Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is proud that some of his best friends are not Jewish. It was one of the first things he said when we met. “Lots of non-Jews are great,” he said. “They’re going to save Judaism.”
In 1988, the Chabad Lubavitch organization of Crown Heights dispatched the 22-year-old Shmuley to Oxford University with instructions to set up a Jewish-outreach center on campus. Within two years, he made the L’Chaim Society, as he named it, second in popularity among campus clubs only to the Oxford Union, the debate club. Lectures he hosted drew as many as 2,000 students. Often, most of them were not Jewish, and often, the speakers came from the secular world, including Mikhail Gorbachev, the Latin American soccer star Diego Maradona, Jerry Springer, and Boy George, who spoke about his addiction to drugs and the value of shuva, repentance.
“I realized I could do more than hold Shabbat services,” Shmuley says. “I realized there were so many ways I could attach a Jewish theme. And by doing so, I made Judaism cool again to Jews. You’ll see: I have friends who are Wasps, Mormons, Arabs – people who know more about Judaism than a lot of Jews.”
Shmuley, who is all of 33 now, says Judaism is finally on the verge of “going mainstream” within the Western, predominantly Christian world. “Judaism is going to be to American culture what Buddhism was in the eighties,” he says – a belief system from which nonbelievers borrow bits and pieces of philosophy and customs on the side. “This is going to be the Jewish millennium. There are a lot of Jews who have left their Judaism behind. But now everyone – both Jews and non-Jews – is going to embrace Judaism, because everyone’s realizing that what the Jews have been talking about for 6,000 years makes good sense in the professional world.”
In December, Shmuley invited me to Shabbat lunch at the midtown apartment he and his family were borrowing for a few months. Joining us was one of his best friends, Cory Booker, a former Rhodes scholar he knew from Oxford. Cory is black, a practicing Baptist.
“Most Jews don’t know it, but the parallels between the Kabbalah and Hinduism are amazing,” says Deepak Chopra.
“I think I met a girl for you,” Shmuley told Cory. Shmuley loves to set people up. He once appeared on Roseanne’s talk show with three young Jewish men from England, answering a challenge to find husbands for her three daughters. He’s also pitching Matchmaker, Matchmaker, a game show he would co-host. And he’s in the process of launching LoveProphet.com, an online dating service.
For Cory, Shmuley said, he had in mind a TV news producer he met in Los Angeles: bright, accomplished, black.
“What does this girl look like?” Cory wanted to know.
“Why does it matter what she looks like?” Shmuley said. “My man, don’t you believe in bashert – that what’s meant to be is meant to be?”
“Shmuley, I want a woman to excite my mind, my body, and my spirit,” Cory said, then gestured toward Shmuley’s dutiful, retiring wife, Debbie Boteach, who was putting cholent on paper plates for their six children. “You don’t understand how it is because when you were 20, you found the woman who had everything.”
Shmuley – it is impossible to meet him and not consider him a first-name kind of guy – tugged at his rabbinical beard, without irony. “It’s a tough singles scene in New York,” he said. “Everybody wants to marry up.” His best-selling 1999 book, Kosher Sex, places the blame on premarital sex; true romance is only possible, he says, if people limit themselves to one partner over the course of a lifetime. “Sexual compatibility is a myth,” Shmuley said. Debbie smiled politely.
“Yeah, all right,” Cory said. “Tell me about my bashert. Is she light-skinned, Shmuley?”
They make an interesting pair: Shmuley has a high, chirrupy voice and the demeanor of someone so eager to please he even pokes fun at his eagerness to please, referring to himself as “a name-dropper.” He is short and barrel-like, and tends to tilt his head back at a quixotic angle to keep his beard from bending against his chest – a physiognomy that even when he is somber of mood, or when he is flustered because the bitter end of some argument he is making has gotten away from the rest of it, suggests he’s about to tell a really good joke.
Cory, on the other hand, is tall, smooth-faced, and supremely confident. He’s 30, has degrees from Stanford and Yale Law School, and has learned so much about Judaism that he served for one term as student president of the Oxford L’Chaim Society under Shmuley. He is an anti-machine city councilman in Newark, will probably be mayor of Newark in a year’s time, and may well run for a higher office by the time he is 40. You would vote for him. Also, he was once a high-school football All-American on offense and defense, the same year as Emmitt Smith. Barbra Streisand was interested in making a movie about his friendship with Shmuley, but Cory balked, since it would have involved inventing a conflict between them for the third act.
Shmuley had at the table the galleys of his new book, Dating Secrets of the Ten Commandments. He opened to the frontispiece and read the dedication: “To Michael, who taught me of humility.” “Michael” is Michael Jackson, a new friend of Shmuley’s.
“When are you gonna dedicate a book to me, man?” Cory said, more or less jokingly.
