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March 6, 2014 10:56 am

A Response to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on Chabad

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avatar by Yaacov Behrman

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach addresses a gathering at the launch for his Institute of Jewish Values. Photo: SB.

A week ago, when a private letter from Rabbi Ezra Schochet was leaked, which called it “prohibited and unacceptable” for any Chabad Rabbi to allow Rabbi Shmuley Boteach to speak in their synagogues, I didn’t give it much thought. I studied under Rabbi Schochet and understood why he doesn’t want Boteach giving public speeches in Chabad institutions. Rabbi Schochet feels that Boteach’s printed materials and publicized actions are beyond the limits of Orthodox theology and go against some of Chabad’s fundamental beliefs and the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s instructions.

I don’t feel that it’s necessary for Rabbi Schochet to be specific when stating his objections to Boteach’s statements, because these concerns are blatantly obvious to anyone who has read Boteach’s books and is familiar with basic Orthodox theology and Chabad’s core values. Judaic scholar Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, in a letter clarifying some of the problems with one of Boteach’s books, wrote “Any knowledgeable person who will read the book will see that many of the assumptions and theories are contradicting the Halacha, and the Jewish traditions.” Dr. Lawrence H. Schiffman, Vice-Provost of Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University and Professor of Jewish Studies, wrote a critique of Boteach’s book “Kosher Jesus” addressing some of these concerns. Even Yossi Goldman, in an email defending the rationale behind his invitation to Boteach, wrote “I am relieved by my decision to deliberately ensure that he is, in fact, not speaking on that topic”.

“ŽRabbi Schochet, dubbed by his colleagues and students as “the Rosh” (“ראש” – literally “Head”) for his brilliant analytic style, depth of understanding, and vast Talmudic scholarship, is a strong minded scholar and educator who is known within Chabad for speaking his mind even when others are silent. And like many serious scholars, he can come across as harsh to those that don’t know him. When Messianism ran amok in Chabad in the early 90s, shortly before the Rebbe’s passing, the Rosh was among the few leaders unafraid to speak out against the craziness. The story goes – and I stress that it is unconfirmed – that the Rosh and Steven Spielberg had a falling out after the Rosh chastised Spielberg for building a bathroom with see-through walls. The Rosh undoubtedly thought it was immodest and foolish and told Spielberg so, even at the risk of losing a major donor. I don’t think Boteach’s bullying scares him much.

I knew Boteach was going to respond but I naively thought he would use the opportunity to honestly address some of the controversy surrounding his persona. Boteach, in his op-ed, accused the Rosh of sending his letter to two “gossip-mongering and illiterate websites – who trade in daily attacks on leading figures in Chabad and beyond.” As far as I know, the letter was only published on one website not two. The editor of the website told me that he was amused that Boteach was critical of his website. “Before we had a falling out and Boteach threatened to sue me, he would send me articles, some of which I printed. Ironically, despite Boteach’s claims, I never received anything directly from the Rosh, not now and not ever,” he said.

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Personally, I have no issue with Boteach lecturing, and consider myself to have a friendly relationship with him. But I’m hardly a good example because I probably wouldn’t be bothered even if Spinoza was given a platform.

Boteach certainly has every right to defend himself, but, sadly, his op-ed does none of the above. Instead he falsely maligns the Rosh as a radical, comparing him to an Islamic extremist and implies that he is running a “Taliban madrassa.” Over the years, the Yeshiva in Los Angeles attracted all different types of students with many different religious standards. Boteach owes an apology to the thousands of Yeshiva alumni including those former Yeshiva students who have gone on to successful professional careers. Graduates from the Yeshiva include prominent Shluchim, rabbis, doctors, attorneys, educators, and the list goes on.

Boteach attempts to paint himself as a knight on a white horse and deceivingly argues that the Rosh disapproves of him because he says that “gay Jewish men should be encouraged to put on tefillin.”

As a student in Los Angeles, I directed the outreach office for the Rosh’s Yeshiva. I happen to know for a fact that the students pay weekly visits to both men and women regardless of their sexual orientation. The only criteria for Tefilin is that the person be male and Jewish. They are there to put on Tefilin with the men, to bring Shabbas candles to women, and, generally, to bring the joy of Judaism into people’s lives.

Shmuley, before you also unfairly accuse me, you should know that I supported Assemblyman David Weprin’s bid for Congress in the face of many Orthodox rabbis’ rejection of him for voting for the same sex marriage law in New York.

I acknowledge that Boteach is a great defender of Israel and an excellent speaker. But it is absurd for Boteach to write that “this air of intellectual sophistication is being lost to Chabad – with fanatics and extremists like Rabbi Schochet rising to prominence amid the dearth of scholarly leadership….. But just a generation ago, in the Rebbe’s lifetime, Chabad was producing world-class orators and thinkers who resuscitated Jewish life.”

That a man of Boteach’s intelligence could delude himself into thinking that he is in the category of Chabad’s “world class thinkers” while implying that the Rosh is the new kid on the block who only rose to prominence “amid the dearth of scholarly leadership” should puzzle anyone who knows both men.

The Rosh is simply in a different league than Boteach.

In his younger years, the Rosh studied under Rabbi Dovid Soloveitchik, Rosh at the Yeshiva of Brisk in Jerusalem, a yeshiva attended only by select young Talmudists. Rabbi Aharon Kotler of Beth Medrash Govoha praised the Rosh saying that one day he would be a Gadol B’Yisroel (a great scholar amongst Israel).

The Rosh is the foremost authority within Chabad on the complex laws of the international dateline and how it relates to the laws of Sabbath, Omer, Bar Mitzvah etc. He is well versed in the Talmud, Rishonim, Acharonim, Code of Jewish Law, Musser, and Chassidus.

There are literally dozens of scholarly letters between the Rebbe of Lubavitch and the Rosh. I am not aware of even one to Boteach.

I am reminded of the words of the Baba Sali regarding a time when a Jewish leader differed with the opinion of Lubavitcher Rebbe on Shabbas candles for children.

The Baba Sali asked, “How does the tiny flea dare to rise up against the mighty eagle?”

Rabbi Yaacov Behrman founded and currently serves as the executive director of The Jewish Future Alliance, an advocacy group. Behrman, a New York political activist and the former director of media relations for Chabad Lubavitch world headquarters, was ordained by the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, in 2006 and received a master’s degree in Educational Leadership in 2009.The views expressed above are his own.

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