A few others came forward with self-criticisms, all of them to do with money and a lack of willpower -- apparently problems common to reactive people. "Abraham the patriarch, he understood 3,800 years ago the force that causes us to be reactive," Grundman said, making one of the few references to Judaism in the entire session. "And he named this force."
Grundman turned and wrote the word satan on a whiteboard. He laid a hand on the back of his head to feel around for his yarmulke.
Shmuley Boteach has been in new York only since October; he spent the previous eleven years in England, at Oxford and, briefly, at a synagogue in Northwest London. "I moved here because it's the center of the Jewish world, the largest stage to play on," he says. Now, with office space rent-free, courtesy of the financier-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, he has set up an office for the Oxford L'Chaim Society in midtown, with the mandate to "promote Judaism and hopefully become the biggest Jewish celebrity in America."
"Think about it," he says. "Harold Kushner, Dennis Prager. Dr. Laura, maybe myself. There are a few Jews who have brought Judaism to the popular culture. I don't know if their books sell a million copies or not. But those opportunities exist for me now in the United States." Kosher Sex, which was published in the U.S. last year, has sold 200,000 copies worldwide (excerpt in Playboy, promotional appearances on The Roseanne Show, Howard Stern, and the Today show). Kosher Sex was a marriage manual that told couples that the best approach was the simplest and most fundamental -- an extrapolation of the marital laws put forth by the Talmud, with additional homilies from Mae West, H. L. Mencken, and Dr. Alex Comfort. "Plus, it's a killer title," Shmuley says.
Shabbat dinners might be Shmuley's favorite platform. Already he's had as guests the charity-world staple Beth Rudin de Woody; Karen Brooks Hopkins, the head of the Brooklyn Academy of Music; and Michael Segell, an author who writes about men and relationships and who urged Shmuley to get himself invited to the Clintons' Renaissance Weekend.
Sometimes, Shmuley worries about overexposure. He has written eleven books (including the 1,200-page, two-doorstop-size-volume memoir Moses of Oxford); has written thousands of op-ed-style essays and posted them on the Web; has appeared on just about every talk show there is; and, in the words of the editor of a Jewish newspaper, conceding a stereotype, "makes Sammy Glick look catatonic." He has a two-book deal with Judith Regan with an option for two more, and a concurrent three-book deal with Doubleday. He has a publicist from Howard Rubenstein's firm. It is not uncommon for reporters to call Shmuley when looking for someone with a direct line upstairs to comment on a timely moral or philosophical debate (several weeks ago in Time, for example, he offered Monica Lewinsky dating advice: "She should not be afraid to be vulnerable").
Shmuley's scattershot approach is hardly consistent with what he learned from Chabad, since the fifties the most aggressively traditional Jewish-outreach organization. Chabad reaches out only to Jews. His methods at Oxford went over poorly with Chabad, which forced the L'Chaim Society out of the organization. "It got to be a running joke among Oxford students: You want to pick up a shiksa, go to Shmuley's Chabad House," one Chabad rabbi who knew Shmuley at yeshiva told me. "Always, he wanted to be the big Jew. He lacked that Chabad self-nullification."
When Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, a spokesman for the Chabad Lubavitch movement, met me for dinner at Le Marais, the kosher chophouse in midtown, he said right off that Judaism's restoration did not lie with the Gentiles. He cited a passage in the Mishnah, Ethics of Our Fathers, a favorite of the Rebbe Schneerson: "Love the creatures. And bring them closer to the Torah." Once you get over the idea that goyim are referred to as creatures, it's a compelling notion. "It is we who are responsible to bring them closer to the Torah, no matter someone's level or how far he has strayed," he said with a sigh of Weltschmerz. "But we have no right to bring the Torah to them, to water it down and change it."
Shmuley, of course, doesn't see himself as changing the Torah. "What I'm doing, in effect," he says, "is translating it to today's world to reach more people. That doesn't mean I don't err by dumbing things down too much."
Shmotkin said, "I don't think writing these racy -- these books . . ." He raised his eyebrows in italics but couldn't bring himself to say the word sex. He took off his glasses and rubbed his face. "I don't think that is the way to 'bring people to the Torah,' " he said. "I wonder how many people the tent-wideners have persuaded to, say, observe the Sabbath, or to put on tefillin?"
I heard words to the same effect from Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, the author of The Jews in America and Jews. "After six months of Kabbalah study, Madonna will go to the Dalai Lama or to est," he said. "Judaism is not concerned with the individual, in asking, 'What is going to make me happy?' Judaism says: 'If you want to save your own soul, start by saving somebody else's body.' "
He told the story of Rabbi Lau, who, on the verge of being led to the gas chambers at Auschwitz, gathered his congregants and marched them up and down the road singing "Lecha Dodi." "He was using the last seconds of his life to inspire others to fight," he said. "The Dalai Lama would've smiled and said, 'Don't worry. Let us go to our deaths with our human dignity,' and said some mantras. You tell me if these people understand that Judaism is a religion of acts, of fighting, not for introspection." Rabbi Hertzberg began to cry.
Shmuley Boteach, Rabbi Hertzberg said, "is a rabbi with a beard talking about sex to non-Jews. If Freud said, 'God is dead; all is permissible,' Boteach is saying, 'God is alive; all is permissible.' Nothing is forbidden under this Judaism. Someday Boteach is going to discover that God permits shrimp."
America has long harbored free thinkers who've dreamed of forging an alliance between Jew and Gentile. Around 1900, there was an effort to unite the Unitarians and the Reform Jews under one organization. "It was in the nineteenth century that German Jews in America began putting up Hanukkah bushes," says Seymour Martin Lipset, the author of Jews and the New American Scene. "Historically, American Jews have always survived assimilation."
Perhaps it is because something resembling the self-actualizing syrup of New Age has seeped into various corners of Judaism. Or perhaps it is because of the 1990 Council of Jewish Federations study that put the contemporary Jewish rate of intermarriage at 52 percent and found that fewer than a third of those who intermarry raise their children Jewish. But while conservative rabbis call for a return to stern tradition, others are looking to charm Jews back to the faith of their fathers by any means necessary. One of these is Michael Steinhardt, who last year spent $11 million to create Makor. "It's been clear for a long time," he told me, "that assimilation and intermarriage, financial success, they've led to a loss of our ethnic identity."