My daughters are not allowed to date until they are ready for marriage. I thought (hoped?) that that time would never come. But my eldest, Mushki, who is pushing 19, wants to meet a young Jewish prince with whom she will stand under a chuppah. Since she is a college student in her second year, I told her that perhaps she should wait. But she then sinisterly used my own articles about the blessings of marrying young against me, and I had to capitulate.
The process has not been without anxiety on my part. My upcoming book "The Broken American Male" examines the shallow nature of today’s men, who increasingly use money as a currency by which to purchase self-esteem and whose attraction to women is entirely of the body and rarely of the soul. The Orthodox Jewish dating scene, once a paragon of spiritual standards, has passively allowed the infiltration of these secular values. Many yeshiva students seek out girls with money as a status symbol. An even greater number prize physical beauty over spiritual virtue, which in turn leads the young women to starve their bodies even as they impoverish their souls in pursuit of the lean physique that has become so prized among men. Some seminary girls are starving themselves even to death, like the tragedy of the chasidic girl whom my daughter knew in Israel who died of anorexia last year. What guarantee, then, does a father have today that his daughter will date and marry a gentleman?
For me, the answer to that question always lay in my choice to affiliate myself with Lubavitch. I have always viewed chasidut, Chabad’s penetrating insights into kabbalah, as the single most effective antidote to a shallow life. Only the study of the mystical soul of Judaism would ensure that I grew up to be not just religious but spiritual, not just ritually observant but sacredly connected. It was for this reason that at the age of 14 I took the monumental step, much to my mother’s dismay, of leaving home and traveling 3,000 miles away to study in a Chabad yeshiva. Two years later, I went even further and spent two years in Jerusalem, followed by another two years, where the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent me even further, to Sydney, Australia, to help found a rabbinical college. After I married (young), the rebbe shipped me off to Oxford, where I served as his emissary for many years and where I developed an unquenchable desire to make Judaism a light to the whole world. But then the rebbe died and I had a major falling-out with the Chabad leadership because of my outreach to non-Jews. Ever since then, I had reconciled myself to the somewhat lonely status of being a Lubavitcher without a community. I compensated for my sense of isolation by becoming integrated into the mainstream Jewish community, even as I gave my children Chabad names and continued to essentially raise them within the Chabad mold.
What I did not know was whether my children would grow up and make the choice to be Lubavitch, as I had done. So when my daughter told me that she wanted to marry a Chabad rabbi and go to a university town where she could do outreach with students, as I and her mother had done, at first I was pleased, but then I was frightened. What if my prospective son-in-law rejected me and my values? On any given Friday night, our Shabbat table is filled with Jews, non-Jews, African-Americans, bohemian TV producers, atheist journalists, devout Christians, and sometimes Jews for Jesus (whom I meet at my debates against Christian missionaries). My kids are used to this. But would someone who disagreed with my Jewish universalism pull my daughter away from me? Would my daughter, who has been raised to believe that Jewish wisdom should illuminate the earth, suddenly become more insular and parochial if the family into which she married shunned her father’s values?
Who am I and where do I fit in? This is the existential question I have been forced to confront as my daughter embarks on her matrimonial journey.
My children have told me that they have detected a desire in me, over the past few years, to reconnect with my Chabad roots. They want to know why. I tell them that, first, strange as it may sound, I dream about the rebbe all the time. I loved him deeply and I am amazed that more than a dozen years after his passing his memory continues to stir and haunt me. I have had the privilege of meeting saints and savants all over the world. But none can approach the vastness and depth of the rebbe’s love for humanity, and no Jew I have met has ever demonstrated a more profound commitment to his people. Second, the more I travel to faraway places, the more I am amazed by the work Chabad does for forlorn individuals in the most remote locations.
In my professional life since leaving Chabad employment, I have had the enormous privilege of serving as an ambassador of my people. I am proud of being a rabbi with yarmulke and tzitzit on national TV who seeks to heal mostly non-Jewish families in crisis. But I do not fool myself into believing that my contribution to my people approximates the Chabad emissary whom I recently met in Anchorage, Alaska, who built a mikveh and a Jewish day-school in a place where there would otherwise be none.
The Talmud says that a man without a home is not a man. But the same might be said of a man without a community. True, I am a Jew, and my people are my home. But it was Chabad that gave me a passion for my Judaism that has never diminished and a love for my people that has never dissipated.
The prophet Malachi said that the hearts of the fathers would be restored through their children. Since my daughter’s announcement that she wished to marry within Chabad, I have begun to ponder the words of Sigmund Freud concerning "strange mystical yearnings, the more powerful the less they can be expressed in words," that were pulling him toward his people. I too feel those yearnings pulling and tugging. Pulling me home, pulling me home.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach will be visiting and lecturing in Israel for Sukkot. His most recent book is "Shalom in the Home."