David Bogomolny
Kaddish maggid

The humanity of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s response to Rabbi Zev Shandalov’s question on why he chooses to remain living in the USA instead of making Aliyah to Israel at first only caught my eye because I hadn’t expected him to respond at all.

Love him, hate him, or disregard him, Rabbi Boteach is successful and famous. Ignoring this public challenge would not have damaged him professionally; Rabbi Shandalov’s blog post would have simply faded away into Internet history. He clearly responded out of respect for the questioner and the question; and based upon Rabbi Shandalov’s response(s) in the comment section, it would seem that while he did not agree with Rabbi Boteach’s reasoning, he did appreciate the respectful exchange.

Other comments on the blog post quickly drew my attention, as they began to stream in. Some choice examples included:

I’m glad you are not inflicting Israelis with your presence Rabbi Boteach. They have suffered enough as is.

Why does anyone take this person seriously? Why not reveal the real reason: you cannot come to Israel until you are assured that you can have all the things that are dear to you – making money, feeding your need for fame, and fanning your overblown sense of self-importance. But in Israel, there are too many people who recognize a rabbi only for the level of his piety and Torah scholarship, neither of which quality you possess…

Name dropping and ego inflation, so infatuated with his Hollywood image that he doesn’t realize that most of us who live in Israel aren’t anxiously awaiting his arrival.

Rabbi Boteach struck a nerve, it seems.

Of course, plenty of dissenting comments were written respectfully, some were also written in assent, and one commenter expressed his sadness at all of the hateful remarks, which I truly appreciated:

… I am deeply saddened by the visceral comments I have read here. It’s ok to disagree with the Rabbi but I’m reading too much anger at a fellow Jew. Do you all truly believe that such hate filled comments are serving the better good?

I was tempted to write such a comment myself, but decided to write this blog post instead.

Truth be told, I actually empathize with all of the upset. I find it nearly impossible to describe how meaningful living in Israel is for me. The land God gave my ancestors, land of my heritage, land where the seasons flow with the words of my prayers, land of my own parents’ Aliyah in the 70’s from the USSR, land of my birth, land of the family that I visited in the summers, and, God willing, land where my wife and I will raise our children.

Among the many responses to Rabbi Boteach’s post, I also found a true gem – a link to a blog post titled “Don’t you miss America?” by Paula Stern. You should read her post, but here’s a taste:

I never walked on American soil and said – this is mine in the same way I say it here. When I practiced my religion, it was on the sidelines, time stolen from school or work that had to be excused or made up. Here, every holiday is a national one; every Shabbat, the Sabbath for all…

Growing up in the USA, I always felt that Israel was close-by; but now that I live in Israel, America feels very far away. The distance is the same, but the experience is different.

Still, when I arrived in Israel in 2009 to study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, I had no intention of remaining here. Despite my deep, personal ties to Eretz Yisrael, despite being raised on my parents’ dreams of returning someday to live in their true home, I only planned to remain here for a year or two. In fact, even my initial decision to make Israel my home was barely ideological – I wanted to marry the woman that I loved, and she wanted to live in Israel. Who was I to argue?

My feelings of intimate belonging developed gradually. Beginning my life anew in Israel has been a great challenge; sometimes I still wonder to what extent my profound feelings are a coping mechanism, allowing me to feel that the stress is all worth it. In any case, I still relate to the ‘me’ that once lived in America – the ‘me’ that was born with Israeli citizenship and intended to live out my life in the USA, loving Israel from afar.

Many Jews living in the Diaspora love and support Israel, and the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry is unlike any other. The amount of money that Jews abroad donate to Israeli causes, political campaigns and institutions is unparalleled; and Israel, in turn, officially nurtures this relationship and claims responsibility for the Jewish People. In way of recent example, Netanyahu’s proposed version of the nation-state bill included this language:

The State [of Israel] will act to preserve the cultural and historical heritage and tradition of the Jewish People… fostering these in Israel and in the Diaspora.

While I may sometimes entertain fantasies of how wonderful it would be for millions of Jews to make Aliyah, and leave their imprints upon our Jewish state from within, I cannot dismiss the significance and unique intimacy of the Jewish People’s Israel-Diaspora relationship. As Rabbi Avi Weiss says:

Nation of Israel? Replace ‘nation’ with ‘family’. It changes everything.

Many of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s detractors hatefully disregarded his very humanity over his respectful response to Rabbi Zev Shandalov, out of their fierce passion for Israel and the Jewish People… not according him the love due a family member, let alone a human. We may have our disagreements, but when our love of the Jewish People brings us to act with such hateful vehemence towards our fellow Jews, we must take pause and reflect upon ourselves. What Am Yisrael are we building together? And how might such ugly exchanges impact Diaspora Jews (like me) who don’t yet feel that the State of Israel could be their home, as Paula describes it?

I am deeply ashamed of the sinat chinam that was poured out upon Rabbi Shmuley Boteach by our brothers and sisters.

About the Author
David Bogomolny was born in Jerusalem to parents who made Aliyah from the USSR in the mid-70's. He grew up in America, and returned to Israel as an adult. David has worked as a Russian-speaking Jewish educator for the JAFI, the JDC the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry, Moishe House, and Olameinu. He now works for Hiddush - Freedom of Religion in Israel. He and his wife and daughter live in Jerusalem.
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