One of the most prolific Jewish writers of our time, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has a passion for peace — and for family, too. Boteach, who is often known as “America’s Rabbi” also has a softer side, particularly when it comes to parenting. That’s why the most famous Rabbi in America has penned his latest book, Parenting With Fire: Lighting Up the Family with Passion. We spoke with Boteach about all things Israel, his passion for writing, and why he’ll do anything for his children — even if it means figuring out fractions.
A lot of your writing is about Israel and human rights.
You have a tiny country surrounded by enemies. Hamas is a terrorist organization that controls the Gaza Strip, and their principal intent is not to build hospitals or schools for their citizens— it’s to kill Israelis. Israel, understandably, has enacted a naval blockade to ensure that war materials don’t reach Hamas. We’re not going to give them the tools by which to kill children.
So you have this international peace flotilla filled with a lot of thugs who want to land on Gaza’s shores and think that Israel isn’t going to stop them. We don’t know what or who is on those ships. The United States wouldn’t just allow a humanitarian relief effort to arrive here in New York. We’re talking about sealing the borders for perfectly peaceful Mexicans who want to work here because we feel that the country needs to have at least definable borders to protect and how much more so for Israel whose neighbors aren’t Mexico or Canada but whose neighbors want to destroy?
So I just wrote a piece defending Israel because the loss of life is terrible. Life is of infinite value. What is Israel to do? Open the Gaza Strip to more bombs? That’s what I wrote last night. I publish my articles in many different places like the Huffington Post, and Ariana Huffington is a friend.
I don’t think there will ever be peace until democracy pervades our culture and society. In the history of the world, two democracies have never gone to war. It’s an amazing statistic. It’s simple: in a democracy, people decide. Who wants their children to die? In a dictatorship, he sends other people’s children to die. What does Saddam Hussein care about fighting for 10 years against Iran? It wasn’t his children. Democracies will go to war for things that they think are worth the while.
Maybe some think that there’s glory in dying for their cause.
Yeah, but there’s glory in living. You only die for a cause if there’s no other way. There are a lot of bad people in this world who have no interest in peace and spreading their radical fundamentalist ideology and killing people. The world’s anti-Israel bias is really troubling. Every country in the world is allowed to defend itself except Israel. What do you do when terrorists use human shields? Israel has to defend its citizens as well.
I know that writing is a passion of yours and that you’ve written extensively.
I’ve written 23 books, thank God. And I sold 23 copies.
[laughs] That’s funny.
I’m glad you laughed. If you didn’t, it would mean, “Wow, this guy really is a loser!” I wrote a book about parenting — Parenting With Fire: Light Up the Family with Passion. A lot of it is about relationships and my newest book is Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life. It’s about the value of life. We need values; the United States is suffering a crisis of values. Our values today are materialism and fame. And conversations about values are usually about gay marriage and abortion. We don’t have conversations about serious things like divorce, marital breakdowns, deep depression on the part of so many Americans, or the general unhappiness that seems to pervade this country. I try to address those subjects in my book.
It’s true. We’re one of the richest nations in the world and have access to almost anything. And yet, we’re one of the most obese nations in the world and highly medicated.
We consume ¾ of the world’s antidepressants, according to the Washington Post. I try to find out why we’re not happy, and in my book, I discuss it at great length. I think that happiness is the natural organic byproduct of a purpose-lived life — a life with real meaning and purpose. If you feel that your existence is a contingent existence, that it’s not intrinsic or non-essential, you don’t feel impactful, you don’t feel that you matter, and you won’t be happy.
You need to have purpose and feel that your purpose is received and wanted.
That’s exactly right. I definitely feel that I have a purpose. Like anyone, I question myself. I question myself all the time.
Of course. I question myself constantly.
But you’ve achieved a level of success that not many reach, and in a spiritual way that I would think would be even more profound.
All success, to the level that we define it, is your public following, the money you’ve earned, etc. It’s a very unhealthy definition of success. It’s all made to feel like everything is reduced to a number. How many books did you sell? How many people have nice things to say about you? Those are very American classic definitions of success.
That’s not what I meant, though.
I know. For me, success is that you contribute your unique gift, and you make a difference in people’s lives and you’re not copying someone else’s model of success; it’s uniquely you. So I question if I’ve been true to my mission. I question my values; I question my character — I think about it all the time. I stand for very important things, and I don’t want to betray them even slightly.
As a dad, do you feel that you’re successful?
