Shmuley Boteach hails the saving power of lust

Rabbi discusses celebrity friends, the difficulties of modern living, Jonathan Pollard and more in free-wheeling interview

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (courtesy)
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (courtesy)

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is a man of momentum. When he calls you on the phone — with no forewarning — and says “it’s Shmuley!” it’s best to just put whatever else you’ve got planned for the day aside.

After our recent conversation about the Hollywood film “Noah” was met with praise by readers, the rabbi decided he’d love to have a conversation with me about anything and everything. As it happened, the latest in the “Kosher” series, “Kosher Lust,” is just about to become available at all fine book stores and online outlets, but this was just coincidence surely.

Despite my appreciation for the rabbi’s writing, I was unable to read the new work in full, as we only had a short window to talk. Boteach was on his way to Rwanda, invited by President Paul Kagame, to speak at an event commemorating the 20th anniversary of that country’s genocide. In the two weeks since the rabbi and I had last chatted he’d lectured with Dr. Oz in Miami and led a debate about Israel at Barnard College in New York. Me? I was getting around to doing the dishes in the sink, I promise.

The Internet is full of short snappy micro-discussions, but that’s not how Boteach operates. The blocks of wisdom that extemporaneously spring from his mouth is something of a minor miracle to listen to in real time. As such, I’ve left much of his speech pattern in situ, in the hopes that you can experience what’s truly Shmuley. Below you can find an abridged transcript of our somewhat tangent-heavy conversation.

Okay rabbi, your new one is “Kosher Lust.” I read the preface and it got me excited, so to speak, to read the rest. It is an interesting thesis. You’re saying that respect and care and love is not enough — there’s the added element of desire that needs to stay in a marriage.

'Kosher Lust' cover
‘Kosher Lust’

Lust was always supposed to be the cornerstone of a relationship. Everything else is secondary. Of course you need love in a marriage. Of course you need respect, appreciation, compliments, shared values. But if you are in a marriage where you don’t deeply desire the person you’re with, you are in a jail cell. It’s a form of incarceration. It may be a form of incarceration that has sex and love and caring and all those things, but you’re in a cell, because you don’t want to be there.

The essence of desire is choice. What I say in the book answers what Freud wrote to Marie Bonaparte, Napoleon’s great-niece in 1938. Freud said he’s been able to answer almost all questions of human psyche except one — one question that no one can answer: What is it that a woman wants?

I claim in this book to be the first man ever in history to answer that question!


It is based on my deep attachment to my feminine side. And the answer is this: A woman doesn’t want to be loved. If a woman wants to be loved, she would stay with her parents. Her parents love her unconditionally. Her parents are never going to divorce her. Her parents are never going to cheat on her. We rarely hear about parents going and taking the next-door neighbor’s kid secretly to the circus. So why do women, by the age of 14 or 15, why do they have to be kept at home coercively by these people who love them so much if a woman wants to be loved? Parents can give their daughters everything but one thing: they cannot give them the gift of chosen-ness.

Your mother tells you you’re the prettiest girl in the class, you roll your eyes; you think that she has a Kalashnikov to her head that makes her say these things. But when a man says it to you, you actually feel special. You feel unique. So a woman wants to be chosen. The essence of lust and desire is chosen. Love is comforting, nurturing. But it does not make you feel special. It does not make you feel chosen. It makes you feel protected.

But let me interrupt you. You’re being very, very gender specific here. Does this not work both ways? Is it only women? It’s not men as well.

Hey, Jordan, I gotta speak to my audience. It’s mostly women buying the book. Damn the guys!

Actually, you know, we’re at about a 55% to 45% for these books, which is very high. But, no, I’m not distinguishing just based on gender. Of course men have the same need. To paraphrase Abraham Joshua Heschel, we all need to be needed, and we want to be wanted, and we desire to be desired. It’s just that men need to feel needed in a different way. Men are much more prone to distinguish themselves, their specialness, their uniqueness, through their activity, through their doing. Men make the mistake of ceasing to be human beings when they try to become human doings. And women make the mistake of allowing that to happen — like being impressed by men who are successful, being impressed by men with money, being with the man with the plan. But really men want women to rescue them from that and to love them for their being, for who they are.

