Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Shmuley Boteach - An Unorthodox Orthodox Rabbi

I have always had mixed feelings about Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. On the one hand I find him to be a self promoting publicity hound who will stop at very little to get attention. I also find it off putting that he attaches himself so often to questionable entertainment figures.

On the other hand he is a brilliant writer who often reflects my own views on the issues of the day. I don’t always agree with his take on things. But most of the time I do - whether his views on a particular subject are mainstream or not.

That may seem a bit strange in the sense that he considers himself to be a Lubavitcher (Chabad). I have been - and continue to be - very critical of Chabad’s Messianism. It has not gone away and I suspect that most Lubavitchers in some way still feel that the possibility exists that the Rebbe will be resurrected to fulfill his mission on earth and will become the Messiah.

I will admit that all the ‘noise’ has died down and that with the exception of a very loud and strong contingent of Lubavitchers in Israel and in Crown Heights - most Lubavitchers are getting on with their lives and have at least taken the Moshiach issue off the front burner if not completely eliminated such thoughts from their minds. But I digress.

It is my understanding that the Lubavitch community has basically disowned Rabbi Boteach. He fell out of grace. I’m not exactly sure why, but I believe it has something to do with his non conformist - perhaps even rebellious - behavior as the Rebbe’s emissary at Oxford University… and his controversial first book, ‘Kosher Sex’.

Nonetheless Rabbi Boteach considers himself a Lubavitcher and though he may (or may not) harbor some messianist sentiments, that is certainly not his focus. When he is not ‘self promoting’ he seems to reflect mainstream Orthodox views. Occasionally however he goes off the reservation and reflects what can only be called an ‘unorthodox’ viewpoint – at least by mainstream standards.

His positive views about fundamentalist Christians for example are similar to mine. But they are definitely out of the mainstream of Orthodox thinking. Although that is slowly changing.

On the other hand I disagree with his take Noah Feldman. Feldman is a rising star in Academia who attended Modern Orthodox Schools and was an observant Jew well beyond his Yeshiva high school graduation. In an incident involving a reunion with his Yeshiva high school graduating class it was revealed that he married out of the faith. He was roundly criticized and even shunned by virtually all segments of Orthodoxy.

Rabbi Boteach wrote a fawning article about him and why we should accept him rather than reject him. Although I understood his point, I disagreed with him. One should not be praising Jews who marry out of the faith. Especially those who were raised as Orthodox Jews.

And that brings me to a Jerusalem Post article he wrote recently about homosexual Jews. It was in response to another rabbi – Yehudah Levin – who made headlines last week by at first endorsing and then repudiating his support of a New York gubernatorial candidate who apparently flip-flopped on that subject.

I find myself hard pressed to disagree with a single word he Rabbi Boteach says here. But I seriously doubt that this view reflects the views of mainstream Orthodoxy. Here are some of his main points. He begins by dealing with the word Toevah - abomination. That is the word used in the Torah in connection with the homosexual act of anal intercourse and is almost always brought up when the subject of homosexuality is discussed. From the Jerusalem Post:

But the word appears approximately 122 times in the Bible. Eating nonkosher food is an abomination (Deuteronomy 14:3). A woman returning to her first husband after being married in the interim is an abomination (Deut. 24:4). And bringing a blemished sacrifice on God’s altar is an abomination (Deut. 17:1.). Proverbs goes so far as to label envy, lying and gossip as that which “the Lord hates and are an abomination to Him” (3:32, 16:22).

As an Orthodox rabbi who reveres the Bible, I do not deny the biblical prohibition on male same-sex relationships. Rather, I simply place it in context.

There are 613 commandments in the Torah. One is to refrain from gay sex. Another is for men and women to marry and have children. So when Jewish gay couples come to me for counselling and tell me they have never been attracted to the opposite sex in their entire lives and are desperately alone, I tell them, “You have 611 commandments left. That should keep you busy. Now, go create a kosher home with a mezuza on the door. Turn off the TV on the Sabbath and share your festive meal with many guests. Put on tefillin and pray to God three times a day, for you are His beloved children. He desires you and seeks you out.”

How can anyone disagree with this? It may not fully address a homosexual’s needs but it my view it certainly demonstrates what I believe to be an accepting - and correct approach. And yet the right wing tends to advocate shunning these – their fellow human beings.

Interestingly Evangelical preacher, Pat Robertson whom Rabbi Boteach asked about it seems to reflect the same attitude that most of right wing of Orthodoxy has on the matter. Rabbi Boteach describes Robertson’s response:

He answered to the effect that homosexuality is too important to overlook, seeing as it poses the most grave risk to the institution of marriage. Other Evangelical leaders have told me the same. Homosexuality is the single greatest threat to the family.

Here is what Rabbi Boteach answered:

One of two heterosexual marriages (is) failing, with 70 percent of the Internet dedicated to the degradation of women through pornography and with a culture that is materially insatiable even as it remains all-too spiritually content, can we straight people say with a straight face that gays are ruining our families? We’ve done a mighty fine job of it ourselves.

The extreme homophobia that is unfortunately to be found among many of my religious brothers and sisters – in many Arab countries being gay is basically a death sentence – stems from an even more fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of sin.

The Ten Commandments were given on two tablets to connote two different kinds of transgression, religious and moral. The first tablet discusses religious transgressions between God and man, such as the prohibitions of idolatry, blasphemy and desecrating the Sabbath. The second tablet contains the moral sins between man and his fellow man, like adultery, theft, and murder.

The mistake of so many well-meaning people of faith is to believe that homosexuality is a moral rather than a religious sin. A moral sin involves injury to an innocent party. But who is being harmed when two, unattached, consenting adults are in a relationship? Rather, homosexuality is akin to the prohibition of lighting fire on the Sabbath or eating bread during Passover. There is nothing immoral about it, but it violates the divine will…

For me the real killer is the tsunami of divorce and the untold disruption to children as they become yo-yos going from house to house on weekends.

I find his arguments to be compelling. So even though he is a self promoting publicity hound, I cannot fault him here. When he’s right, he’s right. And I find that to be the case more often than not.