I have wonderful children, thank God. I’ve been blessed in that way. Do I feel that I’ve been successful in imparting all that I feel is important to my kids? No, of course not. I don’t think any parent can be successful and I don’t think we’re meant to be because our kids need to be who they are. We’re not supposed to be there with a hammer and chisel and sculpt them in our image. We have to let them reveal who they are.
And their own gifts and their purpose.
That’s right. I do believe and I hope that I’ve been successful in imparting my values to them. I tell my children all the time that the two main things they must live for are a love for God and a love for God’s children. Everything after that is just commentary. I study with my kids almost every night and I have regular talks with them. Sometimes they’ll tell me, “I understand what you’re saying but sometimes I find the talks you give us a little overbearing,” which is what you expect teenagers to say. I’m a big believer in talking to our kids and not preaching to them. I believe that parents need to apologize to their kids when they make mistakes. I’m a great believer in when we see our kids going off the righteous path that we have to steer them back in the most loving and gentle means that we know. To me, that’s inspiring speeches and sharing of myself. I’m not looking to preach to them. I want them to hear who I am and some of the things that I’ve experienced, to understand that I’ve been through some of these things, too. This way, it can shed some light from my personal journey to theirs. After all, kids don’t listen to us; they copy us.
I think it’s important to respect your children.
Of course, that’s the ABCs of parenting. I think a lot of parents are of the mindset that it’s the obligation of the children to honor the parents. That’s one of The Ten Commandments; one of the most important rules in society. But it goes without saying that we have to honor our children; they’re so vulnerable. I don’t believe in being my kids’ friend. I am the parent, and I will tell them what I believe is right and I will stop them from doing things that are injurious to them, even if they go kicking and screaming. But I will always seek to explain it and apply it to their lives. Most of the time, I will admit when I’m wrong. It’s not easy but it’s critical.
A lot of parents make the mistake of not doing that or ignoring their kids, of putting things ahead of their kids and then wondering why their children grow up so insecure.
How do you find your personal balance? You have nine children, your career, and being a husband. It’s a lot.
I am a very involved father and that doesn’t take a lot of work. It’s not something I’m bragging about; I love being with my children. I love seeing them grow up and their characters form. I love biking and hiking with them. I love driving and studying with them. I do hate doing homework with them. I hated homework when I was a kid and I hate it more now. I bite my teeth when I have to do it with them. I don’t know this stuff anymore. At least back when I was a kid, I pretended to know mathematics. Now, if I need to do a calculation, I use the computer.
I find that I have to Google how to do lines of symmetry and fractions with my kids.
I don’t Google it; I just fake it. Slap an answer down. My doing homework with my children, as far as I’m concerned, is not about them getting better grades and doing better in school. Of course, that’s very important but that’s not what it’s primarily about. It’s about my children knowing that I will do something that I detest and hate, for them. I’ll always do things for them and put them first. It’s about making them feel unique and special and of infinite value. Being a parent, you don’t always do the stuff that you love; you do the stuff that’s right.
I keep very late hours because that’s when I do my writing. I don’t spend a lot of time with them in the mornings because they’re rushing to get to school. In the morning, my brain is like, well, I’m a zombie. But from the time they come home, I’m there. I’ll go for a walk with them or go get ice cream. We have dinner at 6:30 and the next few hours are with the kids. I’ll go on bike rides with them, and the younger kids go to sleep. It’s almost like we’re two families, because there’s the five older kids and the younger kids. The older kids I study with and the little ones I read a bedtime story to. I think that quality time is very important. We study a portion of the Bible almost every day.
Do they ever say, “Ugh, Dad, enough?”
Every night. Every day. Every second. They say, “Why can’t we have a less involved father?” You can’t be a helicopter parent, and I don’t want to be one. You want your kids to be autonomous and independent, but I want them to be the person who has a focus on values and character.
As for my wife, Debbie and I grew up together. We got married very young. She’s the woman I’ve known my whole life. We are, thank God, very attached. We really enjoy spending time together. I’ve traveled a lot to support my family, so very often Debbie is able to come with me, and that’s very nice. One of the passions that Debbie is that we love the beauty of nature.
I would say that most kids today are not very inspired, and I think it’s our obligation first and foremost is to inspire our children. In my book, Parenting With Fire, the first thing you do is protect your kids, not just from physical harm but emotional harm. You want them to grow up to be strong, stable, and secure. But that’s not enough; you have to inspire them. You really have to lift them up — you have to make them feel that life is an incredible blessing and a journey, and they have an obligation to make the most of themselves and not squander their potential, so I’m very focused on that. Sometimes I don’t feel inspired, so it requires a lot of work on yourself. You have to lift yourself up so that you can lift your kids up, too.