It shocked some in his audience when Rabbi Shmuley Boteach declared that values — not religion — top his list of what parents should teach their children.
“Doesn’t religiosity define values?” an audience member interjected.
“No, it doesn’t. Valueless religion is the crisis in our world,” he declared, likening rote religious practice to “an empty family heirloom” that is pushing more and more Jews to assimilate.
The often unorthodox Orthodox rabbi, known for his reality television series Shalom in the Home, a slew of books, and an unsuccessful run for Congress, was the guest speaker at the YM-YWHA of Union County on Oct. 13.
Alluding to his latest book, 10 Conversations You Need to Have with Your Children, he outlined a series of pointers for parents — but also plunged into areas adults need to address for themselves.
He made clear his disgust with the religious figures who have made headlines lately for such things as physically assaulting husbands to make them give their wives a get, a Jewish divorce, or who spit on women they disapprove of.
“It’s stories like those that are destroying people’s faith in faith,” he said.
Boteach said the values he espouses are those dictated by the Ten Commandments, divinely inspired and beyond the realm of debatable legal regulations. “Morality based on the laws of God has a sanctity, a moral absolutism,” he said.
Calling Jews a “moral people,” he said a respect for life prevented them from attacking civilians in retaliation for Nazi atrocities. “‘Do not kill’ means ‘Do not kill,’” he said. “The minute you begin to rationalize what laws mean, you get the kind of behavior we saw on Wall Street, that bankrupted the United States.”
Boteach, himself the parent of nine, spoke of the importance of encouraging curiosity — “the essence of life” — and of being willing to admit mistakes and to apologize to our children when it’s warranted. But most important in parenting — as in good adult relationships, he said — is respect for dignity, “the most prized of all qualities.”
Just as a spouse can be devastated by a partner’s cheating, because it leaves them feeling devalued and humiliated, so too a child needs validation, to feel loved and respected for who they are, rather than what they achieve. That regard is very different from mere attention, he stressed, “love’s cheap cousin.”
Boteach referred to his friendship and work with Michael Jackson, and described how destructive the late singer’s craving for attention became. He linked that to the bizarre antics of young celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Lindsay Lohan. All of them, he said, have had problematic relationships with their fathers.
The best way to be good, he concluded, is to confer dignity on other people. “What we hate most,” he said, “is to be made to feel unworthy or insignificant. Never make anyone feel they are not good enough.”
The audience of around 25, including grandparents evidently concerned about their offspring’s offspring, listened to Boteach with rapt attention and clustered around him later to buy autographed copies of his books. His third-eldest daughter, Shterny, was handling the sales for him.
One of those buying was psychotherapist Esther Goldman of Springfield, who has a private practice in Millburn and is a senior social worker at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. She said she found Boteach’s message spot-on. “Working with families, I try to convey to them the importance of teaching children values,” she said. “It’s so important.”
Boteach’s talk was part of the Union Y’s year-long celebration of its 130th anniversary. Included in that lineup will be an open house on Sunday, Oct. 27, showcasing next summer’s Camp Chaverim programs and, on Sunday, Nov. 17, the Jewish Fair and Expo.