The first episode of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s “Shalom in the House,” which aired April 10 on the TLC network, was a fast-paced account of five days the rabbi spent with a family in Philadelphia. Beatrice Romero, a single mother raising three teenage daughters and a 7-year-old son, sent the rabbi a tape asking for his help in bringing some peace to her home.
We see segments of the family’s prior life, with the children beating each other up and the mother absent from the picture or ineffective in making them stop. We are told that Luis, the father, had an 18-month affair, and the couple’s 17-year marriage ended about two years ago. Luis admitted to the affair when confronted by his 16-year-old daughter.
To complicate matters, one of the other daughters has begun a secret sexual relationship with her boyfriend, despite being forbidden by her mother to date until she is 18.
Boteach enters the picture on a mission, although we are not sure from the outset what it is. He introduces himself as having counseled thousands of families and being the author of a best-selling book on family life. As he drives to Philadelphia, he tells us that his own parents divorced when he was 8. “I was devastated, and at that early age, vowed I will make a difference.”
He might have chosen to become a family therapist or a child-focused therapist. Instead, he is a rabbi with a deep desire to fix problems. He reminds us that he practices what he preaches, since he has eight children of his own.
If he were a therapist, he would begin his work with this family by taking a thorough account of their history. He would want to know about the mother’s own experiences as a child, her parenting style, the kind of discipline she uses, how effective it is, what kind of relationship she has with each of the children, what is special and unique about each child and what kind of marriage she had prior to her divorce, as well as the current custody arrangements and the current relationships between the children and their father.
Boteach does not ask these questions. He makes his diagnosis immediately. He decides that the main reason the children are assaulting each other is because of their parents’ divorce.
“Without dad, Luis, the Romero family is losing its way,” he says. His solution is equally straightforward: “Divorce is a tragedy, and if we can save them from going through this torture, we must,” he tells the parents.
His mission is now clear: Boteach is going to get the parents back together and help them work as a team to parent their children. No, not as in the traditional help a therapist might offer divorced parents, such as assistance in understanding that they need to find a way to communicate with each other, because their children still need them to be effective parents. Instead, he focuses on actually getting the two back together as husband and wife, so that they can both be there to parent their children.
How does Boteach try to achieve his goal?
He does not rely on the therapeutic process, in which the person in therapy comes to understand his or her own feelings, obstacles and baggage, thereby finding renewed energy and motivation to change behavior. Boteach’s approach consists of using persuasion, gentle pressure, guilt, rabbinic wisdom and his ability to coach a basketball game.
Rabbinic wisdom is dispensed freely. When Beatrice expresses her frustration at not knowing how to stop the children from arguing and fighting, Boteach tells her that her daughters, who should be giving off softness and nurturing energy, are instead behaving like boys in the locker room — something he claims they learned from her, because she has been distant and withdrawn from Luis.
When Luis expresses disappointment that his daughter is having sex with her boyfriend, Boteach comes down hard on him: “A girl at 16 needs a man to tell her she is special. Your daughter needs a father now, not a boyfriend. You need to be a father to her and a husband and protect your daughter. You need to tell her she is special.”
Apparently, Luis also needs to know that it’s not Beatrice’s job to lay down the law in the home.
“Luis,” he says, “it is your job to lay down the law. Don’t be weak. Do the right thing.”
Later, Boteach addresses the audience, telling us that most men who have affairs are not thinking.
“If Luis can be a man, a dedicated, monogamous, loving husband, maybe I can bring this family back together.” he says.
To bring everyone together, Boteach says he needs to do something really different. He does this by bringing the family onto a basketball court, and as a “good coach” — as he refers to himself — he makes the mother and father play on one team and the children on the other. His goal, he says in an aside to viewers, is to make the parents work together in hopes that they will stop bickering and begin enjoying each other’s company.
He tries the same tactic again later, upping the ante. The family is going to engage in another activity — cleaning out the basement. This time, the rabbi informs us, “divorce is only a necessity if you can’t fix the situation.”
Before the family meets, he has a t?te-?-t?te with Beatrice. In the conversation, he uses guilt to make her give him another chance, telling her Luis still loves her. He has a similar conversation with Luis, in which he tells him, “The secret to life is that you can do whatever you want. If you want her back, and are sincere, you can make it happen.”
Then, as the family cleans out the basement, with Luis intentionally made the leader of the project, “even though he does not live there,” Boteach pipes in suggestions through a remote walkie-talkie, suggesting to Luis to get a drink for his wife and telling Beatrice to thank him for it. The family activity is topped off with Boteach telling everyone how much they need to respect Luis for doing something so selfless.
