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A Conversation with the 'World's Most Controversial Jew'

I spoke to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach about anal sex, Israel's controversial nation state bill and his former pupil, Michael Jackson.

James Rippingale

James Rippingale

Rabbi Shmuel "Shmuley" Boteach (All photos courtesy of Rabbi Boteach)

Rabbi Shmuel "Shmuley" Boteach doesn't find much time to sleep. When he's not touring the world lecturing on sex, Judaism or the Arab-Israeli conflict, you'll find him writing one of his 30-odd books, hanging out with US Senators or talking life on Oprah.

Ten years ago you would have found Shmuley at home with his close friend and pupil, Michael Jackson. But, at the end of last week, I found him tearing through an airport at 8.30AM, mobile phone in hand, about to board a plane back to LA after chairing a debate on Israel and Hamas at Oxford University.

Boteach has been named "The World's Most Controversial Jew" by his detractors and "Preacher of the Year" by The Times newspaper. He's also routinely cited as one of Newsweek's "50 Most Influential Rabbis".

Together, we chatted about all things Shmuley: his teachings, his support of Israel and why he believes, even in the wake of the recent Israeli offensive that caused  ​an estimated 580 Palestinian deaths, that Israel's proposed nation-state bill – which would enshrine the country as the Jewish homeland, prompting accusations that it would also institutionalise discrimination against minorities – should not trouble the West.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Shmuley found his rabbinical path after being tutored by a group of young rabbis at a local college. "My parents did not have a happy marriage," he explains in an animated American accent. "They divorced when I was eight, and I think that led directly to my decision to become a rabbi. And, in becoming a rabbi, I transformed my own darkness into something that would bring light."

In 1988, the 21-year-old Rabbi Boteach was sent to Oxford University, where he gained a reputation as a charismatic public speaker, establishing the L'Chaim Society, which soon became the second largest organisation in Oxford history and included  ​over 5,000 non-Jewish members.

It was L'Chaim's non-exclusivity that attracted Shmuley his first round of criticism from within the Jewish community – criticism that has only increased as his status has grown. I ask him if he recalls the period when his teachings began to differ from traditional Judaism.

"I'd argue they never differed," he replies. "But the challenge of any religion or any system is how to take its eternal truths and adapt it to modern relevance. I don't think that Judaism can survive with its insularity and the kind of self-ghettoisation that Jews have practiced... and I've tried to push against those boundaries of insularity. If I write a book about sexuality, for example, I'm not changing Judaism's truths; I'm bringing them to a wider audience."

Shmuley spent 11 years in Oxford, travelling to London to speak on subjects like ethics, value-based societies, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the subject he's best known for: sex.

"In Oxford, I was debating all the time. Suddenly, people were coming to me for relationship counselling. Then The Sunday Times sent a reporter down to write a story about this rabbi who's emerging as relationships counsellor," he laughs. "That kind of led to a book deal, [which] led to another book deal, and everything kind of escalated after that – until I published Kosher Sex in 1998, which became, very unexpectedly, an international best seller."

Shmuley's ideas surrounding sex have been widely criticised. His declarations that Jews are "frigid" and should readily engage in S&M and anal sex were met with thundering condemnation by a section of the Jewish community, with some denouncing the book as heresy.

I ask Shmuley what he thinks it was about Kosher Sex that riled everyone up so much.

"That rabbis shouldn't be writing about sex," he says. " The Daily Mail ran a story on my statement that it's part of Jewish law that a woman should orgasm before a man. Funnily, the vast majority of non-Jewish women who read the articles wrote comments on the website like, 'I better find me a Jewish man.' The women knew what I was talking about."

"But religion has its way of doing things," muses Shmuley. "And when you veer from that, you rattle the cage and people feel uncomfortable."

Shmuley with Michael Jackson, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and others

In 1998, after relocating back to the US amid a frenzy of publicity and several world-tours, Shmuley's work was featured on Oprah, and his TV show Shalom in the Home premiered on US cable's TLC channel, giving him widespread recognition. One year later he was crowned "Preacher of the Year" by The Times and became a close friend and "spiritual advisor" to Michael Jackson.

"We just bonded," he explains. "We both had volatile childhoods. We were both raised in very religious families – Michael was a devout Jehovah's Witness – so we both had a firm religious anchor and a deep belief in God."

