He is, arguably, the most famous rabbi in America. He has a syndicated radio talk show, is the author of "Kosher Sex" and 13 other books, and once counseled Michael Jackson. But he himself is not a celebrity, insists Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.
Celebrities, he says, have an insatiable need for more attention, are deified by the American public and often lead damaged lives. To direct Americans back to "everyday decency," Rabbi Shmuley has written his 14th book, "The Private Adam: Becoming a Hero in a Selfish Age."
He prefers to be known by his first name, because Boteach is too hard for most people to pronounce correctly, he says. (It's not bo-teach but something distinctly more guttural). He is currently in negotiations to air his syndicated radio show on a planned Bonneville International AM station. The rabbi was in Utah earlier this week discussing that deal and skiing with his wife.
Yes, Rabbi Shmuley admits, he once was seduced by the idea of celebrity. Those were the days when he hung out with Michael Jackson and other stars. But now, he says, he thinks he's "weaned off it," having come to the realization that "most celebrities are frivolous fools" who ultimately believe they are gods who don't have to live by other people's rules.
Biblical heroes, he says, were internal heroes, the kind of person who cared "not about world conquest but self conquest; who mastered compassion, forgiveness and spiritual greatness." Our heroes today, he says, are the ones who can "throw an orange ball through a hoop."
The greatest human quality is dignity, argues Rabbi Shmuley. "But we in the West are losing our sense of dignity. . . . Celebrity and dignity are in conflict now." We applaud not just NBA stars and rock stars but their errant behavior. (America's focus on firefighters as heroes after Sept. 11? That lasted about a month, the rabbi says.)
So Rabbi Shmuley recently wrote an open letter to Britney Spears. He once met Spears in Jackson's hotel room ("I was the short one with the frizzy whiskers," he reminds the singer.) The lengthy letter chastises Spears as a "female celebrity train wreck," famous now for a 55-hour marriage, skimpy clothes and a TV kiss with Madonna.
"You are one of the people largely responsible for religiously inclined people like me feeling that our daughters must be increasingly cut off from the popular culture," Rabbi Shmuley
writes. "We are having to become much more strict with how our daughters dress, what music they listen to, who their friends are all because we would rather be mauled by Rottweilers than ever allow our daughters to grow up dressing and acting like you."
What destroyed Jackson, and what is destroying Spears, the rabbi says, "is being bereft of a normal life, the sting of which is compensated for by the soothing warmth of the spotlight."
Not that people can't pursue public success, says the syndicated radio talk show host. "But there has to be a balance between the public and private Adam."
The rabbi himself has a wife, "thank God, who is a very spiritual and wholesome human being."
"I look up to her." The point, he says, is to "never believe that the contribution I make to the world at large is any greater than my contribution to my wife and family."
Rabbi Shmuley began his religious career in London, where he was the rabbi at Oxford University for 11 years. Four years ago, when he and his wife and their children moved back to the United States and settled in Englewood, N.J., he decided he would rather be "an exponent of Jewish ideas" rather than have his own synagogue. Despite his own public life and the fame it has brought, he considers himself "an ordinary man."
The good life, he says, should be "where you make the ordinary moments extraordinary, the everyday unique." Americans, though, find their meaning in the Super Bowl and the vacation they anticipate four months from now. "They've failed to impregnate the here and now with meaning." And have failed to give credit to the "private Adams" in their midst.
Not all celebrities are fools, says the rabbi (although when a magazine called him this week and asked him to come up with a list of the 10 worst-behaved celebrities he replied it would be hard to keep it to 10). Bono of the rock group U2 is an example of a good celebrity: a devoted husband, sincere, altruistic, who uses his celebrity to highlight causes larger than himself, says Rabbi Shmuley.
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