Daytime television may soon be getting a little more exciting. This fall, Shmuley Boteach — the TV personality and Orthodox rabbi who isn’t afraid to talk very publicly and very explicitly about sex, intimacy and all things private — is hosting a new talk show, “Divine Intervention.”
In this case, Boteach is that divine intervention — on the show, produced in Toronto by Moses Znaimer, people facing major life challenges approach Boteach for one-on-one advice and counseling. And the vast majority of his advisees aren’t even Jewish.
“No subject is taboo; we deal with absolutely everything,” he told the Forward. “The problems range from infidelity and divorce to platonic marriage, out-of-control kids, eating disorders, irrational fears, and Holocaust survivors who are being re-traumatized by a global surge in anti-Semitism and experiencing debilitating fear.”
Though Boteach does not have any formal training as a therapist, as a rabbi, he has counseled just about everybody: married people, singles, kids, parents, widows, single moms, single dads, gay men, gay women, atheists and agnostics. He’s fully aware that in a short counseling session — especially on TV — his guests likely won’t walk out as changed people with zero problems. He understands that he, alone, cannot make their struggles disappear. “I don’t think I can heal people in a short TV segment,” he said. “But I do think that we can give them insights into what is motivating their behavior, a personal awakening where the person can begin to see why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
Despite the fact that Boteach’s two cents are meant to be some kind of divine intervention, “I’m not a voice coming down from on high,” he said. “I’m a flawed person trying to face life challenges and be a better husband, be a better dad, be a better son, and I relate to peoples’ problems.”
His mother and father divorced when he was just 8 years old, and as a child, he wanted nothing more than for his parents to get back together — in fact, that’s what he asked for when he became a bar mitzvah. Although Boteach feels he’ll never be fully healed from that trauma, half of the 29 books he has written since that time have dealt with relationships, sexuality and dating, inspired by his experience of being a child of divorce.
Boteach’s mother is actually a guest in one episode. “It was the most difficult show that I did because she talked about the breakdown of her marriage,” he told the Forward. “It was painful for me. Gosh, it was very honest. Aspects of it we had discussed, and other aspects, we had never talked about.”
On another episode, a man shares his story of coming out of the closet at age 20, being rejected by his family, and going back into the closet for another 15 years. “Homosexuality comes up a great deal,” said Boteach. “People learning to operate within a society that is both accepting and not at the same time, particularly in religious circles.”
The topics of sexual violence and sexual assault against women came up more than Boteach had expected. The most moving episode, he said, features a 20-year-old guest who had been raped by a close friend. The young woman had had too much to drink at a party, and her friend offered to pick her up and get her home safely. Instead, he sexually assaulted her in a parking lot.
Adultery has been another big one on the show. While production of the show was underway, Ashley Madison, a website that connects married people who want to cheat on their spouses, was hacked. The hackers pressured the Jewish CEO, Noel Biderman, who is a Toronto native, to shut down the site out of moral decency.
“God almighty, this is as disgusting as it gets,” said Boteach, who in 2002 wrote the book “Kosher Adultery: Seduce and Sin with Your Spouse.” “I don’t want to see society censored, but how low do you have to go? People have affairs as it is, and it spirals out of control — I’ve seen tons of that, and I counsel adults in that situation on the show — but to take cold, calculated, premeditated action by going on a dating site for married people? That is moral degeneracy.”
The audience gets involved in these heated debates, too. The show was taped in multicultural Toronto, in front of a live studio audience filled with Canadians and Americans, some secular and others religious. One episode focused on Holocaust survivors coming to terms with present-day anti-Semitism and their crippling belief that this could happen again in North America.
“It was interesting to see how the audience responded to Jews fearing persecution again,” said Boteach. “I turned around and asked the audience — which was comprised overwhelmingly of non-Jews — who was offended by this remark. Some [audience members] were offended by the people on the show saying they were being traumatized by anti-Semitism and saying that there was a murderous instinct within people that could be awakened at any moment. Ours is not a Jewish show; we do have Jewish, Christian, Catholic and parochial subjects, so it was interesting because there are many minorities who feel displaced.”
Despite the sensitive subject matter, Boteach tries to employ humor. “The show isn’t meant to be a somber bummer or a drag; it’s inspirational,” he said. “There are moments that are dark because people have problems, but it’s rather that life is funny and life is painful, and I’d like to think the show reflects all these things, the plethora of the human experience.”
“But at the core, people [who come on the show] are all the same, regardless of religion, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of nationality,” Boteach said. “It’s like what John F. Kennedy said at American University in the summer of 1963 — we all breathe the same air.”
“Divine Intervention” is set to premiere this fall on Canada’s ONE Channel. For more information and to subscribe to ONE, visit: www.ONETV.ca.
Alexandra Levine is the Forward’s summer culture fellow.