“I’ve only written so many books,” Shmuley said. “I dedicated one to my wife, one was to my children – “
“You finally dedicate a book to a black man, and it isn’t even me.”
“I know, I know.”
“Except he’s not a black man. He’s a white … woman.” Cory giggled so hard he could barely get his noodle kugel down.
“And he still isn’t even Jewish,” Shmuley said.
The Jewish God is a stern and angry God, but maybe it’s time for Him to undergo some sensitivity training, because some of his Chosen People are playing fast and loose with the Covenant. Opening up the tribe and letting in the masses. Making Judaism fun, come-one-come-all, circumcisions while-u-wait. “The whole country is going Jewish,” Shmuley likes to say. For years in Los Angeles, people have been eating a product called Dorito brei.
The American public’s forgiving President Clinton for l’affaire Lewinsky, for example, represented “the triumph of Jewish values over Christian values,” Shmuley says. “We’re judging him by his public works rather than by his private morality. That’s a very Jewish idea. It’s blatantly obvious.”
Also, he thinks Judaism equips people better than Christianity to enjoy material success and still be holy in God’s eyes – making it ideal in this age of prosperity. “The Jewish message is ‘Of course you can have it both ways,’ ” Shmuley says. “We’ve accommodated ambition; you just have to give money to charity. Jesus says it’s more difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of Heaven than it is for a camel to pass through an eye of a needle. You’ll never find a sentiment like that expressed in a Jewish work.”
Shmuley isn’t asking that non-Jews convert; he is merely inviting them to put on a yarmulke and telling them it fits. And in a broad sense, his thesis squares with what much of America has been saying for years, that a lot of Jewish culture has entered the culture at large.
But more is at work here than the influence of Seinfeld and the ascendancy of bagels over doughnuts. In 1994, the nation’s Reform synagogues began offering Taste of Judaism, a program that teaches the bare bones of the religion to Jews and Gentiles alike. At B’Nai Israel synagogue in Jackson, Tennessee, 90 percent of Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis’s 200-plus participants were non-Jews. “Many of them said they just felt a mysterious affinity to Judaism,” Dennis told me. “Many of them were aware that Jews make wonderful marriage partners.”
Makor, which opened on the Upper West Side in October, was conceived as a community center and matchmaking operation for Jews, but it has quickly drawn a crowd that’s as much as one-quarter Gentile. But the most visible emblem of Judaism’s new crossover appeal is the Kabbalah Center. Scorned by almost all Rabbis, it’s nevertheless become a household word because of its popularity with showbiz Jews like Sandra Bernhard and Roseanne, as well as its most famous scholar, Madonna. Deepak Chopra referred to himself as a “Hin-Jew” when he spoke at Park East Synagogue last fall. And in October, Michael Jackson made public his affinity for Judaism when he emerged from exile to attend Sukkoth services at Carlebach Shul on West 79th Street, the guest of his good friend … Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.
This is a moment when many Americans have become disenchanted with the demands of organized religion and more interested in a “spirituality” that asks less of their time and allows for a direct relationship with God. The fastest-growing faiths are the most exotic and spiritual: According to a Roper Center poll, involvement in mainline Protestant faiths in America dropped dramatically between 1960 and 1990 – United Methodists by 16 percent; Episcopalians by 29 percent. Meanwhile, the popularity of evangelical churches exploded: membership in Pentecostal Christianity grew by 400 percent; in the Southern Baptist Churches by 54 percent.
There are sociologists who say America is in the middle of its fourth Great Awakening; a 1997 Newsweek poll found that 54 percent of Americans pray every day. But many are disenfranchised from an organized church and see religion not as an inherited given but rather as the old pick-and-choose Chinese menu. The Promise Keepers and the Vineyard, for example, mix Christianity with self-help; many Christians are into Eastern religions.
Even so – cue the Yiddish accent – why should they want to be Jewish? Centuries of Talmudic law have dictated that Judaism is a closed religion: You are Jewish only if your mother was Jewish (or if you undertake an elaborate conversion process). Judaism is a religion of ethnicity and birthright – its tenet that the Jews are the Chosen People means one cannot simply choose to be chosen. Also, its many commandments and laws make Judaism an unlikely destination for faith tourists. But tourists have always searched for the exotic.
“Being the light is a proactive thing,” Rabbi Yehudah Grundman of the Kabbalah Center was telling his Wednesday-night class. “Giving light versus receiving light. It’s the difference between a person who inherits a million dollars” – he paused for effect – “and the individual who makes a million. Remember, a person who inherits a million has a very low self-esteem and is not being proactive.”
