In 2006, the TLC Channel—home to shows like Sex Sent Me to the E.R. and My Five Wives—was looking for its next hit. “The network wanted something outside the box,” explained producer Ronnie Krensel, who was charged with finding an unexpected host for a reality show about families. Krensel brought network executives a number of choices. After the first two, he could see them yawning. Then he showed them the third—“and they all sat up straight in their chairs,” Krensel said. This option? Shmuley Boteach, the rabbi best known as the author of the international best-seller Kosher Sex. “I brought him in as a joke, the sorbet of the meeting,” Krensel told me, “but he ‘popped,’ and they loved him.”
The result was Shalom in the Home, a one-hour, primetime self-help show in which the big-bearded, blue-eyed Boteach is given 10 days to help a troubled family acknowledge its problems and find ways to solve them. In each episode, Boteach drives to a family in distress in the “Shalom Mobile Home,” outfitted with multimedia gear, from which the rabbi watches the family interact. Throughout the show, Boteach observes their conflicts from his trailer and whispers advice through their earpieces.
The show was often moving in its portrayals of the struggles of the modern American family. The activities Boteach and Krensel conceived to help the families were genuinely inventive, like a basketball game for a family that doesn’t see itself as a team, or a session with an acting coach to help the family see the roles they are playing. And with the cameras trained on him, Boteach blossomed into his best self: compassionate, playful, and deeply insightful. And he stayed in contact with the families, counseling them after the show was over and even having them over to his house in Englewood for parties that Krensel also attended. “It’s so not what I was used to on TV,” said Krensel. “Usually you move on and you don’t really stay in touch.” And what Boteach lacked in credentials, he made up for in earned credibility. “He had a difficult upbringing. His father left his family, and he was raised by a single mom. That made him insightful.” Plus, “the camera loved him, and he loved the camera. It was a two-way love affair.”
Shalom in the Home was canceled in 2007, after two seasons. For many of the millions who watch reality TV, this was their first, and only, exposure to the man who calls himself “America’s rabbi.” But for veteran Shmuley-watchers, from Israel to England to New Jersey, this was another strange episode for the peripatetic, shape-shifting pseudo-celebrity. It’s been over 20 years since Boteach, an Orthodox rabbi and former emissary of the Chabad Lubavitch sect of Hasidism, got notice in both the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds as the impresario of the star-studded, Oxford University–affiliated L’Chaim Society. Since then, he has published 29 books. He was, for a spell, Michael Jackson’s “spiritual guide” and eventually released a book drawn from 30 hours of interviews with the pop star. In 2012, he ran for Congress as a Republican, with backing from Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul and Jewish philanthropist. “I’ve been told by television producers, radio producers, book publishers: ‘You’ve gotta stop this multiple identity thing. What are you?’” Boteach told me. “But I resisted that, because I think it leads to a life of monotony and boredom.”
When I interviewed Boteach last March at his office, on the same property as his home in Englewood, N.J., one of the first things he did, after apologizing for making me wait an hour and a quarter and for not offering me libations (he was fasting for Ta’anit Esther), was to ask if my tape recorder was close enough. “Do you want to move it here?” he asked, pointing. He settled for moving himself closer to the recorder. He went on to speak of how cold winter months depressed him, of his trip to Auschwitz with the Knesset (“I don’t know if you heard about that, on Jan. 27?”), and of his 2014 trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos. In the first five minutes, he mentioned his relationship with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Within 15 minutes, Rwandan President Paul Kagame had joined the list, and in 16, Samantha Power was named as one of the people to whom the rabbi is “close.” “He was the first Orthodox rabbi to be a full participant in celebrity culture—with a reality TV show, celebrity friendships, and an unwinnable political campaign,” said longtime friend and Harvard law professor Noah Feldman, who met Boteach when he, Feldman, was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. And Boteach agrees. “Sure, I love promoting God and Judaism,” Boteach told an interviewer in 1999, “but let’s call a spade a spade: The main reason I’m on TV is because I want to be a celebrity.”
