NEW YORK (JTA) — Rabbi Shmuley Boteach may or may not be America’s most famous rabbi. But among Jews, at least, he may be its most polarizing rabbi.
Boteach has built his career on those twin tent poles of American fame: sex and celebrity. In books like “Kosher Sex” and “Kosher Adultery,” he offered up traditional Orthodox Jewish bedroom values in cheeky, borderline salacious packages. His role as Michael Jackson’s “spiritual adviser” was a mutually beneficial relationship that gave the suspected pedophile a degree of public absolution and Boteach an enormous platform for his take on “Jewish values.”
For some, Boteach’s enterprise was a brilliant mainstreaming of small-c conservative Jewish teachings, an only slightly cynical answer to the Joel Osteens and Rick Warrens and other widely popular purveyors of Christian self-help. His critics, meanwhile, call Boteach star-obsessed and self-involved, peddling sex and celebrity not to cannily promote a Jewish worldview but using his rabbinic aura to achieve his own weird form of fame for fame’s sake.
“It’s always about Shmuley,” is what you often hear.
Both sides of the Boteach divide are having a field day with his latest celebrity crush, Roseanne Barr. The two have known each other since the publication of “Kosher Sex” nearly 20 years ago, when Boteach was a guest on Barr’s short-lived TV talk show. Boteach has said they have studied Torah together ever since, and that Barr had welcomed his offer to find Jewish spouses for her three daughters.
So it wasn’t totally out of the blue that, ever since a seemingly racist tweet by Barr blew up her TV comeback, the two have been on a sort-of apology road show. Barr has twice appeared on Boteach’s podcast to discuss the scandal that cost her a job on the reboot of her acclaimed 1980s show “Roseanne.” They have held public events in New York and Los Angeles in which Boteach hails Barr as a Jewish exemplar and Barr offers her side of the story.
In their latest mind meld, Boteach and Barr jointly issued a statement in response to “The Conners,” ABC’s attempt to resurrect her sitcom (and its enormous ratings) without the star. In Tuesday night’s premiere, the Roseanne character is dead, felled by an opioid overdose. That evening, Boteach posted their statement on Facebook over the banner of his nonprofit enterprise, the World Values Network.
The statement is essentially a lament that ABC fired Barr and did not extend her the forgiveness that the actress and the rabbi feel she deserves.
“Through humor and a universally relatable main character, the show represented a weekly teaching moment for our nation,” they write. “Yet it is often following an inexcusable — but not unforgivable — mistake that we can discover the most important lesson of all: Forgiveness. After repeated and heartfelt apologies, the network was unwilling to look past a regrettable mistake, thereby denying the twin American values of both repentance and forgiveness. In a hyper-partisan climate, people will sometimes make the mistake of speaking with words that do not truly reflect who they are. However, it is the power of forgiveness that defines our humanity.”
The cancellation of the “Roseanne” reboot and the killing off of her character, they conclude,”is an opportunity squandered due in equal parts to fear, hubris, and a refusal to forgive.”
Nothing in the statement is going to change minds about either Boteach or Barr. But if you can take seriously what the two have been saying in their apology tour, you might at least acknowledge that there is more at work here than mere self-interest.
In Judaism, forgiveness must be earned, typically according to a three-stage process of “teshuvah,” or repentance, laid out by the medieval sage Maimonides: acknowledging the sin, showing remorse and resolving not to repeat the offense in the future.
Boteach and Barr discuss teshuvah at length on one of his podcasts. She seems to be taking pains to live up to teshuvah’s demands, and Boteach is eager to nudge her to do it right.
When Boteach brings up Maimonides, Barr demonstrates that she is familiar with his ideas on repentance.
“The point is to feel remorse in your heart because that’s what unplugs your heart. You have to feel remorse, not just repentance,” she says, as she begins to sob. “That’s just a step towards feeling remorse. And when you feel remorse, you have to follow it with recompense. You have to take an action in the world – whether it’s through money or other things – to correct your sin. After your heart is unfrozen and after it stops being broken from the pain you caused others, you stop being a robot and you gotta come back to God. So it’s remorse, and I definitely feel remorse.”
Barr explains that her tweet about former Obama official Valerie Jarrett, calling her a mix of “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes,” was not meant to be racist (she said she wasn’t aware that Jarrett was African-American), although she understands how others interpreted it that way. She points out that she had apologized to Jarrett on social media, and to ABC executives, saying she had made a “huge error.”
Boteach presses her on these points. And even if at times he sounds like a defense attorney trying to draw out sympathetic testimony from his client, it’s clear he is leading her to offer an unequivocal apology. And she does: “It’s no excuse,” she says, referring to her alleged ignorance of Jarrett’s race. “But in my heart I just made a stupid error. I told that to ABC, and they didn’t accept it, or want to hear it.”
It may be obvious what Barr gets out of mediating her apology through a religious leader. But it also becomes clear what Boteach gets out of it, and it’s not just headlines. In the podcast, Boteach is eager to present Barr as a role model for Jewish learning and values.
“[O]f all the high-profile people I’ve studied Torah with, Torah specifically, the Jewish Bible, you’re the one who speaks the most passionately, publicly about your love for the Torah. It’s quite remarkable,” he says.
Boteach wants to redeem her, and at the same time redeem a Jewish value, in this case repentance, in the eyes of the world.
You also sense political expedience in their confessional partnership, especially on Boteach’s part. The World Values Network, which gets a lot of funding from the conservative Jewish megadonor Sheldon Adelson, is unabashedly political. It’s highest-profile activities are full-page ads in major newspapers pushing a consistently right-wing and fiercely pro-Israel agenda. The ads have blasted Hillary Clinton’s Mideast advisers, the Iran nuclear deal and the BDS movement. Boteach had to apologize himself for a 2015 ad accusing then National Security Adviser Susan Rice of having a “blind spot” on genocide after she criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s partisan appeal to Congress over the Iran deal.
Barr’s tweet about Jarrett was in part about the Obama administration’s support of the Iran deal. Boteach appears eager to separate the substance of Barr’s politics from the allegations of racism.
“[W]e can disagree with Valerie Jarrett and anyone in the Obama administration, or Trump administration, on policy. We can always disagree on policy,” he says on the podcast, setting up the softball question: “Do you believe that their humanity is fully guaranteed?”
“Of course,” Barr responds.
Barr has spoken at the World Values Network’s annual conference. In Barr, Boteach has an important messenger for getting his Jewish ideas and politics into the mainstream — someone whose fame and reach is bigger than the synagogue circuit and the pages of, well, JTA. You understand why he doesn’t want to lose that.
So what’s in it for Boteach? Fame and celebrity, sure. That’s valuable capital these days. But he’s trying to use the very imperfect and risky vessel of celebrity to offer up Jewish values and Jewish politics as he sees them. His Jewish values may not be your Jewish values. But it’s not all always about Shmuley, either.