Based on the shots of the family taken two months after the episode, everyone seems to be doing better.
So, what exactly happened?
I am not sure, but it seems that the rabbi’s conservative, traditional values were well received and echoed by the values of the family. We are not told what the family’s religious affiliation is, but the girls appeared to be dressed in parochial school uniforms. Capitalizing on their religious values, Boteach was able to sermonize to them about right and wrong, to hold up traditional roles for men and women as an ideal and to make the family members believe that they had made a mistake that could be corrected.
In the second episode, airing Monday, April 17, Boteach relies on the same rabbinical wisdom, pop psychology and common sense to fix the problem of the Maxwell family, who requested help disciplining their 3-year-old only son, Zackary. We see Zack running down the street toward the curb, throwing temper tantrums. We see the child refusing to listen to his mother, brush his teeth or sleep in his own bed.
The parents, Greg and LynnSue have not slept alone together for most of the year, and Greg has a hobby of videotaping Zack’s every move and then posting the clips on a Web page, which gets hundreds of hits a day.
Boteach summarizes Zack’s problems as “a simple problem of discipline. Zack simply has too much control, and the parents need to sleep together in the same bed, without Zack there.”
So far, Boteach’s thoughts, though simplistic, and formed without much more information than what viewers have been given, seem to be on the right track.
To remedy the situation, he tells the parents that it is their job to set the rules, that 3-year-olds do not understand the concept of boundaries in an intelligent way and that children need their parents to set down the law. Having witnessed the parents struggling with Zack during bedtime, we can accept the notion that Zack feels he is the boss and needs some clear guidelines, with consistency and follow-through, all of which seems to be missing at the Maxwell home.
What becomes excruciatingly painful to watch are the couple’s attempt to keep Zack sleeping in his bed, having been told that it will only take two or three attempts over a couple of nights before Zack will comply.
I became furious watching Greg and LynnSue change Zack’s routines cold turkey, leaving him feeling helpless, lost and angry.
Boteach focuses only on fixing the problem, without regard to the complicated issues that come up for parents in setting limits, withstanding their children’s cries and being firm but gentle. He ignores the important process of helping parents set realistic expectations. When their new routine fails, he is taken aback by their displeasure with him.
The last telling and painful segment revolves around a video Greg shot of Zack having a temper tantrum. Zack was throwing around his trains and was given a warning to stop or lose the privilege of playing with them. Zack continues to throw the trains, and the parents gather up the whole set and put it away.
Greg takes out the camera to record Zack’s reaction. Zack becomes enraged, partly about losing his trains but also about being filmed, and he tells his father to stop. Greg ignores him.
When Boteach discusses this clip, he focuses on the problem of letting Zack express this much rage, which he believes needs to be “reigned in.” As a good Chasidic rabbi, he is following the dictum of “having anger is likened to serving idols.” By telling the parents that they simply need to find a way to control the temper tantrum, he not only loses their attention, but he also offers nothing to help the next time.
The rabbi shrugs off their disconnect, blaming the father for being insecure, fearful of being ordinary and resistant to his message. His parting words to the father are to forget about the camera and Web site, to focus on the family and the precious moments one has with them and not go after big bucks and fame. The father’s look has a mixture of frustration and thoughtfulness. Boteach is happy.
I was not.
As a religious Jew, Boteach’s sermons have a somewhat familiar, comfortable tinge. But, as a therapist, his mission and his methods grate on my professional ethics, my psyche and my nerves.
It is almost excruciatingly painful to see him in the first episode impose his own agenda on a family and through guilt, coerce them into making promises to him; telling them that he has the cure for all their ills, and finally committing one of the cardinal sins of working with children of divorce: asking the children in a suggestive way if they would like to have their parents back together.
It is equally enraging in the second episode to see Boteach “play therapist,” assuring the family he knows what he is doing and then watching them feel inadequate, let down and humiliated at their failure.
But, the most insightful piece for me, as a therapist, was to see how Boteach’s deep-seated painful feelings surrounding his own parents’ divorce remain with him — unprocessed and unconscious — and his deep-seated wish to have had someone walk into his home and do what every child of divorce dreams of: bring the parents back together, continue to live on in the present and be the driving force for one’s life work.
I also now can sleep better, knowing that therapists really do offer people something very different than clergy, co-workers, relatives, friends and colleagues.
Irine Schweitzer, a licensed clinical social worker, has a private practice in Sherman Oaks.