Shmuley Boteach’s confused understanding of the Jewish World

The (I’m advised sincere) but confused article by Shmuley Boteach should not remain without counter-comment.

I will copy his article below and intersperse my comments.

The magnetism of Chabad messianism

Messianism is the world’s most powerful idea, humanity’s most compelling vision.

Messianism, which presumably is a word used because it over-focuses on WHO may be the Messiah, as opposed to the condition of the world at such a time, is not the world’s most powerful idea nor humanity’s most compelling vision.

The redemption itself, but more nuanced than that, the condition extant at the time of the redemption are a vision which we pray for three times a day. The days when the wolf will live with the lion, and the temple and it’s influence of unity and concentration and holiness are the reality, not vision, which Jews pray for every day. I do know that there are multifarious views of other religions now. I am not terribly interested in these, except in as much as דע משתשיב

Not only is it the underpinning of the world’s most populous religion, Christianity, it is also the engine for human progress itself.

If Jesus is the underpinning of the world’s most populous religion, that person (as opposed to the euphemistic messianism) then that is what it is. It is no more than that. If it means that people act in a certain way, which can be considered moral and ethical, and most importantly not missionary, then that is good. There is no evidence in Boteach’s statement that it is the engine for human progress. This is a statement without a presentation of any illustrative proof.

Only through a belief that history is not cyclical but linear, that positive steps in human advancement are cumulative rather than short-lived, that as a race we can step together out of the shadows and into the light, can there hope for collective human progress.

There are some mixed metaphors here. History is indeed cyclical. Boteach’s mistake is that if one proceeds in a circle, one cannot increase energy. This is of course demonstrably wrong. It is as wrong as assuming that one who travels in a line, is “growing”. They may in fact be dying, and reaching their end point.

Boteach again uses the term progress. He calls it “collective human progress.” He has not, however, seemingly made any effort to define what he means.

It is therefore fascinating to witness – once a year – the tremendous energy unleashed by the Chabad messianic movement as it congregates and detonates at world Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn.

Having never been there, I have heard that it certainly used to detonate a special extended holiness, however, anyone who has been in the State of Israel, and experienced Succos in Jerusalem, Hevron and the surrounds cannot help but know that they are actually on holy ground, enveloped by a sweeping holiness. that is unleashed and detonated. The same can be said for the “second hakafos” in Israel. That being said, I would posit that even Boteach acknowledges that Brooklyn now, is not the Brooklyn of 25 years ago, and the shining star that illuminated that section of the world, is sadly in another place. There is now much binge drinking where people either drown their sorrows or try to reach moments of detached ecstasy as a substitute. In Melbourne, I haven’t heard a good farbrengen, for example, since Rabbi Groner and those before him departed. Let me know where one is, and I’d love to be enthused by an outpouring of the Torah of Simcha.

The Jewish festival of Sukkot brings together two very different strands of the global Chabad movement. On the one hand, there is mainstream Chabad comprised of residents of Crown Heights – the global hub – together with the worldwide network of Chabad emissaries. Their strength is their professionalism, dedication, and impact.

On the other hand there are the Chabad messianists, a minority to be sure, but vocal, visible, determined, and brimming with life.

Here I assume Boteach defines a Chabad Messianist as either a chanter of one line mantras, or one who imagines he is receiving wine from nobody, or perhaps one who refuses to believe there is a filled grave. It would be helpful if Boteach defined his terms. There are many silent ones who pine for redemption. Some will internally hope that by some Divine rule it will be their Rebbe. Others (a very very small minority) will think this issue of identifying the Messiah, is actually a thorough and useless waste of time. I assume he speaks not about the elohisten.

Mainstream Chabad is uncomfortable with the messianists, believing they give both the movement and the Rebbe himself a bad name. The messianists are millennial, apocalyptic, and, to many minds, irrational. They want to push both Chabad and Judaism into the end of days.