The pair were introduced by a mutual friend and began to meet regularly, with The King of Pop attending Sabbath meals at Boteach's house and accompanying him to the synagogue. "He loved it," says Shmuley. "Prayer was always a good thing, and I think Michael needed to be more spiritually grounded. And it just went from there. We also did lectures together at Oxford University and at Carnegie Hall."

Alongside Shmuley's lectures on sexual and spiritual equilibrium, he also chairs regular debates on the Arab-Israeli conflict. I was curious about his opinion on the dangers of the Jewish Nation State Bill, his perspective on the conflict and why he feels the UK is one of the most anti-Israeli states in the modern world.

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"I'm really puzzled as to why Israel comes across such ferocious, non-stop criticism here – in Parliament, among British celebrities, among British editorial writers, among British students on British campuses," he tells me. "I mean, if you had to choose between a genocidal terrorist organisation like Hamas, which believes in the extermination and annihilation of the Jewish people based on its 1988 Charter, and a society like Israel, which is an open, liberal democracy that affirms all the values and rights that Britain does, how could Britain side with a terrorist organisation? It doesn't make sense."

I say that people in the UK generally view Israel as an aggressor state, one that's well funded, heavily militarised and routinely brutalises Palestinians, suggesting that Israel's aggression is responsible for the growth of Hamas. Of course, Middle Eastern conflict is a realm in which he's well versed, and as he presents his case, the pace of Shmuley's speech quickens.

"Last night I heard this argument a thousand times: Hamas is bad, but only because of Israel. If Israel didn't have military checkpoints, if Israel didn't humiliate Palestinians, if Israel didn't have an occupation... the list goes on," he says. "Even if this were true, which I'm not saying it is – but let's say that Israel is the worst country in the world. I mean, does anyone remember the Holocaust? When Jews were actually put into gas chambers and cattle cars? During that time, did you see Jews going around blowing up German buses full of children, like Hamas?"

I reply that it's possible Jews didn't engage in Hamas-esque tactics during World War II, as their main focus was probably concealment and survival, not waging a meek offensive against the Nazi war machine. And that Hamas' offensive against Israel's cutting-edge weaponry may be a case of relying heavily on guerrilla tactics in place of a legitimate military force.

"Everyone agrees that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are very powerful," Shmuley continues. "If Israel's so evil, why doesn't [it] just carpet bomb Gaza and end the war tomorrow? Israel would never contemplate doing that. Israel's a righteous and just democracy that never wants to hurt a single Arab life. But what's it supposed to do when rockets are fired into its cities to murder its civilians every single day?"

"Israel doesn't carpet bomb Gaza because it doesn't have the support of the international community," I answer. "That's why Israel's aggression towards Palestine is a little more clandestine." An answer to which, surprisingly, he agrees.

Next, I ask the rabbi what he thinks of the newly drafted bill for Israel's controversial nation state bill.

"I think everyone's making much more of it than it is," he argues. "Let's say Ed Miliband is elected prime minster. He's Jewish. Is he immediately going to switch Christmas for Hanukkah? No. As a Jew, he's going to respect that this is a Christian nation. So I'm not completely understanding of why the bill is so controversial. It doesn't disenfranchise anybody. Israel's the only place in the Middle East where Arabs live with complete freedom. Not like Syria, Qatar or Iraq, and certainly not under The Islamic State."

I remind Boteach of the many, many Human Rights Watch reports on abuses in Israel, Gaza and The West Bank, which certainly don't paint the country as a land of plenty for Arabs. And also that many,  ​including Israel's own president, feel the legal drafting of the Jewish nation state will further institutionalise racism and violence.

"Israel is the exact opposite to a racist state," says Boteach. "It has a national religious identity like Britain. Is Britain racist? No. I just don't see that this [bill] is such a cataclysmic change for something that already exists. Israel's always been the Jewish state – everyone knows that."

Alongside his books, lectures and stance on the conflict, Shmuley is also active in American politics. In 2012 he ran for the US House of Representatives, where he won the Republican primaries for New Jersey's 9th congressional district seat, but lost to 8th District Representative Bill Pascrell on the secondaries. As he prepares to board his flight to LA, I ask Boteach what's in store for the future, and if he plans to run again.

"Only for the presidency," he says, chuckling, "Shmuley for the White House, 2015. And you're the first to know that." 

​@mrrippingale

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