5th June 1998
Comet has blown apart Anglo-Jewry
In Robert Duvall’s latest movie, Deep Impact, a comet is streaming towards Earth, threatening to plough into the planet with unimaginable force. Humanity is powerless to stop it.
The film-makers are unlucky. How could they know that, just hours after their story hit the screens, a real Deep Impact would occur with devastating effect? A kosher Deep Impact…
Comet Shmuley has smashed into Britain and blown Orthodox Anglo-Jewry to Kingdom Come.
Rabbi Shmuel Boteach might as well have arrived from outer space, for all his critics can make of him. In fact, he’s an American Lubavitcher, brimming with confidence and charisma, full of the American love of direct speaking.
So direct, in fact, that he labelled the United Synagogue rabbinical council as “vicious and malicious,” “deaf to what the youth are saying.”
Even the deafest old rabbi couldn’t help hearing that. The council complained to Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that Shmuley’s views were “not in accordance” with Jewish law, and they did it in a tone of voice which added, “Like The Satanic Verses were not in accordance with Islamic law, if you take our point, Chief Rabbi.”
Now the Chief Rabbi has a soft spot for Comet Shmuley, which isn’t surprising because anyone who has met this extra-terrestrial ball of fire discovers they can’t help liking him. He’s fun. Terrifying, sometimes, outrageous always, exhausting, breath-taking and exasperating, but invariably fun.
And the Chief Rabbi is a wise man, who had certainly noticed that people were being attracted to Judaism by the brilliance of the fiery comet. So how was he to reconcile the rabbinate with the renegade?
Shmuley generously solved the problem by resigning from Willesden Othodox Synagogue, as the critics wanted. He did this in his usual, self-effacing and low-key style, pausing only to accuse his enemies of “rabbinical terrorism” and warn that Anglo-Jewry was being thrust into a “Dark Age of anti-intellectuallism”.
Oh, and then he mentioned his plan to launch a breakaway Orthodox synagogue in North London.
Boom! Deep Impact.
The orthodox Orthodoxy must be biting its fingernails. Shmuley has a track record at this sort of thing, the kind of track record that more usually leads to boardroom takeovers and political putsches. He is chairman of the L’Chaim society, which in Oxford has grown to be one of the strongest forces in the ancient university, second only to the Oxford Union.
So if he’s establishing a new synagogue, it’s going to be a success. No question. Failure is not an option in Shmuley’s solar system.
At Willesden, during his two month tenure, he brought women down from the balcony to sit across the aisle from the men, separated only by a screen. He invited a woman to give her views on the Torah reading each Saturday. He introduced communal singing. And he increased the average attendance by 400 per cent.
If he was a business, you’d buy shares.
This could truly be an impact which changes the course of Jewish history. After all, any preacher who can coin phrases like, “If Judaism dies from the waist down, it also dies from the waist up,” is guaranteed first-rate media coverage.
And Shmuley knows how to deal with that. The 11th Commandment, he claims, is: “Thou shalt do anything for publicity and recognition.”
His critics had better pray that Robert Duvall is going to save them from the comet. Because the last time a comet struck Earth, 65 million years ago, it wiped out all the dinosaurs.
This time, it’s going to be exactly the same!
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