05/21/2010 01:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life

The following is an excerpt from the new book Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life, by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.

The United States is suffering from a terminal deprecation of values. Greed has collapsed our economy and suffocated our spirit. Families scatter to the winds and divorce rates remain high. Our youth spend an average of eight hours a day disconnected from face-to-face interaction and real-life emotions. So where is the discussion of values that might reverse this societal decline? Well, by way of a single example, the serious discussion of values that we so desperately need has been hijacked by the never-ending discussion about abortion and gay marriage. For two decades I have watched these issues dominate the cultural debate on values. Whatever your views on gay marriage--whether you believe that gays should have the same rights as heterosexuals or you object to gay marriage on biblical grounds--one thing is for sure: The debate has nothing to do with imparting real values to our culture or saving the institution of marriage from certain destruction. We straight people don't need help from gays in destroying marriage, having done an admirable job of it ourselves, thank you very much. But so-called defenders of the sanctity of marriage and eternal values have chosen a convenient scapegoat.

Not even 10 percent of the American population is gay, but more than 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce. This was happening years before gays came out in significant numbers, let alone demanded the right to marry. In fact, the only men who seem to still want to get married in America are gays. While they are petitioning the Supreme Court to tie the knot, straight guys are breaking into a rash and running to the hills every time their live-in girlfriend of five years pushes for a ring on her finger.

The true cause of marital breakdown in our time is an absence of real and substantive values. We Americans are an ambitious lot. We want to succeed in everything we do. What we fear most in this country is being a failure, a "loser." But being a winner has come to mean having money, having power, and being famous. Where is the incentive to be a good man? The misguided values in our culture today encourage us all to have a career rather than a calling, to focus on our own ambition rather than cultivate our gifts to benefit other people. The only thing our young people learn about selfless love is that it is subordinate to unconstrained sexual pleasure, a funny, old-fashioned notion out of place in a ruthlessly efficient culture where you are always number one. We've redefined success to encompass only the professional sphere. In Hollywood, you can be on your fourth marriage and have all your kids in rehab, but so long as people are still paying $10 to see your movies, you're considered a success. On Wall Street, you can take the American taxpayer to the cleaners and pursue a life of endless womanizing, all fueled by gargantuan, government-facilitated bonuses, but as long as you drive a Ferrari and still occupy that $25 million Hampton estate, you'll still be welcome on the cocktail party circuit. These are the rancid values being proffered to a nation that fought for freedom and became the world's first modern republic. More of the same is not going to help us rediscover our truest selves. We need a new set of values anchored in time-tested tradition.

Religion plays an indispensable part in this renewal--but not more of the same religion. As in the case above, with the extreme focus on gay marriage, we have arrived at a place of eroded values precisely because religion has, to an extent, lost its way. Christianity in the United States generally comes in two forms. The first consists of the formal, mainline denominations, which tend to be more socially liberal and have either endorsed or tacitly embraced most secular values. The second is composed of the charismatic congregations who condemn the culture's mores and seem to delight in those judgments. Islam faces numerous problems as it confronts the modern world, including an aversion to democratic values and a rising number of fanatics who preach violence in G-d's name.

This is not to say that there isn't amazing good work being done by millions of Muslims and Christians the world over. On the contrary, the vast majority of the faithful are good people who stand up for what's right. It does mean that religion in our time is becoming divisive and is therefore compromising its own ability to positively influence the values discussion. All of this points to the need for greater influence on the part of that other great world religion, the one that gave rise to both Christianity and Islam, and that's Judaism. Jewish values are uniquely suited to modern times. Jewish values deliver a program for developing human potential that is suited to people of every spiritual persuasion. That does not mean they intend to embrace an Eastern faith. Jewish values are universal.