For two decades, Boteach has seemed focused on turning his gift for insight and understanding of others into fame for himself. But rather than culminating in the kind of celebrity the rabbi pursued, his meteoric rise seems to have plateaued, if not fizzled. He has now had stints as a rabbi to Oxford students, a sex-and-relationships expert, a celebrity spiritual adviser, a reality-TV star, a failed politician, and a Middle East pundit. I began to wonder about the source of this constant, peripatetic, and self-defeating motion. What drives him? What I learned—from dozens of interviews with friends, family, and colleagues, as well as court documents and Boteach himself—suggested that as much as he is always searching for something new, America’s rabbi is also a man running from something very old.
Boteach was born in Los Angeles in 1966 to an Iranian immigrant father and an American mother, the youngest of the couple’s five children. “My parents had a very unhappy marriage,” he told me. They divorced when Boteach was 8, and his mother took the children to Miami, where her parents lived. “I saw my father sporadically after that,” he said. “I mean, regularly, but certainly not enough to gain what children are supposed to gain from the father-son interaction. You need your parents around you. My father was ten thousand miles away from me.”
At 9, Boteach, who was being raised Modern Orthodox, sought comfort in a summer camp run by Chabad Lubavitch. “The counselors became I guess surrogate father figures, and I really attached myself to them,” he said. At his bar mitzvah, according to Boteach, the Lubavitcher Rebbe told him that he would “grow to be a source of light, joy, inspiration, and nachas” to his school, his family, the Jewish people, and the whole world. Boteach decided to “plunge in fully”: He enrolled in a Chabad yeshiva. “My parents were very upset,” he said. “My mother felt I was joining a cult.” (She has, according to Boteach, changed her mind since then; she herself did not respond to an interview request.) He moved to Melbourne, Australia, where he attended a Chabad yeshiva and eventually met and married his wife, Debbie.
But things were not easy. “Debbie and I were dirt poor,” Boteach told me. “A lot of people are supported by parents when they first got married, and we weren’t. I was very upset about it. I felt that it was unfair.”
In 1988, three weeks after Boteach’s 22nd birthday, he and Debbie moved to Oxford, England, where his movement sent him to establish a Chabad house, an outreach center. “I was never intimidated by Oxford,” he told me. “From day one, I knew. I said to myself, ‘I own this place.’ ” According to Feldman, the Harvard law professor, Boteach shrewdly borrowed ideas from the Oxford Union, Oxford’s prestigious debating society, including membership requirements, debates, and high-profile speakers, like Yitzhak Rabin and Mikhail Gorbachev.
“Sure, we had Friday night [dinners], but our offering was not chicken soup and the Holocaust,” Boteach told me. “It wasn’t Israeli dancing and the Purim party. First and foremost, I said to myself, our offerings are going to be intellectual.” Second, “nothing for free,” he said: “I am not here to not value myself.” He explained that students had to pay something; “If they came Shabbos dinner, five pounds, 10 pounds. If there was a speaker, you got him for free but you had to be a member, you had to buy a membership to the organization.” And third, Boteach realized a common mistake made by Hillels and Chabad houses was to try to take Jewish students out of mainstream campus life. “What I discovered is, the most brilliant students were very ambitious—they never wanted to leave the mainstream! Noah [Feldman] was the valedictorian at Harvard! OK, he came from a Jewish Orthodox background, etc., etc., but why would he want to go to some Jewish thing?” Rather than build just a “Jewish sanctuary on campus,” Boteach “was going to make all of Oxford Jewish.”
The L’Chaim Society was a hit. Feldman and Cory Booker, also a Rhodes scholar, were among the most enthusiastic members. “He fundamentally transformed the high-end Chabad house, making it financially successful and creating a huge Jewish presence in a hostile environment,” Feldman said. “He was able to do this because he is totally unashamed and unembarrassed. He didn’t care who sniffed at him. He has incredible chutzpah.” At the height of its success, according to Boteach, the L’Chaim Society boasted 800 Jewish members and 5,000 non-Jewish members, making it the university’s second-largest club. In 1994, Booker—a Baptist—became the group’s president.
But 1994 also saw a surprising development for the budding celebrity: Boteach was suspended from his duties in the Lubavitcher clergy. It was a largely nominal sentence, as the L’Chaim Society was already self-funded, but by all accounts—including Boteach’s own—the rupture was painful. Interpretations differ as to what precisely caused the Chabad leadership to suspend him. According to Boteach, the large number of non-Jewish members, symbolized especially by Booker (who would not comment for this article), was the death knell. “People said I was encouraging intermarriage,” the rabbi told me. Feldman attributes the falling-out to Boteach’s invitation to Yitzchak Rabin, whose support of the Oslo accords ran contrary to the politics of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. In newspaper articles at that time, Rabbi Shraga Faivish Vogel, Chabad’s U.K. Director at the time, said that Rabin’s visit was a “secondary issue,” placing more stress on comments that Boteach had made criticizing the British rabbinic authority on issues of conversion.
