Deepak Chopra as a wise man of Chelm: This truly is a New Age. And America's silent majority of secular Jews, having turned away from their religious tradition, are not exactly in a position to criticize Chopra or Boteach for trying to fashion it into something new. But the way the Kabbalah 1 students saw Judaism as a tiki lounge of ancient wisdom seemed a bit patronizing.
Still, with American Jews having been dispossessed of their causes -- Israel has independence; the Holocaust is a less urgent memory -- Shmuley Boteach has an opening. As so many deracinated Jews declare themselves "culturally Jewish," Judaism seems to mean less and less of anything in particular in the public mind -- which makes it more accessible to non-Jews. "And Jews always do whatever Christians are doing," Shmuley said one day in his office. "Madonna, Michael, Deepak -- they'll get Jews back into the faith."
Shmuley was rehearsing a sermon. In a few days, he was going to London as a finalist in the "Preacher of the Millennium" contest sponsored by the London Times. Last year, when the contest was called "Preacher of the Year," Shmuley had come in second, to a black Seventh Day Adventist, and he figured his delivery needed "more rhythm" to win. "I've asked Michael Jackson to help me with that," he said.
The sermon focused on his feeling that Judaism's reliance on ritual, at the cost of a sense of the divine, was what drove so many Jews away. "You hear the stats all the time -- how a disproportionately high percentage of people who join cults are people who were raised Jewish," he said. "Judaism has gotten too earthbound." On the other hand, aren't the prayers themselves the source of spirituality? "In religious life, habit is essential," Leon Wieseltier writes in Kaddish. "In spiritual life, habit is shameful." Ritual is what links Jews to their ancestors, to what makes them Jewish.
Shmuley met Jackson through their mutual friend, the spoon-bending New Age Israeli mystic Uri Geller. "He had Uri over to do some positive vibes, I think, a year ago," Shmuley said. He began flossing his teeth at his desk. "He had a Jewish tutor growing up. He told Uri he'd liked the influence in his life and wanted to meet a rabbi. So I brought a mezuzah, and right away, Michael wants to put it on his front door. I said, 'I don't think that's a good idea.' I gave him a deep interpretation of the Garden of Eden, the loss of innocence. He's a very innocent guy, Michael."
Shmuley rode uptown to Lincoln Square Synagogue on West End Avenue. VH1 was taping him for a pilot to be called Sound Affects. Various people of influence were being asked to talk about songs that had changed their lives. Shmuley chose "The Sounds of Silence," by Simon and Garfunkel, because it emphasizes communication; "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," by the Charlie Daniels Band, because it emphasizes defiance in the face of adversity; and "The Cat's in the Cradle," by Harry Chapin, because it emphasizes the importance of fatherhood.
Afterward, he sat in a pew and got Michael Jackson on his cell phone (he really did!), reading him the sermon over the phone. "Remember, Michael, I said when I watch you dance, I feel intensely spiritual?" Shmuley said in a digression. "Your moonwalk -- I feel so alive. You don't touch the ground. That's what religion used to do to people! By the way, Michael, you use your wealth to help so many people. So your money does not imprison you. And I say the same of Abraham."
He read on and on, a good fifteen minutes. He asked Jackson to pray for his victory and promised to send over chicken soup to soothe the singer's throat. "He's such a sweet guy," Shmuley said afterward, positively glowing. "He's so spiritual!"
Back at his apartment, Shmuley and Cory Booker were lying on the long sectional, Cory's head at Shmuley's feet, while Debbie cleaned up after lunch.
"Shmuley, man, remember that picture of us in the London Times?" Cory said. "Me, I'm holding you. People said we were in the shape of a cross?"
Shmuley jumped off the couch and did a running kick in the air. "Everybody was kung fu fighting!" he shrieked.
Cory sat up. "I met Shmuley when a girl told me to meet her at the L'Chaim Society," he said. "So I'm walking around Oxford asking people where's the 'Le-Chayme' Society. And I walk in to Shabbat dinner, and it's like a scene from Yentl. But in minutes, Shmuley and I went to being the best of friends. He told me you don't judge a person until you've seen him three ways: b'kiso, b'koso, uveka'aso -- with money, drunk, and angry. And by the end of the night, I'm dancing, I'm wearing a kipa.
"That's what he does, man," Cory went on. "You know, when Shmuley first met the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rebbe said to him, 'One day, you're going to give great naches to your family. You will be a light of Judaism.' "
Their Brideshead days are far behind them now, and Cory had union Christmas parties to attend back in Newark. Shmuley begged him to listen to the sermon. As he read, he stepped on and off the couch in his stockinged feet. Toward the end, he began to shuck and jive and rhapsodize like a Southern Baptist.
"I have a dream," he said, giggling. "I dream that someday there will be a black man in the White House."
"Come on," Cory said. "Tell me about my bashert."
"And there will be a short rabbi in the Lincoln Bedroom."
Cory was suddenly embarrassed, as if the game they play had been acted out too publicly this time. He put on his coat.
"Okay," Shmuley said. "All right, dude. Sometimes I get carried away."