I don’t see them as irrational (but note, I don’t know which category Boteach refers to). I see many of them as post-justifiers. They will cut and dismember Jewish tradition as espoused by the Rambam and acknowledged by the rest of Jewry. Those who think there is nothing in the grave, need psychiatric help.

But there can be no denying that they have tapped into an energy source that appears near infinite.

I do not know what “near infinite” means, let alone in this context.

When I was a young Chabad student in Crown Heights what I remember most was the limitless energy we all experienced in the Rebbe’s court. On Sukkot we could dance nine days running without tiring. We could go for a week with barely any sleep. The Rebbe – then in his eighties – set the pace with superhuman strength and inexplicable vigor.

Although I was not and am not a Chabadnik, I agree, based on the books I have recently read and some videos that I have watched, that it would have been an experience to remember.

That was more than twenty years ago.

Since then, Chabad has conquered the world and gone mainstream, sprouting educational centers in every point of the globe. My wife and I recently spent Shabbat with Chabad of Korea right after I spoke at Seoul’s Olympic Stadium at a global peace summit. A few weeks earlier I had spoken at Chabad of Aspen, Colorado. The local Chabad centers in these two very different places had in common the outstanding young Chabad rabbis, true soldiers of the Jewish people. Watching their impact on their respective communities was inspiring.

I think that Chabad has sprouted and grown, but I don’t know about conquered the world. If there was one word that I was left with after reading the three recent books about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, it was either the word dedication or positivity. I think Chabad has influenced many in that direction.

But for all that, Chabad today – as a movement that has now gone mainstream – has learned to eschew controversy. Gone are the days when Chabad agitated for the territorial integrity of the State of Israel and public stands against trading land for a fraudulent peace.

Those days aren’t gone!?! I hear this message constantly and unwaveringly today.

Gone too are the Chabad emphasis on messianism as being central to Judaism and the Jewish future.

This depends on the Shaliach. Some have adapted to their clientele while others will unwaveringly soldier on with the original message in all it’s vigour and yellow paraphernalia.

Chabad today is effective if not conventional, essential if not somewhat predictable.

It is predictable because it is a continuation of a message. There is no more central figure to initiate new ideas that are to be brought to the world. That is sad; but true. At the same time, there is an enormous corpus that may be applied to today’s world, without change.

Its focus: opening nurseries and day schools, synagogues and mikvehs, looking after special needs children (Friendship Circle) and the elderly, running Sunday schools and day camps. And to quote Carly Simon, nobody does it better.

This is also necessary for the mainstream. Jews are abandoning Shules. The latter can’t survive. They must generate income from nurseries etc simply to survive financially!

It is to this side of Chabad that I adhere and this vision for the building of Jewish life that I am dedicated. Chabad justly evokes in every Jew on earth a feeling of both awe and gratitude.

Which side exactly does Boteach not adhere to? Those that yell Yechi, or those that think it, or someone else?

Without Chabad the Jewish world would be up a creek without a paddle.

I don’t second guess God, nor do I know what he would have done, but there can be no doubt Chabad’s influence has been very significant.

But even as someone who prides himself on his rationality,

I do not know how a Chabad Chossid prides himself on rationality. My understanding is that there is higher level, called Bittul.

I cannot help but be somewhat jealous of the go-for-broke mentality of the other side of the movement, the messianists. The belief that humankind can attain an age of perfection, a belief that Judaism has a global, universal vision that is not limited to Jews, a dismissal of money and materialism in favor of a purely spiritual calling, and placing faith in a great leader who prompts us to embrace that era.

I am not jealous of them. Those that think that they have a minyan with two people and eight pictures, or eat on Tisha B’Av have broken with Jewish Mesorah. If Boteach is saying that he admires their perspicacity, ok.

To be sure, I follow the ruling of Maimonides that the Messiah must be a living man who fulfills the Messianic prophecies which rules out anyone – however great – that has passed from this world without ushering in an age of universal peace, rebuilt the Temple, and gathered in all Jewish exiles. That would exclude my Rebbe as it would exclude all the other great leaders of the Jewish people through the ages however much they have devoted their lives to our people.