Rabbi Grundman has a close-cropped beard and wears a Versace tie printed with Sun King medallions. “I met Kabbalah ten years ago,” he often says. He was working as a construction engineer in Toronto (“very secular”) when a friend gave him a copy of Reincarnation: Wheels of a Soul, by Rabbi Philip S. Berg, “dean” of the Kabbalah Center and – though it has been around since 1922 – the force behind its recent boom. (The Kabbalah Center teaches that reincarnation and some form of astrology were popular Jewish beliefs in medieval times, but so in fact do many Hasidic scholars.)
Some 50 proactive students were at Grundman’s Kabbalah 1 course, in a conference room with gold-on-white wallpaper and recessed lighting. There were blacks, Asians, Hispanics, most of them in their thirties or forties. Grundman says about half the participants are not Jewish. The Jews there said the religion they grew up with underwhelmed them. A Caribbean woman in the fourth row was born Catholic but saw an ad in a Learning Annex circular. Another guy, from California, was raised in the “Science of Mind” faith, which he said is “very, very similar to Kabbalah Center.” I met a mother of three, in the middle of a divorce, into self-help cassettes, wanting to meet Jewish men “because they have money.” All of them were looking for something better than what they know.
Nowhere is the experiment in roll-your-own Judaism more visibly advanced than the worldwide chain of Kabbalah Centers – if Judaism is the right word. Its goals, it must be noted, are far different from Shmuley Boteach’s, Makor’s, and the rest of the Jewish-continuity projects’. There are 39 branches worldwide, with outposts in Las Vegas, Aspen, and Paris. Last February, the Center opened its first Manhattan shop, a marble palace on East 48th Street. Grundman claims to have already taught Kabbalah to “thousands and thousands in town” since the outfit’s days offering classes in a fashion showroom.
In addition to interpretations of the Zohar, the thirteenth-century Jewish text that forms the basis of Kabbalah study, classes include “Millennium Mania,” “Weekly Energy Boost,” and “Living the Light.” The books and videos on sale at the gift shop have titles like Stress for Success, You Can Have It All, Black Holes and Judaism, and How to Find Your Guardian Angel. There is also Kabbalah Center mountain spring water (from sources in Canada and California meditated upon by Rabbi Berg). Each label bears instructions to hold the bottle to one’s head for a few minutes before drinking. A pamphlet is available with two special-camera photos depicting the photon emission of water. The mineral structure of “Before Blessing” water resembles a bunch of unconnected dots; the “After Blessing” water has the structure of a fern leaf – highly ordered, and thus providing lots more energy.
At a “Soulmate Connection” workshop, I watched nearly 100 unattached, mostly middle-aged people file in as Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” played on the stereo. Rabbi Abraham Hardoon led a meditation, evoking a comfortable chair in a good-smelling room at the bottom of several flights of stairs. “Let’s ask our angel the question,” he said. “What is my blockage?” We were handed worksheets instructing us to list what we needed to “let go of” in order to become emotionally available. Someone at the table next to me wrote “Everything.”
The Kabbalah Center is not officially recognized by any of the ruling rabbinical bodies in America and doesn’t have anything in common with the rest of organized Judaism. Its activities should not be confused with the generic study of Kabbalah popular now at traditional synagogues. It’s a common mistake, however, because the Kabbalah Center’s Hollywood students have made it famous. “It’s not the Kabbalah that I know,” Rabbi David Gedzelman, the director of Makor, says. “People take two years of classes and I don’t think they learn a thing about Kabbalah. They don’t learn a thing about Judaism. They learn about proactive versus reactive.”
Traditionally, Kabbalah study is undertaken only by the most advanced scholars – and, as a rule, by nobody under the age of 40. To observe traditional Kabbalah study is a far cry from watching Rabbi Grundman interpret the Zohar to a roomful of the uninitiated. In that class, he’d read one passage in Aramaic, which none of his students understood. So he told them to shut their eyes and listen to the vibration of the letters. Then he asked that they share “some examples of things you should do but don’t, or things you shouldn’t do but do.”
“I know I should manage my money, but I find I don’t do it,” said a young woman in a prim cardigan, her hair pulled back tight.
“That’s a real problem,” Grundman said. “Especially in Libra.”
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.”
Housed in an ornate terra-cotta-and-redbrick townhouse off Central Park West, Makor has a handful of classrooms like any JCC but also a license to sell beer and wine. With the intention, essentially, of soft-selling Judaism, it has hosted live music in conjunction with the Knitting Factory and shown movies where the Jewish connection is a stretch (Midnight Cowboy, Bob Roberts, Happiness). Programming incorporates all manner of far-reaching (that is to say, Gentile) themes: “The Jewish Buddha Within,” a talk by a Jewish-born Buddhist who calls himself Lama Surya Das (né Jeffrey Miller); “Just Say Maybe,” a panel discussion about drugs and spirituality; and weekly courses in Jewish-themed yoga. Shmuley, of course, has also lectured.