‘When so many successful men have affairs they’re not even physical affairs — they actually do want someone to talk to, believe it or not’

That’s why, by the way, when so many successful men have affairs they’re not even physical affairs — they actually do want someone to talk to, believe it or not. And why don’t they show that same vulnerability to their wives? Because a lot of them are convinced that their wives do not want to see weakness and vulnerability. They think their wives will respect them less. Their wives married them specifically because they are the provider, specifically because they are the knight in shining armor that takes care of the family. So when he feels totally broken, he doesn’t want to share that with his wife. Sixty percent of all affairs on the part of husbands today are asexual; they’re platonic.

You mean, it starts with having common ground with a woman, you share a secret with them, or you share an opinion with them, and it leads to a conversation, and the next thing you know, you’re in a hotel room?

Yeah, that’s one possibility; I think the other possibility is that women — in the same way that men can spot dissatisfied women, women who feel neglected in their marriages; you know, men can spot a damsel in distress from outer space, and a lot of men prey on women like that — well, women can spot a broken man from a million miles away.

‘You cannot seduce someone unless they’ve left an opening for the seduction, meaning they’re unhappy’

You know in the “Noah” film, they kept on showing the apple in the Garden of Eden. So I’ve always had this question: Why was Eve so miserable in the Garden of Eden? In other words, the wily serpent is the seducer. You cannot seduce someone unless they’ve left an opening for the seduction, meaning they’re unhappy; they’re dissatisfied. You specifically prey on someone’s vulnerability. Now, she had everything. She lived in the Garden of Eden. Her husband was God’s handicraft. Her life was perfect. So why was she unhappy?

And I thought about this for years, until one day it hit me when I was writing this book. The essence of Eve’s dissatisfaction is that her husband cannot give her the one gift that every other husband could give their wives. He could love Eve, but he could not choose Eve. She was the only one. So even his love for her did not make her feel desired.

The essence of lust is desire. I want you; I can’t live without you; my life is empty without you; I will forsake everything for you — the intensity, that passion. And I don’t just mean physical lust, like lust for the body, because that wanes. And that is objectifying someone; that strips them of their deeper virtues. I mean the natural gravitation of two energies — masculine to feminine, feminine to masculine. So “Fifty Shades of Grey” becomes this global bestseller, the trilogy selling almost as much as “Harry Potter.”

More even than “Kosher Jesus” and “Kosher Sex,” it’s crazy.

No, let’s not be ridiculous.

Now, in my opinion, it’s poorly written prose, and the sex scenes are so boring; they last like half a paragraph. If you give us a sex scene, you know, at least make it… It’s amazing; there’s like no foreplay, there’s no… I dunno.

‘Women want to be lusted after’

So why are women reading this? And my argument is simply this: It’s one of the first times that modern women have experienced lust, read about lust, seen lust. You know, we keep on writing these books for women, Harlequin romance novels — “women want love” — it’s not true! That’s part of what they want, but it actually is far less potent. Women want to be lusted after.

Christian Grey is a billionaire. He should be lusting everyone — he should be doing his secretary; he should be doing everyone — what you would normally expect. That this guy with a lot of money sleeps around with a lot of women but then feels empty and he falls in love with one. That’s not what happens here. He only sleeps with one woman, even though he doesn’t fall in love with her, because he only lusts after one woman. Now that’s novel — that lust can be sustained for one woman.

So what you’re describing to me is that your definition of lust is partially a physical manifestation, a sexual manifestation, but it’s different from love, which is understanding and caring; it is a hungry desire for that person at all times in all ways. So how, without giving too much away — I’d imagine your book has suggestions on how to maintain this state of arousal — beyond purchasing a new nightgown every now and then.

First of all, there is nothing that I write in my books that I don’t seek, of course, to sustain in my own marriage and my relationship. That would be fraudulent. Now, I am a child of divorce. That characterizes so much of what I do. Some people tell me, “Get over it; it happened so long ago; you were eight years old; you’re now 47.” And I’ve tried; I’ve tried to have my parents’ divorce no longer motivate so many of my actions. I’ve always been this guy with a little inner brokenness — competing, clashing forces on the inside, trying to reconcile those clashing forces but also trying to derive and create a spark from those clashing forces. And when you’re a child, the trauma is that much more lasting, because you lack the defenses, where it’s internalized.

