Thursday Book: Judaism is the new Buddhism

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS Gore Vidal who said that whenever he hears of a friend's success, something inside him dies a little. That's the effect Shmuley (nobody ever calls him Rabbi Boteach) has on me. There all we rabbis are, toiling away anonymously - unless we're media celebs like Lionel Blue and Julia Neuberger - in the Lord's vineyard, ministering to our flocks, publishing the occasional well-received scholarly tome which sinks without trace. Then along comes Shmuley, this brash, publicity-crazy American from the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher sect of Hasidism. He writes best- sellers about kosher sex, and Jewish guides to adultery that are serialised in the tabloids under photos of him in bed, a champagne bottle in one hand, a phallic cigar in his mouth, leering dementedly like Groucho Marx trying to make it with Margaret Dumont. Who wouldn't be jealous?

That confessed, I must say that this is still a fairly awful book; or, more likely, the hasty cobbling-together of sermon notes, lectures and essays to meet a publisher's deadline. How else does one explain such egregious howlers as "magnus opus", and mis-spelling the name of the prophet Zechariah?

Judaism is the 4,000-year-old religious culture of the Jewish people, built on a shared faith and history, and on rigorous intellectual foundations of law, theology, philosophy and scholarship. Its literature alone, starting with the Bible, is of a range, scope and diversity unmatched by any other major religion. All this Shmuley manages to reduce to 176 slim pages, including an index and no bibliography. Who needs one when, in his succinct phrase, "Jewish culture stinks"?

Instead, he claims that he is offering "traditional Judaism to a modern audience in a rational, intelligible and engaging light". But three of his 12 chapters deal with the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and his own idiosyncratic blueprint for the future of British Jewry - hardly topics that exercised the Talmudic sages or Moses Maimonides.

Elsewhere, he suggests that the Jewish religion is "a holistic set of inextricably linked values which together comprise a state-of-the-art system for human potential". What that seems to mean is that democracy, the United Nations, Communism, New Age-ism, even atheism and agnosticism, Christianity and Islam (naturally) and the pursuit of justice, goodness and ethics - "today it is known as secular humanism" - were all invented by the Jews. Judaism is uniquely qualified to emerge as the new Buddhism for young men and women who "want to achieve great professional success, without suffocating their souls in the process".

Simplistic twaddle though this is, it does explain where the author is coming from. Lubavitch is the least scary of the fundamentalist Jewish sects because it starts from the irrefutable tenet that every Jew is a Lubavitch Hasid, whether or not he knows it. At Oxford, Shmuley runs his successful L'Chaim Society, which has almost as many non-Jewish as Jewish members. He is sufficiently well-funded to host such celebrities as Mikhail Gorbachev, Diego Maradona, Boy George, Stephen Hawking, Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu (all Lubavitch Hasids, whether or not they know it).

Given such an eclectic membership, love for all humanity has to be the natural extension of love for all Jews. Lubavitch philosophy - a mishmash of literalist scriptural interpretation, pantheism and cabbala - offers the spiritual quick fix they are looking for.

There is an attractive universalism about Shmuley's outlook, but it does lead him into vast generalisations which he then has partly to retract. For example, he rightly lambasts those who try to safeguard Jewish survival on the basis of insularity, remembrance of the Holocaust and suspicion of other religions, but lamely concludes: "This does not mean that, at times, anti-Semitism does not exist."

Deep thought and cogent analysis are not his style. He is, rather, in the tradition of the East European maggid, the itinerant preacher who would use homely parables to make his point. Shmuley tellingly illustrates his rejection of the belief that suffering ennobles with an anecdote about visiting the dentist, and a passage on the corrosive effect of sin with an example about tax evasion. And wherever he can, he'll bring sex in.

We're all interested in sex, but Shmuley is obsessed by it. Hardly a page goes by without some sexual reference. He informs us that Judaism has as many laws about lovemaking as about ethics. The messianic age will be a time when the full power of feminine energy will be realised and "we [will] all live in the feminine-passive rather than the masculine- aggressive world". Man worships God with his sex life as much as with his faith, charity and goodness.

I just hope that Shmuley, like John Major with his Back to Basics campaign, is not offering up too many hostages to fortune. But jealous old me would say that, wouldn't I?

The reviewer is senior rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue; his most recent book is 'To the Promised Land: A History of Zionist Thought' (Penguin)