Others pointed to more personal reasons. Michael Gross, who helped raise funds for the Oxford Chabad house—which was to become the L’Chaim Society—said he had misgivings about Boteach that he voiced to Chabad leadership from day one. “When I met Boteach, I was immediately convinced that he was totally unsuitable,” Gross wrote to me, in an email. “He was totally self-obsessed and lacked any form of objectivity. He turned the Chabad house into a vehicle for his self-promotion and self-advancement and basically became an impresario by using the prestige of Oxford to attract celebrity speakers. I informed the Chabad leadership immediately, but they said that he was charismatic … and claimed that they could control him, which was delusionary.”
The year 1994, the year of Oslo, also saw the death of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which preceded news of Boteach’s ouster by a scant four months. “When the Rebbe died, almost instantly, actions were taken,” Boteach told me. “I was summoned to a disciplinary hearing in London.” He said that a Chabad emissary said to him, ominously: “The Rebbe died, and your insurance policy is gone.”
Soon Boteach moved his family to London, where, according to the London Jewish Chronicle, he purchased a house for an estimated 900,000 pounds. He also opened a branch of the L’Chaim Society at Cambridge. In London, while continuing to run the L’Chaim Societies from afar, he started making regular appearances in the media. In particular, he participated in a two-hour daily radio program with another young rabbi, Pini Dunner. “He absolutely adored publicity,” said Dunner, who now leads Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Los Angeles. “He thrives on publicity, and he loved coming and engaging with the listeners.”
And the listeners loved him back. Marc Wingate, who worked for Boteach in London, recalled the moment when he thinks Boteach became a household name for the London Jewish community. “He was always trying to get on television,” Wingate said. Finally, Boteach managed to get a spot on a Channel 4 News debate program. “You know, usually the Jews on television in England it’s like, you know, this quiet meek conversation,” Wingate explained. “A representative of the Palestinians comes on and says, ‘Israel is evil! They are killing Palestinian babies!’ And the newscasters, because they’re all anti-Israel in the liberal media, are like, ‘Yes, this is terrible.’ And the Jew goes, ‘Oh, well, you know, sorry you feel like that.’ [But] Shmuley Boteach comes on the scene and just shouts louder, more forcefully, and won’t stop, and the Arab guy shouts louder and won’t stop, and [Boteach] won’t stop either, you can’t interrupt him, he’ll keep going. That’s his style of debate. And it worked. Everyone in England loved Shmuley Boteach because of that performance. That was the catalyst that had everyone in England going, ‘Wow, Shmuley Boteach.’ ”
After that, for about six months in 1997, Wingate went to work for Boteach. At that time, Boteach would give a class once a week at a local synagogue. “His schedule was very hectic, and he had little time to prepare,” Wingate recalled. “So, he researched that week’s topic in the Encyclopedia Judaica or a couple of English-language books an hour beforehand.” Nevertheless, Wingate said these lectures were the highlights of Boteach’s week. “If you could strip away his craving for publicity, there was a pintele Yid”—a Jewish spark—“in there who genuinely wanted to attract Jews to Judaism.”
“What forced me to think about sex was counseling couples and students at Oxford,” Boteach told me in his office in Englewood. “Students wanted to talk about their relationships. They had so many broken relationships; they were so lonely at Oxford … And there were girls that needed abortions, and there was so much bad empty sex, a lot of sex but bad sex, and people wanted to know why their sex was so bad. … That led to my first book, The Jewish Guide to Adultery, which was about how to turn your marriage into an affair.” (It was actually his second book; his first, called simply Dreams, about dream interpretation, was published in 1991.) It also led to more widespread fame outside the Jewish world. Here was an Orthodox rabbi discussing orgasms!
During a recent lecture over dinner at the Carlebach Shul, a synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Boteach was in his element, speaking about sex to a mixed crowd. He was generous, funny, even open to criticism from a young woman named Abigail who, in a wavering voice, told him, “It’s just so offensive to be told I am supposed to be ‘mysterious.’ ” Boteach encouraged her to speak her mind, before returning to his point—that modesty makes a woman irresistible.
