In the aftermath of his death, everyone had their own private Michael Jackson. Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was no exception. For a brief idyll, Boteach served in an unofficial capacity as Michael Jackson’s spiritual advisor and his partner in an initiative to encourage parents to prioritize their children. The rabbi and the pop star were going to save the kiddies, preserve families, and make the world a better place.
Both men were driven by formative early traumas. Jackson spent his adult life trying to experience the childhood that had been sacrificed on the altar of prepubescent superstardom. Boteach was traumatized by his parents’ divorce and has spent his career trying to save marriages and shamelessly promote the Rabbi Shmuley Boteach brand.
This odd couple made sense for a little while. The rabbi and the pop star fed into each other’s fantasies. Jackson needed good press: He wanted to be seen as a selfless advocate for children rather than the world’s biggest freak. Boteach, who fancies himself “America’s Rabbi,” got a contact high from Jackson’s fame. He aspires to be the Semitic Billy Graham, the public face of Judaism. Being bestest buddies with the man behind the biggest-selling album of all time could only raise his national profile.
So Boteach and Jackson sat down to record a series of marathon conversations about faith, family, fame, and parenthood that form the basis of The Michael Jackson Tapes. Boteach insists that he published The Michael Jackson Tapes because Jackson wanted the self-promoting rabbi to record their conversations for posterity, then turn them into a book. But when Jackson made that request—if he made that request—he and Boteach were partners, friends, and allies.
Jackson and Boteach had a bitter falling-out at the start of the decade, so it’s safe to assume that any agreements they may have had about the publication of these interviews became null and void once their friendship ended in acrimony. If your college girlfriend offers to do anything for you sexually shortly before you break up, that doesn’t mean that 15 years later, you can storm into her house, race past her husband and children, and angrily demand a blowjob on a merry-go-round.
Yet that somehow did not dissuade Boteach from publishing the book, though he at least had the decency to wait until Jackson was dead and could not sue him. Early in Tapes, Boteach writes, “I completed a working draft of the book in the year or two after our conversations ended. People who read it said they never knew Michael could be such a deep and inspiring personality. Many of my most well-read friends told me they cried through the manuscript. Like many others, they had earlier dismissed Michael as a mindless and shallow celebrity materialist who was hopelessly weird. The sensitive personality revealed in the conversations, however, was introspective, knowledgeable, forgiving and deeply spiritual.”
Boteach promises to reveal a new, deeper, more profound Michael Jackson. Yet the Michael we meet in Tapes is very much the myopic man-child of the public imagination, a giggly space cadet who fetishizes the innocence of children, lives in a womb-like bubble, and stopped maturing mentally and emotionally well before the onset of puberty. He’s a man who insists that Shirley Temple posters be festooned over the walls of every hotel he stays in, and devotes more time and thought to staging elaborate water-balloon fights than to his increasingly irrelevant music. It’s not as if Tapes finds Jackson suddenly discoursing about Foucault or the sub-prime mortgage crisis, either; Boteach sticks doggedly to a handful of topics he’s certain will keep the pill-addled pop icon’s attention.
Boteach asserts throughout that Jackson was straight and was constantly remarking on the attractiveness of women. Grown women. With whom he wished to fornicate. On account of him being heterosexual and sexually attracted to adults and all. I sincerely hoped that somewhere deep in the transcripts lie exchanges that could back up Boteach’s dubious assertion of Jackson’s raging heterosexuality, banter like:
Michael Jackson: That Angelina Jolie’s got quite a pair of dick-sucking lips. I bet she could suck the chrome off a tailpipe. Oh man, the things I would do with those funbags! She’d need a wheelchair after I was done fucking her!
Rabbi Shmuley: Michael, Michael! Always with the sincere, genuine expressions of heterosexual lust! You’re incorrigible! But we need to find you a nice wife, not some trollop who runs around with her tuchas out, kissing a lot of guys!
Instead, the best Boteach can muster is an anecdote about Jackson asking him to set him up on a date with Katie Couric. Boteach sees this as conclusive proof of Jackson’s heterosexuality; surely only a raging heterosexual would want to go on a coffee date with a sunny, unavailable mom-type. Jackson tells Boteach his dream woman is a cross between Mother Theresa, Princess Di, and Katie Couric. Is that too much to ask? Jackson looked everywhere for the ideal woman—his living room, his kitchen, even the Tilt-A-Whirl at Neverland Ranch—yet he just couldn’t find her, though nothing would please Rabbi Shmuley more than his spiritual protégé getting hitched.
Reading The Michael Jackson Tapes, it’s important to remember that Boteach had a sideline ghostwriting articles and speeches for Jackson. His job was literally to put words in Jackson’s mouth. Those words, not surprisingly, looked an awful lot like the ideas and philosophies of one Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Here’s a typically leading Boteach “question.”
SB: Would your message to Britney Spears be, “Look, you’re pretty and talented. You don’t need the sleaze. You’re so talented without pulling everything off so that people will look at you. Like Madonna, who’s often been criticized for taking advantage of the male sexual drive to sort of get all these guys hunkering after her to make her popular.”
MJ: Yeah, uh-huh. Aha.
Those aren’t even words, they’re noises! Boteach isn’t interested in Michael Jackson as an interview subject or thinker: He’s interested in him as a powerful conduit for Boteach’s own ideas. He wants to put his thoughts inside Jackson so he can posit them as the moral philosophy of one of the richest, most famous celebrities in the world. So instead of asking Jackson an open-ended question like “What do you think about Britney Spears?” he tells Jackson what to think, then dares him to disagree.