When I was 40 years old, I said to myself, “You know, at 40, you become wise.” And I promise you, I waited for the wisdom to hit me like a freight train on my 40th birthday, at midnight. I waited and waited, and it didn’t hit me. A week passed by; a year passed by, two — I think it was only at about 44 or 46 I finally discovered what the wisdom was that I was supposed to get when I was 40. And what that wisdom was — that I was never going to heal fully. That if wisdom meant healing, it was never going to come to me. Now, people like me, our great challenge is to forever battle and struggle and wrestle with our own trauma — trying to forever heal ourselves, and by extension heal others and even heal the world. That’s why I’ve always gravitated toward people who have the same kind of scarring, who are involved in similar battles.

‘My friendship with Michael Jackson really was a deep friendship’

My friendship with Michael Jackson really was a deep friendship; that was someone I cared for deeply, I cared for very much, and whom I still miss, because I never saw him as a celebrity. I saw him as like me, as a scarred child, who really wanted to use — I mean, look at all his songs: “Heal the World,” et cetera.

Look at my whole last book, “The Fed-Up Man of Faith.” It is all about wrestling with God in the face of tragedy and suffering, the theological response to suffering, but more about challenging God and holding God accountable.

The Fed-Up Man of Faith
‘The Fed-Up Man of Faith’

This has been my thesis, and it really has grown over the past years. I now believe that even the Jewish people, that their main role in life is struggle. I don’t think we’re ever going to be Sweden or Switzerland. I don’t just mean the State of Israel; I mean the Jewish people. You can say we’re condemned to an eternal struggle, but maybe we’re blessed in an eternal struggle. And we can debate that.

It certainly keeps things lively; I’ll tell you that much.

It keeps the Jewish people in the news. And that applies to your question. I have to create what I did not have — that is, a loving, nuclear family. My wife and I, thank God, are blessed with nine children. My wife is nothing like me. She was blessed with two loving parents who adore each other to this very day. I remember a few moments of peace between my parents; my wife remembers one argument between her parents.

So what I need to do is find the strategies and to really understand the inner psychology, the inner dynamic of marriage so that I have what I’ve always wanted. And I’ve learned how to heal. So all these books are really a process of healing for me. And of course I want to be in a marriage where I desire my wife very deeply, and where I appreciate her as a woman very deeply. I think that’s the greatest gift a husband can give his wife, to be perfectly honest.

So… remind me of your question again? [laughs]

Suggestions of how to maintain the state of arousal, both in a physical and mental state, over a long-term marriage.

‘The Christian Bible and the writings of St. Paul replaced the Hebrew Bible’s lust marriage’

I offer the three great secrets of erotic lust. Let’s just remember, we’ve rejected lust as the foundation of marriage for three reasons. No. 1, Christianity. The Christian Bible and the writings of St. Paul replaced the Hebrew Bible’s lust marriage. I show the patriarchs, for example, all had lust marriages [which were replaced] with the New Testament’s love marriage. Saint Paul hated lust. He condemned lust constantly. He said that God himself is love; that’s where the expression comes from. He famously wrote, “Love is patient, love is kind.” He wrote beautiful things about love. But he hated lust. So lust lost favor, and love became the foundation. And marriage became not about fire and two people who have individuality that leads to desire, but it became more a partnership, the orchestration of two halves into one.

The second reason is that we see lust as sleazy, as pornographic; who would want that to be the foundation of a romantic relationship or a blessed marriage?

And finally, No. 3, most importantly, we see that lust cannot be sustained. So addressing all three in the book became important. So what I say in the book is that there’s three great secrets to lust. And I actually use the iPhone to demonstrate. How did Steve Jobs make the iPhone the most successful consumer product in the history of the world?

He made it simple. Any schmuck can use it.

Well, correct, but that’s technology. I mean the marketing. What Steve Jobs understood is that lust is not of the body. Lust is not of the flesh. Lust is rather an ethereal concept that can be superimposed onto absolutely anything. You can get people to lust after a telephone!

He did not want people to fall in love with his product. He wanted people to lust after his product. He wanted people to stand in line outside an Apple store for eight hours to buy his phone the way Romeo stood outside Juliet’s balcony to get a glimpse of her. He did this a few ways.

