Shmuley Boteach is an old friend, but even old friends can go awry sometimes. When they do, it behooves someone who cares enough for them to try and set them straight. Not to do so is to betray that friendship.
In the past couple of weeks there has been much hoopla surrounding his recent publication entitled "Kosher J...." the book triggered much ire in the Orthodox Jewish community, with comments and condemnations across a broad range of websites. Most recently, my own father wrote a letter of condemnation, issuing his halachic view that it is forbidden to read the book. As the world's leading authority on Christian missionaries, this letter was widely disseminated and indeed sent out by the umbrella organization of Chabad International to all its emissaries around the world. This of course rattled Shmuley's cage, and quite possibly shattered it as well, prompting him to write a response on Facebook and elsewhere. You can read it here.
I am not writing this in order to defend my father's position. G-d knows he doesn't need my input. But in a brazen lack of professionalism and common decency, Shmuley chose to drag me into the response he wrote against my father. This compels me to respond in kind.
"You shall rebuke" is a biblical command. Of course not everyone is in a position to do so, especially when they may not be au fait with the particular concern at hand. Hence they will turn to an expert for guidance on the matter. If I am concerned about the kosher status of a particular food item that one rabbi declared as kosher, I may turn to someone I consider a higher authority to ask his opinion on the matter. Did Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the preeminent halachic authority of the 20th century, always feel the need to elaborate on his halachic rulings when consulted on a matter? Was he ever challenged to a debate when stating a position against someone whose opinion was different to that of his own? Was he accused of betraying scholarship?
In this instance, my father was inundated with phone calls and e-mails from all over the world, asking for his professional opinion. As the leading authority in the Jewish world on comparative religion, and considered the foremost expert on Christian missionaries, it was only natural for people to turn to him for guidance and advice. He would not, could not, comment till he read the book. One recipient of the book (it was handed out to several people in Israel) ensured that a copy made its way to Toronto. (Not one of the so-called pirated copies, "full of errors" that Shmuley refers to). Having done so, and after careful deliberation, he chose to respond by issuing his expert and halachic view. Getting into the why and what for would be beyond the scope of many who were simply looking for directive. It would also invariably drag people into the murky waters of Christian theology, which he felt is no place for the average Jew.
If there is one thing I admire about my father it is "consistency," a buzz-word many will have come to know from his lectures over the years. As a matter of principle, he never engaged in public debate with Christian missionaries. He would always consider it giving them a platform, which they don't deserve. Does that make him less scholarly? Did that reduce the level of intellectualism that he has become so highly acknowledged for throughout the Jewish and non-Jewish world? Did that diminish the impact on thousands who packed his lecture halls, or the many Jewish kids and adults who found their way back to their roots on account of his lectures?
To be sure, there was one debate my father did have when asked to challenge Michael Brown, the tragic Jews for J proponent. This was in the presence of a panel of judges who would determine the winner of the debate. Notwithstanding my father's victory and inasmuch as he felt that one time necessary, he still regretted it thereafter. (Shmuley once debated Brown as well. Brown proudly shows off that debate on his own website, only proving the point how debates can be so counterproductive and indeed dangerous, especially when you're out of your depth.)
One of the things my father was consistent about was never using certain terms in our family home. Whereas my father would have typically used the name "J" in lectures, in what would be termed as horoat sha'ah (a need for the moment), G-d help any of us, his children, if we dared ever utter it in our own home. Even as kids we understood the distinction between exceptions when necessary and when not. Surely Shmuley understands the same?
In a "highbrow scholarly" retort, Shmuley resorts to suggesting my father wrote this letter because we are both "being openly discussed as possible candidates for the position of Chief Rabbi of the UK, with significant media speculation as to my (Shmuley) candidacy growing over the past two weeks even though, despite many high-profile endorsements, I have said I am not a declared candidate." In other words, my father wrote the letter to bolster my chances against him.
MP Louise Mensch and spoon-bender Uri Geller are hardly what anyone in the U.K. would consider "high profile endorsements." Furthermore, just as my father doesn't need my input, I've never used him to fight any of my battles. The Jewish Chronicle already reported last week that a liberal rabbi, Julia Neuberger, has a better chance of becoming Chief Rabbi than Shmuley. Like Shmuley, I've never said that I am a declared candidate either. Most of all, and I will dare to go public with this, in several discussions with my father, he told me in no uncertain terms that it is not a position he would want to see me in. I'm not going to discuss the reasons, but that should put paid to the absurdity of Shmuley's insinuation.
It was 14 years ago when I was publically critical of some of the content of Shmuley's then book "The Jewish Guide to Adultery." This prompted him to call me and challenge me to a debate. (Sound familiar?) I vividly remember how during the conversation I raised some objections about another publication of his, "Moses of Oxford," which he admitted to me "may have some points that are halachically problematic, but this book is different." I rose to the challenge (much to the disappointment of my father, who questioned why I was giving him a platform). I did not, as Shmuley suggests, proceed to tear pages from the book. I did however have several torn pages from the book, which I quoted from during the debate, some of which at one point went spiraling to the floor. Shmuley knows this to be true. Shame again that he resorts to this kind of "scholarly" retort.
Shmuley, by his own e-mail admission, did not win that debate. What he didn't know at the time was that it was my first ever public debate. Truth will always prevail. But it was his post-debate comment that still lingers disturbingly in my head: "Yitzchak, be your own man. Be the [the Lubavitcher] Rebbe's man, but more importantly be your own man."
Therein lays the essence of the problem, does it not? My father wrote more than 30 scholarly works. I remember him exchanging manuscripts with other authors to edit and comment upon. In several instances these would pass by the desk of the Lubavitcher Rebbe as well. Intellectual honesty necessitates that you accept the possibility that you may be wrong and let others tell you so before you go to print. Why publish "Moses of Oxford" and admit only later that some of it may be flawed? How can you be so sure the same doesn't apply now as well?
Everyone needs a mentor. The ancient rabbis, in Ethics of the Fathers, already stressed the important need to "appoint for oneself a rabbi." The simple logic is that self-love masks over iniquity, and submitting to a higher authority negates the ego that could so readily lead one astray. As Shmuley concludes in his piece, "It's time for the light of Judaism to brighten the world and for the Jews to live up to their ancient biblical mandate as a light unto the nations." Shmuley is a talented individual who could do much in that regard. His starting point must surely be, at the very least, consulting with an authority that he would consider greater than his own self. If such a person does indeed exist, the rest will follow.