Boteach is not merely a rabbi. He has also been ordained as a “love, marriage and parenting expert” by no less an authority than Oprah. He is a newspaper columnist, a radio and television host, and the author of 22 books. The ever-smiling “Rabbi Shmuley” is a ubiquitous pop culture icon, an amalgam of Deepak Chopra, Dr. Ruth, and Rick Warren in rabbinical garb.
For that reason, any reader who picks up his latest book, “Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life” (Basic Books: $22.00), already knows a good deal about the author, and his public persona casts a shadow over everything he has written.
Thus, for example, it is odd to read what Boteach has to say about the role of television in American culture (“We live in a culture where discussing the latest HBO series passes for stimulating conversation”) when we know that he is the go-to guy for countless television talk-shows. And when he insists that he is “a rabbi fully devoted to Judaism,” we might wonder how he came to be Michael Jackson’s confidante and spiritual counselor.
Then, too, “Renewal” is brimming with the kind of inspirational prose that can be found in plenty of other books by clergy of various denominations and degrees of celebrity. Boteach exhorts his readers to embrace “real and substantive values” and to seek “a life in harmony with G-dly values.” Indeed, the V-word is almost a verbal tic. But I kept wondering how the book would have been received if some less famous rabbi’s name and photograph were on the front cover.
To be sure, Rabbi Boteach singles out Judaism for “its singular concern with values,” and his teachings are firmly rooted in the Jewish texts and traditions. But he seeks more than a Jewish readership: “Long ago G-d gave the Jews a mission to spread light through G-dly values,” he writes. “It’s time to hear that message again.” So he secularizes his approach for the value-driven life as “a state-of-the-art system for maximizing human potential,” and he employs an acronym of his own coinage to sum up his credo — DREAMSS, which stands for “destiny, redemption, enlightenment, action, marriage, struggle and sacred time.”
No great demands are placed on the readers of “Renewal” to plumb the depths of Jewish wisdom. Boteach refers now and then to Maimonides and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, but he also uses points of reference that are borrowed from less exalted sources. “The Jewish idea of the Messiah is the engine for all human advances, and the sustainer of all human dreams,” he writes. “The Messiah is the essential motif behind nearly every Hollywood action movie. One good guy, however imperfect, such as James Bond or Dirty Harry, battles against corruption and redeems the world from oblivion.”
Boteach displays his unique insights into the workings of celebrity, a topic he surely knows well. He offers an explanation for “people like Madonna and Ashton Kutcher” who have embraced a water-down version of Jewish mysticism. “The unique challenge of being a celebrity is that life becomes more boring for them ore quickly than it does for the rest of us,” he insists. “The kabbalah tells restless people that if you dig deeper, you will find renewal.”
To his credit, Boteach holds his fellow Jews to an exacting standard of conduct that makes a clear distinction between religiosity and morality. “Some people believe that being a good Jew comes before being a good person,” he writes. “So people who would never eat non-kosher food or work on the Sabbath can find themselves being less than honest in their business dealings.” The whole point of “Renewal” is to extend the same argument to the moral civilization in which all of us live.
“In the modern age, many of us make the mistake of living for materialistic pursuits – cars that break down, homes that slowly deteriorate, sexual relationships that leave us feeling empty, academic degrees that, if not employed to a higher cause, lead to arrogance and vanity,” Boteach writes. “We sit at home and let DVDs transport us into a world of fantasy and adventure. People have forgotten how to be engaged by life itself.”
The moral renewal that Boteach advocates is wholly unobjectionable, and “Renewal” might even inspire some of its readers to embrace the improving values that Boteach sees as the gift of the Jews. Thanks to the fame and charm of its author, the book is more likely to reach a readership in need of moral instruction than a book written by a rabbi who has spent less time on television. But there’s an irony at work in a book that disdains the superficiality of our media-soaked civilization when it is written by someone who is himself a creature of the same media that he disdains.
Jonathan Kirsch, author of 13 books, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at www.jewishjournal.com/twelve_twelve and can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org.