‘First rule of lust is unavailability’

No. 1, he made his phones unavailable. Every product launch, they sell out by 9 a.m. You can’t buy the product. First rule of lust is unavailability. Now, look at the Torah, the only system offered that makes a woman unavailable to her husband for a period of 12 days out of every month, sexually unavailable, but even more so — look at how Judaism is always separating men and women. Look at the mechitza in an Orthodox synagogue. A moment before, you guys were all talking and laughing. Now, for the 30 minutes for the Friday-night prayers, there’s a barrier, and it actually increases lust. Now, you feel separated from the women. You feel separated from that.

A lot of people say that we do this in order to minimize attraction during prayer. I think that, actually, the opposite is true. I think it actually magnifies erotic attraction. Judaism wants to create an erotic society where men and women never become a unisex society where they’re just bored of each other.

‘Eros thrives in the shadows’

No. 2, Steve Jobs always insisted on mysteriousness. He never released any details of Apple product launches till the actual day they dropped. That was so counterintuitive. Every other company said, “We’re working on this, we’re working on that.” Now, everybody’s copying him. Eros thrives in the shadows. It’s the reason why we still visit great cathedrals based in Gothic architecture with all the dark shadows. It’s the reason why Catholicism’s most interesting facet, that is captured in almost every film, is someone confessing to a priest, quietly and anonymously, their deepest, darkest sexual secrets, and it’s also the reason why modesty is super sexy.

Michael Jackson used to always say to me that he disappears from the public view so they never become overexposed to him. He once told me this incredible story when we were sitting in the living room in this hotel suite at Four Seasons Hotel in New York City. It’s the middle of the afternoon, his little kids are watching TV, and there’s Britney Spears on the daytime celebrity show. He said to me “Her career’s finished.” At the time, she was the biggest star in the entire world. She’d just come to see Michael a few days earlier. I said, “Why do you say that, Michael?” He said, “Shmuley, any celebrity who’s on TV at 4:00 in the afternoon is finished.” In other words, she didn’t understand mystery.

‘Modesty is super sexy’

And there’s small ways to implement this in everyday marriages. We constantly think that marriages are based on love, so what we do is — we practice total openness in our marriages. People just parade around the bedroom in their birthday suits thinking that marriage is about total accessibility, that you’re supposed to become uninhibited around each other. That’s ridiculous. Then you face a nightmare scenario, after four years of marriage, your husband’s in bed watching television, a woman comes in, takes off all her clothes, he continues to watch television.

But there is a huge, huge school of thought — and frankly, I put some merit into it — that the only way for a relationship to survive is through constant communication and constant honesty and openness, and if you don’t talk out your feelings — not that every day should be a therapy session — but if you keep something bottled up, if you have a grievance and you don’t address it, it’s just going to get worse and worse and worse. Does that not jibe with what you’re suggesting here?

‘King Solomon says there’s two kinds of love: There’s a love like water and a love like fire’

I fully subscribe to that school. So how do the two coexist? How does mystery and revelation coexist in a marriage? King Solomon says there’s two kinds of love: There’s a love like water and a love like fire. The love like water is the love of a brother and sister — no ripples, no waves, like a placid lake. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be a passionate relationship.

The husband and wife are supposed to have a love like fire. And a fire flickers. Sometimes a fire burns very brightly — and that’s the passionate side, where there is total revelation, lovemaking, turning yourself inside out and discussing painful, emotional trauma, sharing your feelings of inadequacy — or inadequacies in the relationship — and being painfully truthful. But then the flame has to recede. You can’t just burn at that level the entire time. There has to be moments where you retreat. And I think that certainly, the cycles of a Jewish marriage are like that, where we’re supposed to reflect in these conversations.

So many studies show that the No. 1 thing that women complain about in marriage is that their husbands don’t talk to them about things that are emotional. On the other hand, if he only talked about things that are emotional, she would lose respect for him. She wants to see his masculine qualities as well, and not just his vulnerability.

But the secret here is that they can’t just coexist. The big, masculine soldier who goes to war — he can’t show vulnerability. It’s the wrong time. Everything has context.

