Accusations Fly at New York Debate Between Playboy Bunny and Sex Rabbi

Lindsey Vuolo already is known as the first avowedly Jewish playmate to appear in Playboy magazine.

At an event this week with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, she spoke like a poster girl for Jewish continuity.

“My biggest fear is that because I’m not as religious as maybe I should be, I won’t be able to conduct” High Holidays in my home, Vuolo said, her voice cracking with emotion.

When Miss November 2000 spoke about her “amazing” high school trip to Israel as part of an exchange program called Ambassadors for Unity, she choked up again.

Vuolo’s emotions weren’t the only ones expressed when the rabbi and the bunny appeared Wednesday night at Makor, a Jewish cultural center in Manhattan geared toward 20- and 30-something Jews.

A standing room only audience of more than 150 people — about three quarters of them men — crowded into a room for a lively group discussion hosted by psychologist and radio talk show host Judy Kuriansky. The proceedings were piped into another room for another 30 people.

The evening included a lot of back-and forth between Vuolo and Boteach, who met when the media-savvy rabbi interviewed Vuolo for a Web site called Belief.net.

Vuolo told the audience that she decided to pose for Playboy as a way to pay for her studies at Indiana University in Pennsylvania, where she studies communication and business. She cited two other factors as well — a dare from a friend and a means of getting back at her boyfriend, who recently had broken up with her.

“I think what I’m doing is great. I’m not doing anything to hurt my family,” Vuolo said, mentioning her father, who converted to Judaism, and her Jewish-born mother.

She also said the rabbis at her family’s Reform temple outside Philadelphia approve of her decision.

Boteach, author of the relationship guide “Kosher Sex,” said he respects Vuolo, particularly for her commitment to the Jewish people and for saying she wants to raise Jewish children. But he is critical of her choice to pose for Playboy.

He also worries about what he called pornography’s pernicious effect on society as so many people struggle to create meaningful, intimate relationships.

“The Torah says that there is a majesty to a human person, that dignity is the most essential of all human needs,” Boteach says.

At one point he told Vuolo that by posing in Hugh Hefner’s magazine she had turned herself from “extraordinary” to “ordinary.” Vuolo hardly reacted.

The rowdy evening had all the histrionics of television talk shows.

When Boteach spoke, Vuolo at times grimaced or arched her eyebrows to show her disagreement. Members of the audience alternately booed, hooted and cheered — particularly for Vuolo, who seemed to have the crowd’s sympathy.

And audience members weren’t shy about taking shots at either the rabbi short, bearded, in a dark suit — or the buxom bunny, who was dressed in a fashionable and sexy style that wasn’t too revealing.

Vuolo was criticized for allegedly perpetuating the objectification of women in society. She even took flak for defending Hefner, whom one woman called a “pig.”

Much of the time, however, it appeared the audience wanted to bury the controversial Boteach.

Boteach was criticized for his long-windedness and for his friendship with pop star Michael Jackson. He also was called a hypocrite for publishing an excerpt of “Kosher Sex” in Playboy.

“Where am I going to put this, the synagogue newsletter?” Boteach responded. “I’m going to put this in the place where it’s most important to be read.”

Boteach said he had donated his earnings from the Playboy excerpt to charity.

A child of divorce himself, Boteach admitted that he had made some mistakes as a celebrity, and said he will no longer appear in public events with Jackson, though he didn’t explain why.

Though the tenor of the event cooled as the evening wore on, some audience members were bothered by the attacks on the guests.

“I was very surprised by the attacks that came from all sides on both of them,” said Arielle Wilen, 25, an observant Jew.

Some in the crowd were not impressed. Shalom Kelner, 36, said he wished Boteach had criticized Vuolo more harshly for posing nude.

“This world was created in order for the Jewish people to have a” goal — fixing the world, or tikkun olam, Kelner said. “When people get far from the target, like her, they get far from the truth.”

But Wilen, who said she came to the event to learn more about Vuolo, said she was impressed with the bunny, who she felt handled the criticism from the audience and Boteach well.

“Because she’s a good person, she sees the values in the rituals, in Judaism,” Wilen said. “I’m very happy that she’s a Jew.”

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