It was the idea of the primacy of irresistibility, the notion that “passionate lovemaking that leads to intimacy” is the bedrock of a relationship, that formed Boteach’s original “kosher sex” philosophy, and in 1999 that’s what made him famous. “It kind of changed everything,” Boteach told me. The book brought Boteach his first television appearances in the United States, including appearances on CBS and on Oprah.
But a person who knew Boteach at this time reported witnessing troubled behavior, which he said was common knowledge. “He would disappear for days, sometimes weeks, into a room, and no one could talk to him,” said the source, who—like many others contacted for this piece—declined to be quoted by name, citing fears of how Boteach would react. “Then he could work for 23-hour days and write and write.”
In 1998, after sections of Kosher Sex were serialized in Playboy, Boteach resigned his role at an Orthodox synagogue in Willesden, a Jewish neighborhood in North London, where he led Shabbat services. According to news reports, he wanted to “spare Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks problems with his rabbinate and the London Beit Din.” That same year, the Guardian noted that Boteach had sacked six directors of L’Chaim in a little more than 10 years. One of them, Benjamin Balint, now a literature professor at the Bard College humanities program in Jerusalem (and a contributor to Tablet magazine), was dismissed on allegations of “misconduct”; in 1998, Balint told the Jewish Chronicle that this “misconduct” consisted of nothing more than using his lunch hour to speak with a professor. “Since I was living in Rabbi Boteach’s house, I was evicted at the same time,” Balint told the paper. (Balint declined to comment for this article.) According to Marc Wingate, the rabbi was extremely short-tempered and would get enraged at the slightest mistakes. He also resisted reimbursing Wingate for expenses incurred on the job. According to Gross, this was not uncommon: “There were issues on non-payment of employees which had to resort to industrial tribunals to get paid,” he wrote in an email.
Then, in 1999, the government’s Charity Commission opened an investigation into “the application and control” of the L’Chaim Society’s funds and froze the group’s assets.
In response, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks banned Boteach from preaching at the New West End Synagogue. Boteach wrote a response in the Jewish Chronicle, stating that he was “deeply hurt by Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks’s decision last week to prevent my speaking,” and furthermore that “[i]t would behoove a man of such great intellect and stature always to remember that people are innocent until proven otherwise.”
The commission’s inquiry concluded that “excessive payments” had been made to Boteach and his wife and that mortgage payments made on the Boteachs’ home from Society funds were “difficult, if not impossible, to justify.” Michael Sinclair, the British Jewish philanthropist who was chairman of the board of the L’Chaim Society at the time, declined to comment for this article. But it is reported that the Boteachs repaid £150,000 to the trustees, the London and Oxford offices of the L’Chaim Society were closed, and the Boteachs moved back to the United States.
“It was time to come home,” Boteach told me. “I loved Oxford, I still love Oxford, but to be honest, I didn’t feel I was being fair to the students, because they were just 18, every year they were 18, and I was writing books on marriage. So, we came home.”
In March 2001, Boteach returned to the Oxford Union for a very unusual speaking event. One hundred and fifty photographers waited outside in the pouring rain. The media circus was not standard fare for the debating society, but then again this was not a standard evening. An hour passed. Two hours passed. Still, the audience waited for their speaker. Finally, he arrived in a motorcade. Surrounded by nine advisers, the guest—tall, frail—emerged from his limousine on crutches, an umbrella held over his head by a member of the entourage, and limped into the Oxford Union. It was Michael Jackson.
Uri Geller, the illusionist, was the first to take the stage. He spoke of a warm person, one of his closest friends. He spoke of Jackson’s beautiful soul. Next up was Boteach, who strode onto the stage waving a copy of a tabloid, a scurrilous story about Jackson emblazoned across its pages. “You’ve just heard about one of the most beautiful men alive on the planet today,” Boteach said to the audience, according to one person who had attended the event. “And I want to show you what the newspapers do to such a person!” The energy in the room began to rise to meet Boteach’s. “This is what they write about this giant of a man!” he bellowed. He finished by calling Jackson to the stage, to a thunderous standing ovation.