You brought up, a little while ago, the Christian idea of replacing lust with an idealized version of love. I’m not a religious scholar, but luckily I’m talking to one. I’ve always been fascinated with the Hindu faith, because they seem very open with sexuality. I mean, the Kama Sutra, for example, comes from there, and from what I know about Hindu legends, there’s a lot of sexuality in them, and yet in India there still is a lot of pre-arranged marriages. I’ve never been able to understand how a group that seems to put an emphasis on sexuality could also include pre-arranged marriages, which seem so haphazard.

'The Kosher Sutra'
‘The Kosher Sutra’

Hinduism and the eastern religions believe in this energy called Kundalini, which is the innate sexual life force that pervades all of the universe. I wrote about it in my book “Kosher Sutra.”

The idea is to tap into that Kundalini energy and to have your lovemaking be in consonance with its force. In other words, people think that tantric sex is all about sexuality without a climax. That’s just one of its practices. But the idea is, why do you practice sex without orgasm? Because you’re supposed to reach a level of arousal where you experience the Kundalini energy affecting every other area of life: How you eat breakfast in the morning, to how you do your art —

It sounds distracting to me.


But don’t you find it odd that this same culture would also say, “Ah, guess what, you’re going to marry this girl down the block you don’t even know or like or find attractive?”

To some extent, it should even increase erotic attraction — in that when you cannot have the object of your desire and you’re forced to have someone else, you live in a permanent state of longing and yearning. Look at the Song of Solomon, which is all about a man and a woman who can never consummate their attraction.

So on the one hand, you might say, “Oh, but that’s why there’s so much desire in the culture, because the relationships were made unconsummated, you end up being with someone else.” But even if that were true, it’s not worth the price. No matter how positive a force love and lust — it has to be based, as I said, on choice and desire.

And, as I said, a woman wants to be chosen. You deny the people the right to choose who they want to be with — you force them to be in a marriage with someone they don’t love or they’re not passionate about — I spoke about a prison before; that is the ultimate form of incarceration. In the Torah, going back to Rebekah — when Rebekah was supposed to be married off through a matchmaker to Isaac, they said “we have to ask the woman if she wants to marry him.” And only then, she says, “I will go. I’ll marry him.”

Let’s pull the curtain back on Rabbi Shmuley a bit here. We’ve talked more than once now, and we’ve shared a couple of emails, and from my sense of your life, you’re a man who’s always on the go. One day, you’re in Miami; one day, you’re in New Jersey; the next day, you’re in Rwanda. You’ve written roughly 30 books. You’ve also got, you said, nine children. You’ve got a wife who obviously — you’re still together, so, still happily married. What’s an average day for you? And what does a guy like you do for fun?

Shmuley Boteach at a ceremony in Rwanda marking the 20th anniversary of the country's genocide. (courtesy)
Shmuley Boteach at a ceremony in Rwanda marking the 20th anniversary of the country’s genocide. (courtesy)

First of all — I’m not just saying this, because I want to have a truly authentic conversation with you — my greatest joy is my family. That’s why the majority of my books are about that. So no matter what I do, the worst thing about travel is of course particularly for the family, so I try to minimize all of these trips, or, to the extent that I can, I try to bring one of my kids with me, or my wife with me.

But what makes me relax is really relaxing with my kids. We have nine kids, 25 down to 5. So obviously, the older ones don’t sit with me and have me read them a bedtime story, but thank God I’ve still got two left — I have a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old — and then they laugh with you, and they tease you, and I have to say, it’s a remarkable thing. I’m 47, and I still have these little kids, thank God.

Then also, there’s guilt, in feeling, that when I have to travel, they need their father around. So I have to work that out. As far as the regular days — look, a wise man once said to me that insecurity is the inability to say no. So it’s not easy for me to say “no.” And why is that based in insecurity?

I’d like to believe that my life is based on a calling — being a servant to my people and an ambassador for my people. But sometimes, it’s also a product of, you know, wow, I’m looking for purpose and meaning in my life, and someone just asked me to do this lecture or do this counseling session, or travel to this place to help with a humanitarian mission. And that gives me a feeling of — wow, my life matters. I’m doing something good with my life.

