Question: Who was your greatest influence?
Shmuley Boteach: I chose to become a rabbi because of one person who influenced me, believe it or not. Well first and foremost my mother influenced me. My mother is an incredibly courageous woman who raised five kids on her own. You never forget that kind of sacrifice. You never forget that kind of selflessness. I remember one night, for example, that at the height . . . in the throws of a bad marriage, sort of the last death throws of her marriage, my mother took us driving somewhere in a new car that her parents had bought for her. It was a red Chevy station wagon. And there was a hurricane outside. It was raining so bad. You had to swim. The car is sitting there treading water, and the car broke done. It was always breaking down, this car. And I’ll never forget this. My mother made us stay inside so we wouldn’t get wet. And she sat there putting her hand into the hood trying to open it, and she cut her hand open. And then she gave up on the car, and she was gonna flag another car in this torrential downpour, and she still wouldn’t let us get out of the car. We were just little kids. She just didn’t want us to get wet. Little vignettes like that were, you know . . . that’s my mother’s essence. She’s alive, thank God. She’s about 65. So she was the first one to influence me. She became a model of true selflessness, goodness, kindness, compassion, devotion, commitment, and she’s been my hero ‘til today.
Topic: A sturdier personality.
Shmuley Boteach: My father is a much more stronger, sturdier kind of personality. He was a bit emotionally detached because he didn’t have an easy life. He grew up in poverty stricken Iran – a Jewish family in Iran there. With the Muslim majority, you weren’t always treated like you were welcome or wanted. So I think he steeled himself against that. So it was more difficult for me to reach him, but I did learn to respect and to be inspired by his perseverance, his tenacity. He came as an immigrant to this country barely speaking the language. And just the determination that he showed – he built up a business. He, you know . . . Amidst several setbacks on the way he never gave up. So I learned tenacity from him. there was this one rabbinical student who took an interest in me. I don’t know, he saw something in me. First of all my parents divorced. My father wasn’t around. Again, this is at a time when in Orthodox Jewish families, divorce was really rare. So I didn’t have a father around. Everyone else did. And he became a surrogate father figure to me even though he was only four years older than me. He studied with me. He walked with me. He spoke to me. He visited me. It is only because of him that I became a Rabbi. He gave me my passion for Judaism. He gave me my passion for social service. He gave me my passion for commitment to social change. He gave me my love of studying the Torah and studying Jewish texts. And it was because of him at the age of 14 I decided . . . I took a very radical step. I got up from Miami, left my family to go to a rabbinical seminary at the age of 14. I see myself as an exponent of values. That’s how I most see myself. I . . . My passion is to make the world better by getting people to make choices based on values – on important values. Some people feed the hungry and clothe the naked and they’re great people – much greater than I am – but my contribution to the world is to get people to think in terms of values so that the decisions they make . . . the choices that they make, which will ultimately determine their character, their lives, what they become, what they do . . . those choices are based on something that’s grounded in eternity. Not ephemeral choices, not things that are about immediate gratification of the senses, but . . . not what we want, but what we really, really want. And here I am quoting the Spice Girls. That’s pretty sad. So something that caters to our innermost will. And I promote those values through a variety of mediums. Lectures to audiences is one. Books is another. I’ve authored 19 books now, thank God, on a variety of issues, mostly about human relationships because I think that’s the essence of values – how we relate to people, whether we keep our families intact, how we raise our children, the monogamy and passion we show to our wives and to our husbands. I also am a television host. I host a show called “Shalom in the Home”. I’m, I guess, a regular television commentator on political, social, relationship and religious issues. But everything I do comes under that rubric of values because I’m a rabbi. I mean I am a rabbi. That’s what I am. I make no apologies for being a rabbi, meaning even when it suited my purposes to maybe drop the title to be more accessible to a mainstream, non-Jewish American public – Jews are 2% of the American population – I never . . . Not only did I never think of dropping the title, I never thought of not using the title. My books are “Rabbi Shmuley”. On television on “Shalom in the Home” on TLC, I’m Rabbi Shmuley. If I’m a guest on FOX News, or CNN, or MSNBC, or the “Today Show”, I’m Rabbi Shmuley. On Oprah, I’m Rabbi Shmuley. I’m very proud of being a rabbi because a rabbi is a teacher. A rabbi teaches people values. So that’s what I do.
Recorded on: 09/05/2007