“Thank you, dear friends, from the bottom of my heart, for such a loving and spirited welcome,” Jackson said, in his childlike lilt. His speech, promoting Jackson and Boteach’s new charity, Heal the Kids, delved into Jackson’s unhappy childhood. To a breathless audience, Jackson described his father’s coldness. “He never really complimented me,” Jackson said. “If I did a great show, he would tell me it was a good show. And if I did an OK show”—Jackson broke down in tears and had to ask for a tissue from the front row of the audience—“he would say nothing.” He regained his composure. “What I really wanted was a dad. I wanted a father who showed me love. And my father never did that.”
Boteach had not only arranged and choreographed the entire event; he had also, according to a well-informed source, written Jackson’s speech.
Before taking me to meet his father, Boteach told me confidently that Yoav Botach is the most charismatic person I’d ever meet in my life. Now 82, Botach—who, like his other son, Bar-Kochba, alternates between different spellings of the family name—is indeed funny and charming, his face leathery with age, his white hair buzz-cut. Boteach took me to meet him at the Los Angeles offices of Botach Management, which holds a portfolio of more than 144 properties, estimated at $700 million; as we sat, employees replenished a plate of cut-up watermelon that sat on the table in front of Botach, and he insisted I partake. Botach introduced me to a woman with long blonde curls to whom he was leasing a storefront. “She gonna be my good friend,” he told me, in his Iranian accent. “Too bad she going out with someone. Too bad.” He chuckled. “The store I’m leasing to her, the bathroom need to fix it, and she told me she need paint the place, the bathroom, finish the bathroom, I say, ‘Why you want to finish the bathroom?’ ‘I wanna go sometime pee,’ she told me, and then I told, ‘You wanna pee? You come to my house.’ ” He laughed again.
We talked about his childhood in Iran, how poor his family was, how he had to fight with Muslim children every day on the way home from school. “I never run away,” he said. “They beat me up, I beat them up, for years, until I get out.” I asked him if losing his wife and children to the divorce was hard. “It was hard, very difficult,” he said. “I have to go once a month to see them, every two, three months go to Miami, take them for dinner. It was very, very difficult, yes.”
Botach’s manner with his son was impatient, dismissive. “You don’t need to be on the phone now,” he chastised Boteach at one point, in Hebrew. “OK, Abba, OK,” Boteach replied. I asked Yoav if he was proud of his son. “Sometimes yes, sometimes no.” When yes, when no? “When he doing very well, no. When he doing less good, yes.” He chuckled at this enigmatic answer. “Yes, he’s OK,” he said in Hebrew. “He holds the Boteach family on the good name.”
Others in the family have not, most famously Boteach’s nephew, Efraim Diveroli, who pleaded guilty in 2009 to operating a criminal conspiracy to sell banned decades-old Chinese munitions to the Department of Defense. Diveroli had worked briefly for Boteach’s brother, Bar-Kochba Botach—known as BK—at Botach Tactical, a weapons supplier for the Los Angeles Police Department and other government agencies, before winning a contract with the Federal Government in 2007 to ship arms to Afghanistan. At Diveroli’s sentencing, his famous rabbi uncle petitioned the judge for leniency. Boteach came despite the fact that “many loving professional and personal counselors” had advised him not to go, “saying it would damage [his] credibility,” Boteach told the judge.
“[Diveroli] looked down at us who were less successful than him as people who could not offer him moral guidance,” Boteach said in court. “My nephew discovered today that he is neither clever nor wise—certainly not wise. … He always believed if he threw enough money at a problem, his army of lawyers, very dedicated to him, who were even like father figures to him, that they would rescue him. And today here we sit. All the king’s horses and men cannot save him from the sentence you will impose.” Then, with a characteristic flourish, Boteach concluded, “I saw a man broken to the core yesterday.” Boteach promised the judge that if he were lenient, Diveroli would be released to a close-knit family. “He will come into a moral environment with an open heart so we can really begin to influence him.” Diveroli was sentenced to four years.
I asked Yoav whether he too was involved in the arms trade; Botach Tactical is, after all, housed in a building Botach Management owns. “Arms? Not me,” he replied, unperturbed. “Bar-Kochba does that, no?” He looked at Shmuley for confirmation. I let the subject drop.