You asked what my day is like — I wake up in the morning, after davening, I suddenly have a crazy number of emails. I can’t answer all of them, then people get upset, and you don’t want to upset people, but you also have to be realistic. We just had our big debate on Israel two days ago, with me and Bret Stephens against Peter Beinart and Hussein Ibish at Columbia — we organized that debate in four weeks. It was an amazing debate. You can watch the whole video online already.

I’m going to Rwanda — I’ve been working on things with the Rwandan government and the Rwandan people now for three years, but I’ve been interested in the cause for 20 years. And then I’m speaking at a Passover program, but that’ll be nice; my whole family will be there. If it’s interviews or books or things like that, I have to do that. I also run an organization, This World: The Jewish Values Network. We have this massive dinner coming up May 18 we do once a year. They’re killers to organize. This year it’s the 25th anniversary of my being a rabbi, so we’re honoring that… But then, more than anything else, I think what takes up my time is writing. Columns take a lot of time. By the way, updating social media takes a lot of time.

You’re known for debates, and you debated a lot of respected people over the years. If you go to YouTube, there’s a lot of you and the late Christopher Hitchens, who was a fascinating individual. You debated Hitchens a number of times; I think you even took the show on the road, so to speak, and put out a DVD, so I’m curious about somebody like Hitchens, with whom you clearly disagree with on a very fundamental level — I mean, you love Israel from tip to toe, as they say; he despised Israel from tip to toe — and yet, you had a business with the guy. You clearly had to have lunch with him once in a while. You maybe even rode a bus together. How does that work? How do you maintain a friendship with somebody who is just in absolute defiance of something you believe in so strongly?

That’s a very good question, because I really haven’t been asked a lot about my relationship with him. Before I met him, it was a relationship of both antagonism, because of some of his views, that were highly critical of Israel, but I also deep respect. I love a good writer. He was the best essayist.

Very funny, at times, too.

And a phenomenal command of language. So we met five minutes before our first debate at the Makor Center on the Upper West Side. That was the first time. And he was his typical self. We had a rollicking time. We killed each other on the stage. Our debates were always ferocious and fiery. It was take no prisoners. And afterward, we went out to a kosher restaurant, he put down two or three bottles of wine and we had a great time, and then we became friends.

We started speaking, emailing — we did a second debate, similar. But then, something changed. He published this book, “God is not Great,” right after Richard Dawkins’ book, “The God Delusion.” And Dawkins, who I was also very friendly with — Dawkins used to come to my house for the Shabbat meal — turned into this religion-hating person that morphed into a person who hates religious people as well. Dawkins became very offensive, and Dawkins and I had a big fight on the Internet.

Be that as it may, by the time I debated Hitchens at the 92nd Street Y – our really big debate — it was the ugliest, most challenging, combative debate I’ve ever participated in. That’s why, I guess, people have watched it so much. It was positively ugly on every side. But it wasn’t personal; it was just ugly in its presentation. And even when we did book signings afterwards, he was a totally different person. And I have to admit, I didn’t like him at that point; I really didn’t. I felt that his views had colored his perception and his emotion. I felt it was the height of scientific subjectivity. If you believe in science, this is not the way to behave. And it kind of went on like that a little bit. I had him on my radio show; he was still very combative, and he was saying nasty things about me, et cetera, and I returned the favor, but then he got sick, and I mobilized very quickly to show him phenomenal friendship.

First of all, there were religious people who were saying this was divine comeuppance. See, he got esophageal cancer; God’s taking care of him. I wrote a series of columns in The Huffington Post that said, this is the religious abomination. And anyone that can say any such thing — first of all, the arrogance on the part of a religious person to claim to know the mind of God — the lack of compassion for a fellow human brother, especially someone like Christopher Hitchens, who had been a humanitarian throughout his life — this was a liberal who supported the war in Iraq because he had seen the suffering of the Iraqi people under Saddam Hussein, he had seen the gassing of the children of Halabja in April 1988. And I think that really touched him.

I was his big defender in the religious community. And then, our friendship resumed. In the last two years of his life, as he battled his cancer, we became very close. He was on my radio show regularly. That’s when we did our debate about the afterlife — the debate was still a tough debate, but it was a very different tone. And then, I’ve never said this before, we were supposed to do a final debate. We had the date and everything. He wanted to debate, are the Jews the chosen people? He felt that was an arrogant, elitist concept. We had the date and everything, and then he died two months before. And I miss him very much, and I miss his writing very much, but I miss his luminous soul very much. He was also a very tortured person. Maybe that’s how we connected.