It does, but that same Maimonides said, we don’t really know how things will unfold exactly. Which means I agree with Boteach, but I think he may be selective as a Chabadnik.

But that does not change my clear memory of the Rebbe’s incessant and unyielding public calls for Jews to work toward a messianic future, to dedicate every positive deed toward his coming, and to never fear controversy in the pursuit of every aspect of Jewish belief.

I once wanted to visit him for a Yechidus when I was younger. However, I felt that I was not worthy of saying anything of substance nor did I have a particular issue that I wanted to raise. As a Cohen, I also knew that if I blessed Jews with love, God himself would bless me. Not withstanding that fact, after reading the three books, I probably would have gone in if I had my chance again, and simply asked for “an appropriate brocho” Those three words. No more, and no less.

R’ Shmuley Boteach, R’ James Kennard, and Diversity within Chabad

I am not a supporter of R’ Boteach’s approach. I am not a Chabadnik, and for reasons which I won’t go into, I most certainly don’t advocate the glamour and glitz approach of R’ Boteach. Recently, R’ Boteach spoke at Caulfield Shule. I am told it was a packed house and many enjoyed his talks. Yoshke isn’t Kosher in my eyes, and in the eyes of many, but came they did to hear Boteach’s messages on that and “Kosher Sex” and more.

Enter an Ashkenaz Shule, Sydenham, in South Africa. Yes, my Mechutan is the Rav of the Shule and a Chabadnik. He’s actually moderate for what it’s worth. They, for whatever reason, also had R’ Boteach speak. I don’t know how it went, but I’d imagine it was popular. R’ Groner in Melbourne spoke firmly, personally and with gentle persuasion to R’ Boteach to use his talents in other ways. That did not work.

Now Caulfield Shule is led by an arguably left-wing modern Orthodox Rabbi, who I believe is from Rhodesia? Either way, he allowed the talk to go ahead.

The Shule in South Africa, led by a Chabad Chosid, also allowed the talk to go ahead. That’s not to say either Rabbi agreed with the approach of Boteach. I don’t know the circumstances.

If we are to accept that a large Ashkenaz, mainly non-observant Shule in South Africa ought to also have a more diverse Rabbinate (as in Melbourne, Australia) as alleged by Rabbi Kennard, then I ask, in practical terms: what was the difference between the Caulfield event and the one in Johannesburg?

I think the answer is that were the Rabbi of Caulfield someone who asked his Sheylos to R’ Hershel Schachter, the pre-eminent Posek of the Centrist Orthodox community, and senior Posek of the OU, then he may have been advised that it was unwise. On the other hand, the Rabbi in Joannesburg found himself criticised in the Jewish Press by  scions of Chabad in the guise of the respected R’ Ezra Shochet. No doubt though he discussed it with his trusted colleagues.

If there is one thing I’ve observed about Chabad, is that it’s a binary system. The Rebbe was it, and everyone else is at the same 0 level. That is, a 1 and many 0’s. Again, while I agree with R’ Kennard that we do need home-grown Rabbis and more diversity, Chabad cannot be painted (any longer, if at all) with one brush. I’d say the quality, honesty and energy of the personality  is at least if not more important than their Hashkafa (in our day and age)

Shule to court controversy

It is difficult for mainstream Shules to survive in their earlier form.  A powerful method of attracting people back to Shule membership is to court iconoclasts and embellish them with a podium. A Melbourne Shule is seizing the moment, so to speak, as I understand they are sponsoring a visit from Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.

Rabbi Boteach is a controversial figure. Ostracised by Chabad, I haven’t  noticed him gaining traction with Modern Orthodox organisations. let alone right wing or ultra orthodox. He is visible amongst non-Jews and those outside the pale of traditional orthodoxy. I expect he is also motivated by a wish to influence Jews to become more devout as well as inspiring non-Jews to commit to the seven noachide laws. Is he the best man to do so? Boteach did himself no favours when he poorly debated Christopher Hitchens. That debate was embarrassing, to put it mildly.

