An Unlikely Prophet to the Chronically Unattached

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is heartsick, pained by single people who think stimulating careers can substitute for intimacy, by commitment-phobes who continually search for a relationship that's a bigger, better deal than the last, and by picky serial daters who refuse to make a choice because, as the saying goes, "another trolley will come along."

He's trying to help the lonely, loveless and clueless. He writes books that celebrate connubial bliss, offers advice frequently on television talk shows and corresponds with hundreds of frustrated single men and women who seek his counsel. Short, round and intense, the 34-year-old Orthodox rabbi and father of seven based in Englewood, N.J., is an unlikely love doctor. (He prefers the sobriquet "love prophet.") Not only does he advocate postponing sex until after the wedding, but he's been married for 13 years to the only woman he ever went out with.

A dearth of dating experience didn't deter Boteach from writing "Why Can't I Fall in Love?" (Regan Books, $25), a guide for those who can't even whisper the "M" word without panicking.

"Do you have to have cancer in order to treat it?" he asks. Then, in the rapid speaking style that made "Today Show" host Katie Couric suggest the rabbi might want to rethink his caffeine consumption, Boteach explains, "quite the contrary. I could make the argument that people who have been debilitated by the pain of many breakups might understand less about love than I do. I believe in love, completely."

That he does. And what he lacks in life experience is balanced by spirituality and an understanding of history. Neither quality, however, is what has earned him invitations to appear on "Politically Incorrect," "Larry King Live" or "The View."

Credit for his popularity as a media pundit would go to his sense of humor, his passion for his subject and a knack for producing provocative sound bites. There's something inherently arresting about a rabbi who writes a book called "Kosher Sex" (Doubleday, 1999), Boteach's bestselling marriage manual.

"His manner on television makes a person at home sit up and listen," says Marcia Brandwynne, executive producer of the "KTLA Morning News," which books Boteach frequently. "His ideas are very good, and he has great regard for women."

But make no mistake-the rabbi is not happy about the attitudes he finds among a growing population that's chronically unattached. The trouble, as he sees it, is that love has become optional.

"If all your satisfaction comes from your work, your friends, your hobbies, you have no emotional intimacy," he says. "So, people treat it like a luxury item, and they have impossibly high standards for luxury items."

If picking a mate were as easy as buying Gucci loafers or vacation homes, Henry, a recurring example in "Why Can't I Fall in Love?," wouldn't have a problem. A 40-year-old New York real estate mogul who can get a date with any woman in the free world, Henry came to Boteach asking "why can't I fall in love?" (Eureka! He inspired the book's title.)

Boteach has always enjoyed counseling rather than leading a congregation. For 11 years, he served as a rabbi at Oxford University, where he founded the L'Chaim Society, an organization that ran a popular speakers' program. He says, "We hosted everyone from Mikhail Gorbachev to Jerry Springer. We had great debates, but I found that the students wanted to talk about their relationships more than anything else."

To the rabbi, love is the quest for redemption from the great abyss of anonymity. He isn't surprised when people whose uniqueness has never been acknowledged by a significant other feel empty. Yet he's dumbfounded that they don't know what they're missing.

He road-tested the concepts in his book at lectures throughout the world. Routinely, he'd ask women in his audiences how many of them needed a man. In a group of 1,000 women, four or five hands would be raised. His next question would be, "How many of you need a refrigerator?" Every female hand went up.

"An appliance designed to cool food has superseded masculine flesh designed to warm the female heart?" he asks. "I want people to understand that need is good. Unless we can digest and admit that, we will witness the breakdown of heterosexuality as we know it, and the breakdown of love."

Boteach also asked his audiences, "Which is more important to establishing a relationship, compatibility or attraction?" Most ranked compatibility highest. Wrong answer.

"Compatibility has been misconstrued," he says. "If that's what a relationship needs, then why don't men marry men? Men are far more compatible with each other than they are with women. What's needed in relationships is the attraction between the masculine and feminine energies. If that isn't present, all the compatibility in the world isn't going to make you lovers."

The heart of "Why Can't I Fall in Love" is a chapter titled "The Archetypal Couple: Everything I Need to Kow About Falling in Love I Learned in the Garden of Eden." Boteach's allegory is thought-provoking, and it doesn't feel forced.

"I think the Adam and Eve story is the ultimate romance," he says. "The reason it's so beautiful is they immediately fall in love. Eve was not simply the first woman Adam dated, but the first he had ever seen. He was able to love her unconditionally because he had no one to compare her with and beheld her beauty as a thing unto itself. Adam could have said, 'I have seven ribs left. Make me a blond.' He didn't, because he loved Eve with complete innocence."

The rabbi is in no danger of losing his romantic innocence, no matter how many battle stories cynical single warriors tell him. But he does worry about the seductive power of fame. Boteach got a great deal of attention, not all of it positive, for "Kosher Sex," which included explicit advice for married couples. The most severe criticism came from the Orthodox Jewish establishment, which was offended by the book's title and thought that sex guru wasn't an appropriate role for a rabbi. His opponents also disagreed with his policy of welcoming non-Jewish students and speakers to the L'Chaim Society at Oxford.

"The defining characteristic of modern professional life is the lust for celebrity, and I think a lot about how it's affected my life," he says. "I've started turning down TV shows to spend more time with my family. I want to succeed first as a husband and a parent. I can't do what I do to seek renown or be impelled by insecurity. It has to be out of a deep desire to bring healing to the world. I'm still finding my way, but my convictions are firm."

Meeting celebrities has been heady for him, and he naively defines many of them as friends. With Michael Jackson he founded Heal the Kids, an organization whose mission is to combat the pressures forcing children to grow up too fast. When he was a little boy, Jackson was too busy being an entertainer to be a child. Boteach blames his own parents' divorce for shortcutting his childhood. He lived in Los Angeles until his parents split up when he was 8, then moved to Miami with his mother.

"When your parents divorce, you're forced to become Henry Kissinger," he says. "Being a child of divorce was the formative experience of my life. It left me with a phenomenal commitment to the institution of marriage. Not for religious reasons, not because I have conservative values, but because I believe that marriage is what we all most want, because it makes each of us the center of someone's universe."

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