He gave the impression of one who had a problem with alcohol. Maybe it was an act, I don’t know.

He accepted that he was Halachically Jewish; his mother had revealed to him that he was Jewish when he was about 27, so for his last Rosh Hashanah, I sent him a case of Kosher wine. And I asked, “You okay to drink this?” He kind of laughed and said, “Would that make a difference?” And then he wrote me after Rosh Hashanah, knowing that I wouldn’t respond for two days — L’Chaim, that he and his friends had all downed the entire box over Rosh Hashanah. I think he died two months later.

You hang out with a lot of well-known people, a lot of very respected people. When the cameras aren’t running and you’re not onstage — who’s the funniest guy to hang around?

Cory Booker is one. Cory has a phenomenal sense of humor. We’ve spent a quarter of a century just teasing each other.

You’ve known him for that long? You’ve known him for 25 years?

Cory arrived in Oxford as a 22-year-old Rhodes Scholar. And I was 24. I was a rabbi at Oxford. And we met within one month of his arrival. Actually, it was within probably a week of his arrival. And we started studying Torah together almost every day for the two years he was a Rhodes Scholar, and then we continued till this day. Every Friday, we do the Parsha. But he was at our house every day. So Cory has a phenomenal sense of humor. He really knows how to tease me, and I kind of know how to tease him, and it’s like the Shmuley and Cory show.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and New Jersey Mayor Corey Booker (left) in 2009. Booker is the former student president of Boteach's Oxford University L'Chaim Society. (Photo credit: Courtesy
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and New Jersey Mayor Corey Booker (left) in 2009. Booker is the former student president of Boteach’s Oxford University L’Chaim Society. (Photo credit: Courtesy

Michael Jackson had a phenomenal sense of humor — Michael loved to laugh. He’d laugh the most when he’d watch cartoons. He would sit with Prince and Paris — I didn’t know Blanket; Blanket came into the picture after our friendship had ended — but he would sit with Prince and Paris and he would just laugh outrageously. Once, on Thanksgiving, he came to our home for Thanksgiving dinner, and after Thanksgiving dinner, he said that he had a surprise for us; he was going to take us to see “Toy Story” in the theater. I said, “Michael, I don’t think you can go to the theater.” He said, “We’re going to come in 15 minutes into the movie when it’s dark, and they’ve closed off the last two rows.” So Michael sat in front of me, and I sat behind him with my kids — I couldn’t even listen to the movie. He was laughing so outrageously and so loud that I don’t anyone in the theater could hear. And, to be honest, it was a little bit liberating. I said to myself, “This guy’s got a lot of issues on his head, he’s got a lot of responsibilities, and he can let go and just laugh with his kids outrageously.” And people were turning around — they couldn’t really see him; it was dark — but everyone was turning around, like, “Someone silence this guy.”

You mentioned Sean Penn…

When we announced we were honoring Sean Penn, it led to a lot of concern on the part of many in the Jewish community. We received an avalanche of mail. People said he’s so close to Chavez, to Castro. Then people wrote to say he hates Israel, and that was an absolute lie. Sean Penn has never said a negative word about Israel. And his father was Jewish.

I would imagine, though, that he is more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than some, though; is that an accurate thing to say?

Well, look, because he’s my guest, I want to be careful not to represent him; he has to represent himself. I don’t know the answer to that question. I certainly know he has public, celebrity friends who are critical of Israel.

Actor Sean Penn leaves Bolivia's presidential palace after meeting with Evo Morales, whom he's pressed for Ostreicher's freedom. (Juan Karita/AP)
Actor Sean Penn leaves Bolivia’s presidential palace after meeting with Evo Morales, whom he’s pressed for Ostreicher’s freedom. (Juan Karita/AP)

I had been to Haiti with my oldest daughter, and it’s not the sight of death that I will forever recall. I mean, literally, scavenger dogs eating human vertebrae in front of our eyes. That’s not the horror that I recall. It was rather the stench of death. Death has a unique stench. There are thousands of rotting bodies in the city. And we couldn’t breathe on the streets of Port-au-Prince. And yet, this superstar Academy Award winner went and lived in Port-au-Prince for a year. And he moved 60,000 people from tents where they might have died of disease, hunger, and he moved them to houses, over a year — raised the money to do this — absolutely remarkable.

