What Can We Learn From Shmuley Boteach?

When it comes to naming one of the loudest Orthodox rabbis in the non-Jewish world, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach certainly comes to mind. And despite his inconsequential impact on the Orthodox community, the self-declared human rights activist has been named by Newsweek as one of America’s , been featured on Oprah, and even had his own reality show, Shalom In The Home. Though recently, despite his seeming popularity in the non-Orthodox (non-Jewish) world, Rabbi Boteach has come under criticism by a couple prominent secular journalists for his stances on religion and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In his Open Zion blog on the Daily Beast, Peter Beinart even asserts that Newark, NJ, Mayor, Cory Booker, might run into political turmoil due to his friendship with Boteach, because of the latter’s religious beliefs and position against a two state solution in the Middle East. Jeffrey Goldberg makes similar claims in his article published in Bloomberg. In the midst of all of this, though, Rabbi Boteach has fought back ferociously in a variety of news sites (here, here, and here), claiming that he is both a proud Chabadnic and a liberal advocate for human rights around the world.

But putting aside Rabbi Boteach’s politics and contentious reputation, we should recognize that the criticism being lobbed at his personal beliefs is paradigmatic of a greater struggle that surrounds many younger people in the Orthodox community today. Many of us struggle to reconcile our modern moral beliefs with Halakha’s (and Judaism’s) moral rigidity, as Shmuley does. For instance, despite the official Orthodox stance against homosexuality (as reiterated eloquently by the Orthodox Union), I doubt that most younger Modern Orthodox Jews would cry over Supreme Court’s recent decision to recognize gay marriage. In fact, my guess is that many of us would welcome it.

So regardless of what you think of Shmuley Boteach or his politics, his positions on Israel and Judaism are actually remarkably mainstream in our community, which makes the criticism against him so relevant. I’m curious to see how Rabbi Boteach defends himself in light of this criticism, because, at the end of the day, the way he defends himself could help many of us deal with our own contradictions.