Boteach described himself thus:

… then the Rebbe died and I had a major falling-out with the Chabad leadership because of my outreach to non-Jews. Ever since then, I have reconciled myself to the somewhat lonely status of being a Lubavitcher without a community. I compensated for my sense of isolation by becoming integrated into the mainstream Jewish community

It came then as little surprise when a senior figure in Chabad, Rabbi Dr Immanuel J. Schochet branded Boteach’s most recent book as heresy. R’ Schochet forbids the provision of a platform for Boteach to promote this book. R’ Schochet’s words are chosen in the context of the book. R’ Boteach, in his response to R’ Schochet, sought to popularise being banned by stating

We Jews are the people of the book, not the people who ban books.

This statement is shallow. There are Halachos about heresy. Books have been banned because they are deemed heretical. He can argue that his book is not heresy, but this “people of the book” line is something that might appeal more to Madonna and Michael Jackson. We are the people of the book even without including books that are deemed heretical. To be sure, R’ Schochet’s statement is an Halachic one. I do not see the category of “people of the book” influencing Halacha. Schochet chooses not to elaborate on his reasons, but I surmise that they be based on Rambam Hilchos Tshuva, 3:6-8

המורדים, ומחטיאי הרבים, והפורשין מדרכי צבור

Shmuley Boteach and Michael Jackson

Boteach expresses the view that he does not understand how Schochet could argue against missionary activity and at the same time choose not to discuss Boteach’s book in any detail.

Rabbi Schochet seems to have significantly changed his approach to Judaism and Christianity since his lectures under my auspices. Back then he orated openly on Jesus and the New Testament, rebutting missionary claims and engaging missionaries in public dialogue and exchange. There are hundreds of his tapes that attest to this fact.

R’ Schochet undoubtably considers it more difficult to engage in dialogue with missionaries and/or those who are ensnared by them precisely because of Boteach’s new book. Boteach admits as much himself quoting this review  [light editing from me]:

“Kosher J” is, after all, a book which Publisher’s Weekly — the platinum standard in book reviews — called an “informed and cogent primer on J. … a brave stab at re-evaluating J through an intensive look at the Xtian Testament and historical documents … and a well-researched analysis that will certainly reopen intrafaith and interfaith dialogue.”

R’ Schochet may or may not agree that it is “well-researched” but he too clearly feels that it will reopen intra and interfaith dialogue. Does Boteach expect us to be convinced that his book can’t be heretical because of the review by Publisher’s Weekly?

R’ Schochet’s son, R’ Yitzchak Schochet, is also a prominent Rabbi in the UK and has been considered a possible future Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth. He had this to say about R’ Boteach

I question whether Rabbi Boteach has brought even one Jew involved in Christianity back to their roots through his debates, and suggest that it is little more than image and soundbite.

R’ Boteach reacted with:

Indeed, his father [R’ Schochet], who wrote this bizarre attack on me out of the blue calling me a heretic,

I don’t see anything in the letter that calls Boteach a heretic. Rather, R’ Schochet carefully crafted his words to refer to Boteach’s book as problematic.

Boteach has a liberal view of Apikorsus/Heresy in general. In the September 2000 issue of Nishma, Boteach stated in response to R’ Avi Weiss (who is considered a paragon of left wing modern orthodoxy, and who ordained the first female rabba)

I know that for Rabbi Weiss, even the willingness to be open to talking to apikorsim is a risk. But when the goal of the discussion is already a foregone conclusion, the conversation isn’t very risky.

Rabbi Boteach might not think it’s risky; others clearly do, and they do not feel an obligation to elaborate and give Boteach more airtime, as this would simply provide fuel for the fire.