Jacob Ostreicher, a New York City businessman, left, arrives at a court to attend a hearing in Santa Cruz, Bolivia in 2012. (photo credit: AP Photo, file)
Jacob Ostreicher, a New York City businessman, left, arrives at a court to attend a hearing in Santa Cruz, Bolivia in 2012. (photo credit: AP Photo, file)

But for our community, one of the greatest Jewish mitzvot is to free someone who is held unjustly. I was approached by Yanky Ostreicher. I didn’t know how to help him. This was years ago. The only guy who got him out was Sean Penn, who used his contacts in that South American socialist political world, his contacts with [Bolivian] President Evo Morales, and he gets Ostreicher into house arrest — and then he sneaks him out of the country. I don’t know if you know all the circumstances; they remain very mysterious. If we can’t honor someone in the Jewish community for doing that…

This leads me to Jonathan Pollard, whose name is in the news again right now.

My recent column was all about how we in the community are ashamed of our prisoner population, which is why we allow them to languish with excessive sentences. So my approach to Pollard or to [kosher slaughterhouse Agriprocessor executive Shalom] Rubashkin is this: it is absolutely possible for us to condemn their crimes in absolute terms — that they are criminals who’ve done bad, bad things — especially Pollard — treason against your country. But there’s still justice. Do you take them out and behead them? No. There’s justice. You give them the mandatory sentencing guidelines; you give them the kind of sentence that others have received in similar circumstances. What you can’t do is practice prejudicial sentencing.

Pollard should have gotten four to seven years. He is the first man ever sentenced to life in prison for spying on an ally, ever.

Rubashkin, based on what he did, should have gotten three to five years — seven years, max. He got 27 years. They asked for life imprisonment. Jeffrey Skilling of Enron got a shorter sentence. Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco got a shorter sentence.

Do you find it a little distasteful how blatantly John Kerry is dangling Pollard in front of Netanyahu right now? I know backroom politics are backroom politics, but to be so open about it — because now Netanyahu looks like a bad guy if he doesn’t do what Kerry wants, you know? He looks like he’s saying, ‘Let Pollard rot in prison.’

I happen to agree with you. But let me be emphatic. Pollard has served an excessive sentence that may or not have been motivated by prejudicial sentencing. But whatever the motive, it is a clear injustice that he’s been held this long. He committed a crime. He committed treason against this glorious land. But he has paid his price and then some. He should be released. It should not be tied to any kind of peace project.

I think it’s actually offensive to Pollard, and the Israeli government, and the American Jewish community, that this is being tied to the release of Palestinian prisoners who are guilty of murder and terrorism. No one ever said that Pollard is a murder or terrorist. So that’s the first; there’s no moral equivalency.

Israeli protesters call for the release of Jonathan Pollard during a protest in Jerusalem on January 2, 2014, outside the hotel where US Secretary of State John Kerry was staying during one of his visits to the region. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli protesters call for the release of Jonathan Pollard during a protest in Jerusalem on January 2, 2014, outside the hotel where US Secretary of State John Kerry was staying during one of his visits to the region. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The second point is, Israel cannot make the mistake of compromising its security and accepting a deal that may not be good for it because Pollard is going to get out of jail. It’s not fair to Israel. And it’s not even fair to Pollard. He’ll be blamed for the rest of his life if some bad thing happened as a result.

And finally, this is about justice. If the man deserves to be in jail, then you can’t let him out for a peace deal. And if the man deserves to be released, he deserves to be released — and he does deserve to be released.

When Israel made a mistake with Oslo 1 by rushing into an agreement all of us applauded at the time. It seemed amazing. Arafat is shaking Rabin’s hand. Peace in our time. And then a thousand Israelis were blown to smithereens on buses. And who can forget those terrible days? That’s the equivalent of 70,000 Americans dying. So we have to be careful.

One can follow the international exploits of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach at or on Twitter.

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