On an objective level, Spears really does need the sleaze. She isn’t particularly pretty or talented. If she were to rely on talent alone, she’d still be playing open-mic nights. Boteach’s “question” says more about the interviewer than the interviewee. I love how he accuses Madonna of “taking advantage of the male sex drive” as if the blameless men of the world were all innocently studying the Talmud when Madonna suddenly appeared in a push-up bustier to get them all hunkering after her.
That is far from Boteach’s final word on the subject. Earlier, he writes:
Michael had invited me to his hotel suite to meet Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, who had flown in to see him the day after they’d jointly hosted the American Music Awards. I was, at that time, not at all enamored of Britney Spears for her sexualization of teenage girls in America. Still, I behaved myself and spoke to them briefly about our efforts to get parents to prioritize their children. Neither of them seemed particularly interested and we didn’t really click. Justin said something about contacting his manager or agent. They were there to meet the superstar. I don’t mean to be insulting, but I found them unimpressive and forgettable. With all of Michael’s myriad flaws, he had infinitely more class. Michael Jackson at least knew how to treat people with dignity and make them feel important, something for which the new generation of stars could use some tutoring.
What exactly was Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears’ crime in that vignette? That they inexplicably seemed more interested in meeting the biggest icon of their youth than a pushy rabbi giving them the hard sell on joining his quixotic crusade? Note how Boteach pats himself on the back for not spitting in Spears’ face and calling her a whore. He seemingly wants a cookie and a gold star for behaving himself around people he finds objectionable. He seems to think he was doing Spears and Timberlake a huge favor by telling them about his initiative. The least they could do was tremble in awe at his presence and promise to do everything in their power to help him.
When he isn’t having Jackson parrot his ideas about modesty, family, spirituality, and responsibility, Boteach spends a lot of time shamelessly flattering his subject. On consecutive pages, Boteach asks first,
SB: Do you feel that children have bigger hearts than adults? What causes them to shrink? Why didn’t yours shrink? The more famous people become, the less love they have in their hearts because they become more self-absorbed. What makes people go from being big-minded to being small-minded, to being petty? Because they feel intimidated. They feel that their dreams were not realized and they become defensive. So your defense mechanism is to judge, to dismiss. What makes us get smaller and why didn’t you get smaller? Why didn’t you become more self-absorbed as you became famous? Why do you care about the rest of the world? You have helicopters and private jets. Why would ordinary children suddenly figure in your life?
SB: Why didn’t success go to your head? You pride yourself on not being arrogant. How did you retain your sensitivity? Why didn’t it go to your head? Why did you visit orphanages? Why didn’t it happen to you? How did you remain large, how did you remain grand and nonjudgmental when you should have become more self-absorbed? It happened to everyone else. You’ve seen it happen to your friends, I’m sure, who’ve had success.
For those keeping track at home, that’s 14 questions, several of which Boteach answers himself. Is this practice of asking questions solely for the sake of answering them yourself a ubiquitous fixture of Jewish thought and rhetoric? Of course it is, don’t be meshuggeneh, but it gets a little ridiculous after a while. Boteach obviously kept asking Jackson questions until his interview subject found one that was worth answering. This wouldn’t be so maddening if the questions weren’t so insane. In what universe did success not go to Michael Jackson’s head? The man built his own theme park, palled around with a chimpanzee, and transformed himself into a hideous ghoul through cosmetic surgery. How are those the acts of a humble, grounded man?
Boteach spends half the book deifying Jackson as a profound, humble, spiritual leader with an important message for humanity, and the other half deriding him as an arrogant, narcissistic megalomaniac who demanded awe and reverence from everyone around him. We each contain multitudes. The author is eager to delineate between Michael Jackson the man—a kind philanthropist who wanted nothing more than to help children in Eastern Europe, who, in Jackson’s words, are chained to feces-smeared walls and forced to sleep in their own “tinkle”—and Michael Jackson the icon, an untouchable deity. Jackson the man desperately wanted to help Rabbi Shmuley on his righteous quest to restore families. But Jackson the icon overruled him at every turn.
The author ends Tapes by casting unstinting judgment on his former friend and partner, using him as the poster child for the mind-warping, soul-crushing effects of fame and celebrity. In a typical passage, he writes:
Like many others who make the similar mistake of thinking that “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” and thus try and wed vulgar popular culture with the spiritual enormity of religion, I did not realize the serious dilution of Judeo-Christianity’s monotheistic message that would result from being twinned with a culture that promotes human beings as gods.
I have since learned from my mistake and have tried to educate my children to know always that no man but God is the real Thriller.
Boteach thinks it’s sad that so many people lust for the limelight. You can find out more about Boteach’s disdain for materialists who glorify themselves and their work instead of God by visiting his YouTube Channel and website, watching tapes of his old TLC reality show, Shalom In The Home, listening to his XM radio program (he also appears on Oprah And Friends), reading his weekly column in The Jerusalem Post, or reading his bestselling books, including Kosher Sex and The Kosher Sutra, which he pimps constantly throughout Tapes. Boteach abhors name-droppers and people who suck up to famous people as well, as do his close personal friends Nobel-winner Elie Wiesel, Deepak Chopra, psychic Uri Geller, and Newark mayor and rising Democratic Party star Cory Booker.
As a book, The Michael Jackson Tapes isn’t entirely devoid of merit. There’s a heartbreaking passage where Jackson wistfully recalls the only nice thing his father ever did for him as a boy—placing him on a pony at a birthday party—and the portions dealing with Jackson’s childhood are predictably poignant. It’s easy to feel sympathy for the sweet, sad, vulnerable lost boy Jackson once was, even as we cringe at what he ultimately became. But Tapes is ultimately the worst kind of posthumous cash-in from a rabbi who accomplishes the seemingly impossible feat of being creepier than Michael Jackson.