Guardian of the 11th commandment
'Thou shalt do anything for publicity.' Thus speaks 'super Jew' Rabbi Shmuel Boteach. James Rampton met him
Friday 26 April 1996
Boteach has spared no effort in fulfilling this commandment. He even retains the services of one of London's top publicists for the purpose. At the age of just 29, he has written seven books (the other six are more academic than Adultery), and founded the Oxford University L'Chaim Society, which in eight years has become the second largest society in the history of the University (after the Union). Boasting more than 2,000 members - half of whom are non-Jewish - it has hosted lectures by people as diverse as Mikhail Gorbachev, Henry Kissinger, Yitzhak Shamir, Boy George and Diego Maradona, whose speech was reported by 78 news agencies worldwide. The latest log to be hurled onto the bonfire of publicity for Boteach is Moses of Oxford, an in-depth film portrait of the man, which opens a new series of Everyman on Sunday.
Whether posing in scuba-diving gear and calling himself "Super Jew - come to save the world from immorality, indecency and sexual perversion", or telling mother-in-law jokes in a T-shirt proclaiming "Adultery - do it with your spouse" at the launch of his book, Boteach is a serial attention- seeker.
But he is gloriously unabashed about it. "I don't want to be famous for how much money I made," he protests, "but as someone who inspired others to lead a goodly life." In the film he contends that "rabbis should be as ambitious as everyone else... They should seek to be in demand as impresarios, able to organise fascinating events that portray Judaism in an aggressive and competitive light."
Over a cup of coffee in his north London sitting-room, surrounded by leather-bound books, religious wall-hangings, computers, faxes and constantly ringing telephones, he treats me to a two-hour command performance on his life and works. A magnetic man in a skull cap and a white shirt and tie, he talks 99 to the dozen - squared. It is easy to see how this man persuades business to part with the pounds 300,000 a year needed to run L'Chaim. Brought up in Miami and educated in Jerusalem and New York, he is charismatic to the very tip of his long flowing beard. "He engages people right away. He refracts Judaism without being stereotypical," opines Peter Getzels, co-producer of the Everyman film. "He's an Orthodox Jew with an unorthodox persona."
Boteach's publicity-grabbing has not endeared him to everyone. Sections of the community attacked him, for instance, when he invited Maradona to speak at the Society. "They said, 'Typical, it's just L'Chaim trying to get headlines'. But I reject that. Just because a man kicks a football, why can't he teach intellectuals something? We live in a society that just wants to tear down heroes."
Now getting into full-on lecture-mode, he continues, "I subscribe to the teachings of Maimonides, one of the two or three greatest Jewish thinkers. He said, 'Embrace truth regardless of its source'. That's why we're not afraid of debate. I'd like L'Chaim to be a light unto the nations."
He was also savaged for the Jewish Guide to Adultery. "I didn't write that for publicity," Boteach sighs. "I could have got publicity by streaking naked in the street. The aim of the book was to show that married people have a far better physical life than single people."
Obviously well-versed in defending himself, the rabbi is braced for more incoming fire over the film. "There is every possibility that people will be up in arms," he admits. "But my response to criticism is that unless anyone can point to anything we're doing outside Jewish law, then all they're saying is that we're transgressing community protocol."
Getzels concurs. "It's not just controversy for controversy's sake. The motive is to see Judaism compete in the marketplace of ideas. He feels it's not necessary to apologise for being Jewish. In that respect, it'll upset people who just want a quiet life."
As he approaches the grand old age of 30, Boteach shows no sign of wanting a quiet life himself. There is talk of a film about him and a friend being made by Barbra Streisand. The New Oxford University L'Chaim Society Jewish Student Centre will open with an address by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel next month.
In May, Boteach is also holding a meeting of the Holy Smoke Society, an elite Kosher Cigar Club. He proudly shows me his collection of Cuban cigars, lovingly kept in a humidor on his sideboard. This is one cleric who doesn't major on self-denial. "Religious people used to say, 'we'll give up everything because we live for higher things'. But religion has to reflect social trends or it risks becoming an irrelevance," he maintains. "People do want spirituality, but they don't want to sacrifice anything in its name. So we try to make religion spunky. We want Friday nights at L'Chaim to be as much fun as going to the most popular nightclub in Oxford."
As he prepares to dash off to Grand Rapids, Michigan for one night to give a lecture, we shake hands and he laughs. "If on Monday, I've gone missing and 10,000 protesters are outside my house, you'll know the film didn't go down well."
'Everyman: Moses of Oxford', Sun 10.20pm BBC1
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