Rabbi Shmuley Boteach had more in common with Michael Jackson than you might expect. Sure, one is a religious leader famous for his books, television appearances and statements regarding relationships and “kosher sex;” while the other was arguably the biggest pop icon of all time. But beyond that, both were family men at their core.
Jackson, who died in 2009, was notoriously protective of his children and extremely devoted to them — the latter being a quality he shared with Boteach.
The two men met several times toward the end of Jackson’s life to discuss family and the wonder and innocence they called “the child spirit.” The conversations were recorded, and were released on Jan. 11 as a new book, “Honoring the Child Spirit.” The Chronicle caught up with the ever-busy rabbi to talk about Jackson’s legacy.
The Jewish Chronicle: What was the purpose, for you, of putting this book together?
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach: I was Michael’s rabbi, and I was hoping he’d be able to get his life together. One of the most important things in that process was simply explaining himself. Michael had a lot to say about what parents could learn from children. This book is telling parents the opposite of what they normally hear, which is “Your kids need you, and if you don’t prioritize them, they’ll grow up scarred.” This book says, “You need your kids, and unless you’re around them, you’ll grow old very quickly.”
JC: Why did you want to keep the format of the book as a question and answer?
RSB: I felt it captured the authenticity of the message. A lot of people were disparaging of Michael’s message. They’d say he’s odd, he’s not smart or he’s out to lunch. Had I put words in his mouth, they would have continued saying that. In using his own words, people will judge for themselves. I think a lot of what he says is profound.
JC: Your talks with Michael were pretty extensive. What’s one thing you feel like he taught you?
RSB: He taught me that you can never be too busy for your children. He had every right to give an excuse: “I love you kids, but I need to fly here for a concert.” He never did that. He used to call me and ask if I’d told my kids I love them. I’d say I did. And he’d ask if I looked them in the eye when I said it. I’d say I didn’t remember, and he’d tell me to go back and do it again.
JC: Even after Michael was found innocent of charges brought against him, why do you think the public was so skeptical about his love of children?
RSB: I don’t believe for a moment that Michael was a pedophile, but he did make major mistakes. He confessed to sharing a bed with a child that wasn’t his. I don’t think anything sexual happened; I think Michael saw himself as a big kid, but that doesn’t matter — that was a big no-no. The second reason people remained skeptical is that he was perceived of as strange. If he’s strange, then that bad stuff must be true. That’s why I thought Michael should do books like this.
JC: The book talks a lot about innocence and wonder. Why do you think those concepts are so foreign to most adults?
RSB: Everything today is utilitarian; life is about the end result, the goal. We don’t go to college to get knowledge; we go to get a degree so we can get a job. That explains why Americans are so educated and so ignorant. We’re not studying out of a deep thirst to know, but rather a deep thirst to earn. If you see a beautiful mountaintop, and your first thought is whether you can climb it or turn it into a ski resort, then you can’t just stand by and be awed.
JC: How will Michael Jackson be remembered?
RSB: Michael’s death was absolutely tragic. But for the public, it was almost redemptive. Since he died, so much of that hatred has disappeared. He’ll be remembered as an artistic genius who inspired a lot of people by his song and dance, but also by the social messages behind his lyrics. Michael was very proud of the fact that his lyrics weren’t “I want to do you, baby,” they were, “Heal the world.” What a waste; what a shame. He’ll be sorely missed.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)