Boteach, however, did not. In the car, after we left Botach Management, “America’s Rabbi” told me to turn off my tape recorder and began shouting at me. I had betrayed him, seemed to be the gist of it. How could I have done such a thing? Do I have no journalistic ethics? The barrage seemed endless. “I am Shmuley Boteach!” he shouted at me on the phone a few nights later. “I am Shmuley Boteach! I am not Yoav! I am not Bar Kochba! What does this have to do with me?”
The next day, he called to apologize. “My father gave me a whole talk,” he said. “He is upset about the conversation, he’s upset at me, he’s confused.” That afternoon, we met again—this time, at his father’s house—and Boteach seemed placated. But the entente was short-lived.
Over the next month, Boteach made repeated calls to my editors, as did his publicists, who sent emails that accused me of “duplicitousness.” “Shmuley is an open book,” his publicist wrote to my editor. “He is hiding nothing. Yet, he needs to make sure that the Tablet will be vigilant in only publishing the facts.” Boteach claimed I misled him about my intentions regarding this story and, via a letter from his lawyer, asserted that I had clearly embarked on “a personal agenda and threatened to do a ‘hatchet job’ ” on him. In one email, Boteach wrote: “My deep disappointment results from my foolishness in having exposed my 82-year-old father, who last Passover suffered a stroke, to a journalist who would use him and so severely disrespect him.” Just before publication, Boteach declined to answer a list of queries I sent him. In place of answers, his publicist sent a message that said in part, “Rabbi Boteach declines to respond given the scurrilous and dismally researched character of the questions.” His statement accused me of having a “hidden agenda” because my brother once debated him, in 2011, at a public discussion of circumcision.
Around this time, I came upon a series of startling court documents related to Yoav Botach’s split from his third wife, celebrity make-up artist and hair stylist Judith Boteach, who has worked for Cher and Tina Turner. It was an unusual divorce case from the get-go, beginning with the fact that the couple wasn’t, as it turned out, even married. According to Judith, Yoav informed her a month after their wedding that he never actually procured a civil marriage license; attorneys for Yoav argued that the two had agreed all along to only be religiously married. (Judith Boteach declined to comment for this article.)
But Judith also claimed that Botach physically abused her, including head-butting and punching her. Shmuley was called to attest to his father’s character—ironically, by lawyers for Judith, who believed that Shmuley’s memories of his father would corroborate her assertions of domestic violence. “Evidence of Shmuley’s observations about what he witnessed in his own home and public statements he has made about those observations … demonstrate Yoav’s habit of beating up the women he marries,” court records state.
Yoav’s lawyers quickly moved to have Shmuley’s childhood memories of his father excluded as “prejudicial,” but Judith’s lawyers insisted. They argued that proof that Shmuley was telling the truth could be found in the high-stakes nature of his tale: As a well-known author and television personality, making such comments about Yoav exposed Shmuley to the possibility of becoming an “object of hatred, ridicule or social disgrace within the Orthodox Jewish community.” While Boteach was using his story to help other broken families—“to heal that which is broken” as he put it to me—his father’s wife’s lawyers were using the family history to try to get the adoring son to testify against his distant father.
But Yoav’s lawyers responded that, on the contrary, the public nature of Shmuley’s statements were proof of their falsity, rather than their truth. “It is just as plausible that Rabbi Boteach made the statements at issue to sell books, promote his website, and/or spark interest in future television appearances,” they argued.
In an attempt to prove that Boteach’s statements about his father would be relevant, Judith’s lawyers introduced old testimony from Shmuley’s mother, Eleanor, from her divorce from Yoav. She had described a gruesome scene in which her children had to rescue her from Yoav’s temper:
“On January 9, 1975, at about 8:00 PM, my husband became violently angry. He threw a pot of boiling water on my back and head, pulled my hair, threw me to the floor, and kicked me. He beat me over the head with a roasting pan. My feet were bleeding, my head had welts, and I was bruised all over. My children pulled him off me. I escaped and called the police. The police returned me to my home and protected me while they arrested my husband. My husband threatened to kill me on numerous occasions. My children are in a constant state of fright and upset because of him.”
Boteach did not ultimately testify in his father’s third divorce proceedings. In the end, the court awarded Judith $50,000 “for Yoav’s assault, battery and infliction of emotional distress,” along with a divorce settlement of $200,000.
