The first time I met Shmuley Boteach, it was 2 p.m. on a Thursday; he was sitting in the lobby of the Luxe Beverly Hills, and he asked me if I wanted to go outside for a beer and a cigar.
My kind of rabbi, I thought.
This was four years ago. Until then, I’d kept my distance. The rabbi’s most famous book, “Kosher Sex,” didn’t offer much more than basic Jewish wisdom repackaged, uncritically, with a provocative title, and his constant television presence had struck me as tiresome self-promotion.
But Shmuley and I quickly bonded. Get past his voluble, and, yes, sometimes tiresome self-promoting style, and there is a man deeply committed to spreading the best of Jewish values to as wide an audience as possible. And he understands that what we’re trying to do with The Journal is transform a community paper into a print and Web vehicle that can advance those values, as well. If our styles have sometimes clashed, our missions and strategies are aligned. After all, we put a story about “Kosher Sex” on our cover when the book came out — and that issue flew off the stands.
This week, the news broke that Shmuley, my beer buddy, is being considered for the position of Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, currently held by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, aka Jonathan Sacks, who has held the post since 1991.
It seems like an anachronism, the idea that British Jews must have a chief who can speak on behalf of the tribe. Here in America, we have 6 million Jews, and 6 million chiefs.
But Jews, as a minority in the Diaspora, both stand apart and reflect their host culture. So while there is no official word on who will replace Chief Rabbi Sacks, or even how the selection process is proceeding, it’s doubtful Britain’s Jews will suddenly break with tradition.
Unless, that is, they pick Shmuley. Through him, they can both preserve their charming tradition and rock their world, and, looking in from the outside, I think that’s what they need.
The Jewish population of England has shrunk from 500,000 at the start of World War II, to 340,000 by 1990, to 270,000 today. I’m not one to fetishize head counts, but a 50 percent decline reflects a lot of the most negative trends affecting Jews worldwide. Yes, Jews aren’t pushing out as many babies, and yes there’s assimilation and not enough nice Jewish men for all the searching singles, but those are not problems as much as they are symptoms of a larger, single problem: Too many Jews lack enthusiasm for their faith.
Shmuley is nothing if not enthusiastic. His life has been about making the case for a system of values and traditions that gives meaning, beauty and order to the chaos, alienation and materialism of the modern world. In a word, for Judaism.
This is not soft stuff. In fact, when I reached Shmuley by phone in Israel early this week — where he is promoting his new book, “Kosher Jesus” — he wasted no time laying into the very community he told me he’d be honored, with some conditions, to serve.
“British Jewry is a community in crisis,” he said. “I would need real freedom and real power to make significant communal change. Am I just interested in being an ambassador to the BBC and the press, in a spokesman role? No.”
One reason British Jewry has been in decline, Shmuley told me, is that Jews there have turned inward. The powerful London Beth Din, the rabbinic court, puts up far more serious barriers to conversion than do Orthodox courts in the United States. Women are not allowed to serve as officers in Orthodox synagogues, he said. The Orthodox establishment and Chief Rabbi Sacks refuse to participate in Limmud, the most successful cross-denominational Jewish institution of the past decade — started by British Jews.
Twenty-five hundred people were at Limmud UK last week, Shmuley noted. “But not the Chief Rabbi.”
As a result of such disengagement, Shmuley said, the community is shriveling and shrinking.
“You have to get rid of British Jewish insularity. I’m not going to focus on mesmerizing the BBC,” he said. “I’m going to focus on mesmerizing young Jews.”
An uninspired, uncommitted and insular population has been unable to counter another threat: the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric in England.
“The foremost battle for the State of Israel is taking place in Europe, and Britain is the main country with a huge swell of anti-Israel sentiment,” Shmuley said. “How can you call the Chief Rabbi a success when, under his watch, Britain has become the center of Israel hatred?”
Shmuley, of course, would relish the fight. I remember his appearance on MSNBC debating Bill Donohue, the conservative Catholic defender of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” who tried to bond with Shmuley, the obviously Orthodox rabbi, by blaming the backlash on secular Jews.
“I’m amazed that we’ve made this a discussion about secular Jews,” Shmuley shot back. “I have got to tell you that Bill Donohue, who I otherwise love and so respect, ought to be ashamed of himself, the way he’s spoken about secular Jews hating Christians. That is a bunch of crap, OK?”
Shmuley served as a rabbi in Oxford for 11 years, where he formed the L’Chaim Society, which drew in both Jews and non-Jews, including the future Newark Mayor Cory Booker. In 2000, The London Times named him Preacher of the Year, and the L.A. native and New Jersey resident (and father of nine) is also a British citizen.
It’s true that in the scheme of things, British Jewry is a small pond across the Pond. There are more than twice as many Jews just in Los Angeles as in all of England. But if Shmuley can open up the religious establishment there, that can only help show the way for greater pluralism in Israel, where events this past week showed just how desperately it is needed. If he can stand up to the vicious anti-Israel campaigns, that could set an example for communities throughout Europe and America. And if he can reach and inspire a new generation of Jews and non-Jews from his perch, that’s something we could all learn from.
Shmuley had another condition for accepting the role: It must never come with a peerage or a lordship.
No Sir Shmuley or Lord Boteach?
“If you become part of the British establishment, you can’t criticize it, and the British establishment is a real problem for Israel,” he said. “The British establishment needs to be challenged.”