Thursday, March 29, 2018
Kosher Lust, by Shmuley Boteach (Gefen Publishing House, 2014).
You really do want to find something positive to say about Shmuley Boteach. He is a phenomenon; very bright, an articulate bundle of energy and self-promotion. Anyone who has the chutzpah to describe himself as “America’s Rabbi” deserves ten out of ten for effort. I believe that along with most Chabad alumni, official and unofficial, he does a lot of good and is a sort of national treasure.
In this world of instant celebrity, artificial fame, Madison Avenue, Selfies, and Facebook, it is terribly important that Judaism and orthodoxy, in their various guises, are represented and marketed alongside all the other serious and not so serious solutions to human vulnerability, angst, insecurity, and uncertainty. And equally important, in an increasingly unfriendly atmosphere towards Israel, that its defenders should be voluble, visible, and valued.
I doubt that anyone can deny that Shmuley has succeeded in reaching audiences that few others have. From his earliest days in Oxford, he has made important contacts and friends, and used the media well. I remember one incident when he got a naÃ¯ve Christian gentleman in Oxford to publicly apologize to him for the Medieval massacre of its Jewish inhabitants.
Throughout his turbulent career, he has stood by and promoted ideas and values that mainly fall well within the parameters of Orthodoxy, even if the style does not. It’s a dangerous path he treads. He has used television , politics, and any and every opportunity to reach the widest possible audience and I, for one, admire him for it, all the more so since I could never do it. You have to admire such skills, which were actually encouraged by the great and much missed Lubavitcher Rebbe, and are one of the major reasons for Chabad’s success today.
But the trouble is that in this world it is very difficult to dance at two weddings. You create a stir with a controversial and a catching title, which may sell your book, but then it is very difficult to be taken seriously as a writer.
Shmuley Boteach has always looked for the racy title, “Kosher Sex,” “Kosher Jesus,” and now “Kosher Lust.” The paradox and contradiction of the titles immediately catches your attention.
You know they are not serious, they do not make sense. But they sure do grab your attention. You can use the word “kosher” in different ways – serious, humorous, or paradoxical. The title is the honey to attract the bee. The trouble is that the serious reader ends up feeling disappointed and made a fool of because although many of the ideas in the book might be broadly valid, they often contradict the very title itself.
There is no way you can turn the word “lust” into one we would approve of, no matter how you twist its use. Now had Boteach used the word “desire,” no one could have complained. As he rightly points out, desire for God and humanity and passion for one’s wife all have a very strong and long pedigree in Jewish mystical religious texts. But “lust” in English usage is associated with the Seven Deadly Sins. And in Judaism, to lust after one’s neighbor’s wife and property is never good under any conditions.
All the Hebrew words that connote such spiritual or legitimate physical desire that Shmuley quotes are very different than the words used for lust. To desire one’s own wife is precisely what we are commanded and encouraged to do, and is what Shmuley is really talking about. And in this he is absolutely right. But of course “Kosher desire” while more accurate and justifiable a term, does not sound as good or as racy as “Kosher Lust.” So as you read this book you get more and more frustrated and annoyed by the “conceit” of the title and the author’s desperate attempts to justify it.
“Kosher Lust” is in many ways a cute, popular, self-help manual built around the theme of why men mess up their marriages. It is laced with anecdotes such as “Kathy came to me for counseling” and some words of traditional rabbinic wisdom and exegesis. But it certainly does not make lust kosher.