Let’s be under absolutely no illusions here. R’ Boteach is not a Rabbi Slifkin. Rabbi Slifkin’s books were banned by people who couldn’t read English, let alone who had read Slifkin’s books. R’ Slifkin is an author of erudite and learned Jewish books based on Rishonim and Acharonim. Time will show that Rabbi Slifkin’s approach to documenting an orthodox perspective on Evolution eminently sound and commendable. I’m a fan of Rabbi Slifkin and his essays.

Boteach isn’t a Rabbi Kamenetsky either. Kamanetsky’s book “the Making of a Gadol” was unfairly banned and later modified because it was seen to embarrass R’ Aron Kotler ז’ל and other Lithuanian Rabbis look “too human”.

The audience for Boteach’s book, however, is mainly the non-Jewish world and perplexed Jewish fringe dwellers. Is the correct approach to attempt to re-educate our co-religionists that they should see themselves as derivatives of Judaism? They worship J, and see him as “above Judaism”. What will Boteach achieve through this passively aggressive attack on their well-seated belief system?  Will the world become happier and a pluralistic paragon of peace? Does Boteach think that he’s the first who realised that Saul of Tarsus was the man who fashioned what that religion is today?

I have a religious colleague at work who likes to regale me daily with his “inspiration”. I’m quite tired of it, to be honest. In the last week I asked him to come back to me with the historical record of when Shabbos became Sunday, who initiated this, and why. It has quieted him. I don’t see any value whatsoever in challenging his belief system (he thinks he can speak in tongues) and I don’t expect him to challenge mine.

The Rav, in his famous 1964 essay “Confrontation” was firmly opposed to theological disputation or cooperation with the Church, except when dialogue was limited to shared societal values such as feeding the poor, helping the sick etc and where Jews needed to be partners with all people in advancing such activities. His grandson, R’ Meir Soloveitchik put it thus:

The Rav’s opposition to communal, and organizational interfaith dialogue was partly predicated upon the prediction that in our search for common ground — a shared theological language — Jews and Christians might each sacrifice our insistence on the absolute and exclusive truth of our respective faiths, blurring the deep divide between our respective dogmas. In an essay titled “Confrontation,” Rabbi Soloveitchik argued that a community’s faith is an intimate, and often incommunicable affair. Furthermore, a faith by definition insists “that its system of dogmas, doctrines and values is best fitted for the attainment of the ultimate good.” In his essay, the Rav warned that sacrificing the exclusive nature of religious truth in the name of dialogue would help neither Jews nor Christians. Any “equalization of dogmatic certitudes, and waiving of eschatological claims, spell the end of the vibrant and great faith experiences of any religious community,” he wrote.

A left-wing organisation known as YCT—Yeshivat Chovevei Tora—a brainchild of R’ Avi Weiss, has over the years promoted a stance which sees Rabbi Soloveitchik’s ruling as no longer binding in our time. YCT planned to join the Rabbinic Council of America (RCA) but withdrew those plans when they realised they would not be acceptable to the RCA.  In a learned panel discussion on this topic, Rabbi Dr David Berger, one of the outstanding academics in this field, said:

Rabbi Soloveitchik worried that theological dialogue would create pressure to “trade favors pertaining to fundamental matters of faith, to reconcile ‘some’ differences.”  He argued against any Jewish interference in the faith of Christians both on grounds of principle and out of concern that this would create the framework for reciprocal expectations.  Now, the changes in Catholic attitudes detailed by Dr. Korn are real, welcome, and significant, but they do not undermine these concerns.  Quite the contrary.  The trajectory of dialogue to our own day has confirmed the validity of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s analysis to an almost stunning degree.

With this background clearly in mind, perhaps the Melbourne Shule that has now invited R’ Boteach to speak has also broken ranks with the Rav and the RCA and embraced the views of YCT. As noted above, R’ Boteach’s views are seen to be even more left-wing than YCT. It should make for a controversy that will occupy the Jewish News and further seek to redefine the relevance of Shules and methods for attracting and retaining membership.