“Of the 100,000 Jews in Manhattan between the ages of 22 and 35, around 15 percent are affiliated with a Jewish organization,” Makor’s Gedzelman says. “We’re trying to draw some of that other 85 percent. And a lot of us realize Eastern religions have something to offer.”
Indeed, embracing Eastern religions was a corollary of modern Jewish mysticism and of Philadelphia’s Jewish Renewal movement, which sought to move away from the City-College, secular-humanist concept of Jewishness. Rodger Kamenetz’s book The Jew in the Lotus, for example, told of the author’s rediscovering Judaism through an appreciation of Buddhism.
“We’re at an idiosyncratic point in American religion where we have a confluence of extreme individualism in society and then all these people knowing nothing about the tradition they were born into,” says E. J. Kessler, the religion editor of The Forward. “They have backgrounds in sports, est, New Age, drugs. So the Jewish institutions are trying to bring Jews back however they can. It’s like niche marketing.” And what niches they are. Merv Adelson, the movie producer and philanthropist, told me that his own combo platter consists of “mainstream Judaism, Kabbalah Center classes, and Deepak Chopra.” And how do these divergent strands intersect? Adelson was stumped. “It helps in how you treat people,” he said finally. “I’m interested in improving my way of life.”
“It’s a running joke among Oxford students: You want to pick up a shiksa, go to Shmuley’s Chabad House.”
While Jews have been willing to go outside the fold, it is weird that the inverse has occurred. Nobody expected Makor to draw so many non-Jews – a development that confounds Makor’s organizers.
This is Makor’s great, self-defeating irony: Although Steinhardt built it to combat the Jewish loss of identity, the institution, in practice and theory, has come to represent that loss. Its link to Judaism is so attenuated that it doesn’t feel Jewish at all. The Saturday before last, there were two acts in the café, a bluegrass combo and a jazz-fusion group. The place is sleek and modern, with exposed pipes and lights inside the bar panels. The crowd was bifurcated, perfectly normal Jewish singles who might have gone to Tufts and earthy types who make their own Phish bootlegs.
There was Maya, a postcollegiate in a ribbed cashmere sweater, pretty, very goal-oriented about her visit to Makor. “It’s really hard to meet just a nice Jewish guy,” she said. She had recently been out with someone she met through a Jewish online dating service. “He wasn’t good-looking. He got upset when I told him I was only attracted to him as a friend.”
Maya stole a panoramic glance of the room, pretending to watch the Knicks game on TV. “We were at a bar across the street, and we told this black guy we were coming here,” she said. “He was like, ‘Yeah, bring me – I’d like to meet a nice Jewish girl.’ “
Her friend Beth said, “He started singing ’Hava Nagila.’ It would’ve been weird if he’d come with us.”
“This is lame,” Maya said. “Don’t you notice at some Jewish-singles things, there are, like, lots of Asians?”
A couple I spoke to, non-Jews from Connecticut, had come for the music, unaware of Makor’s theme. “But I like it,” said Matthew, who was fair-haired and had dreadlocks. “It’s very clean.”
At the bar, I found Dean, a self-described “goyish Jew,” and his friend Sharon, who is Japanese. “As long as we’re here, tell me something about Judaism,” she asked him.
“That garage door that rolls up overhead,” he said. “That’s supposed to represent that God is watching over us all the time. No, I don’t know. I’m kidding.”
Without exception, every non-Jew who told me of his interest in Judaism cited some common territory that had come by way of dilution, from an ahistorical collapsing of the differences between religions. Feisal Abdul Rauf, a Sufi teacher who spoke at a Makor panel on the millennium, stressed the similarities between the Torah and the Koran. “Abraham is our common father,” he said. “We’re adhering to the original principles more strictly than the Jews. We Muslims consider ourselves as Muslims to be more Jewish than the Jews.” A common refrain among anti-Semitic Islamics – brought forth, suddenly, as insight.
“I saw so much of myself in Judaism,” Cory Booker said. “Jews and blacks share a common story of persecution, struggle, family. It was infectious.”
“I like Judaism because of its emphasis on logic,” said Yusef Kassim, another black Baptist who is a friend of Shmuley’s.
This year, Deepak Chopra will conduct workshops in Israel. He is also starting a Website on well-being, MyPotential.com, funded by Merv Adelson, “to educate the Hindus about Judaism,” Chopra told me.
“Most Jews don’t know it,” he said, “but the parallels between the Kabbalah and Hinduism are amazing.” Well, linguistically, anyhow. He ran through a list of Hebrew words and religious concepts that sounded very much like their Sanskrit counterparts. “Also, I found that in both Kabbalah and the Eastern view of the universe, you have the material world, the emotional world, and the spiritual world.”
He said it was only in practice that they are different.
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.”