In the fourth episode of Shalom in the Home, Shmuley sits with a family, the Wexlers, in the Shalom mobile home and shows the couple a video of their daughter, in which she speaks of how her ears are ringing with the sound of the word “divorce.” “You have your 7-year-old daughter, this innocent, vulnerable little life that you brought into the world, saying, ‘I get scared,’ ” Boteach tells the tearful parents. “Not of the boogieman, not of a robber or a murderer. I get scared of my own parents. They frighten me.” He told them that they “must never, ever, ever mention the word divorce” around their children. Boteach recommends that the two of them apologize to their daughter. The couple eagerly agrees.
Today, one of Boteach’s multiple identities is executive director of This World: The Values Network, an organization, funded by such Jewish philanthropists as Michael Steinhardt and Stanley Black, that “seeks to bring Jewish values to the mainstream culture via the mass media,” according to its website. “My core is a passion for Jewish values,” Boteach explained, “and I would like to believe that every identity we’ve been speaking about kind of stems from that. What is the supreme Jewish value? It’s the infinite value of every life. That sums up Judaism.”
The intended audience for this simplified Judaism is not well-versed in matters Jewish. “My focus is principally the non-Jewish world,” Boteach explained, while discussing how his approach differs from others’ in the Chabad movement. On its website, the organization’s name appears as “This World: The Values Network,” but on tax forms, it appears as “This World: The Jewish Values Network.” It’s as though the very name of the organization reflects Boteach’s ambivalence toward the “Jewish” label, his uncertainty whether he is called to promote Judaism, or to promote himself, to the wider world.
That uncertainty, that confused mission, plagues all of Boteach’s efforts. Sometimes he is the pundit, very much of the Jewish world. In a recent debate at Columbia University in May, he joined Bret Stephens, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page editor; writer Peter Beinart; and analyst Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. Later in May, This World: The Values Network hosted its annual gala, with guests including actor Sean Penn, who was being honored for his work is helping to secure the release of Jacob Ostreicher, an American businessman imprisoned in Bolivia for 18 months. Rick Perry and Chris Christie were there, perhaps to hobnob with Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.
But Shmuley Boteach is not about to become a serious commentator on the Middle East, or the go-to middleman for rescuing foreign kidnap victims, and he knows it. Perhaps this is why he’s just published Kosher Lust: Love Is Not The Answer—going back to the ink-stained trade that won him celebrity in the first place. The book, released on May 1, represents “the next stage in the evolution of my thoughts on sexuality, romance, and marriage,” Boteach told me. “It’s a revolutionary book. It says something that nobody has ever said before, to my knowledge. It says that love has destroyed marriage—because marriages are supposed to be built on the foundation of lust, not love.” It seems to be more of Boteach’s thoughts—adolescent and dependent on outdated gender norms—on the topic that made him famous. “Could Rabbi Shmuley Boteach please get out of our beds already?” read the headline of one review.
When we spoke in his office, Boteach repeated an argument that he first made debating Christopher Hitchens in the early 2000s, about whether morality is objective. “In one of my debates with Hitchens I said to him… ‘[I]s a man allowed to beat his wife? Or is that absolutely wrong?’ ” Then he asked me, “Can you think of a situation where a man can beat his wife?” I had not yet learned about the allegations against his father, so I didn’t make the connection. But neither did he. “Is there any scenario the mind could conjure up that that would be acceptable? Any scenario?” he went on. “The answer is no. So, that means it’s absolutely wrong, it’s always wrong, under all circumstances and all conditions. And that’s an admission of absolute morality.”
It’s not necessarily, of course; it could simply be an acknowledgment of social consensus. In quieter moments, Boteach seems less rigidly attached to absolutes—at least when it comes to himself. When we spoke for the first time in his office in Englewood, he told me how Chabad differed from the cult his mother originally believed it to be. “The goal of Chabad is personal empowerment, to internalize Jewish convictions and to live in a place where you can spread them,” he said. I asked if he thought it had helped him heal from the pain of his parents’ divorce. “Well, I was hoping it would, and, yeah, it did,” he said, before continuing: “I don’t think the healing was very deep, because I don’t think I’ll ever be healed. I’ve kind of come to that understanding and conclusion that I will never fully heal, and that my life is a different mission therefore—it’s a different calling—that my life is going to be about battling my nature at all times, and fighting the darker emotions at every opportunity. … If you’re healed, then you just live life—it’s uncomplicated, it’s all pretty. That’s just not me.”
Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.