Rabbi Shmuley Unleashed

This week I visited South Africa on a lecture tour to three of its cities. It is not my first trip to South Africa since the end of apartheid. It’s my fifth. Still I never cease to marvel at the miracle of racial harmony that is this remarkable nation. In Cape Town you don’t feel it as much, seeing the white and black populations do not seem to be as integrated. But in Johannesburg and elsewhere it’s an incredible thing to see whites and blacks living and interacting together as if nothing had ever kept them apart.

The problems of post-apartheid South Africa are well-known and revolve principally around violence in its major cities. Homes in Johannesburg have a fortress-like quality to them and you cannot spot one that doesn’t have either barbed wire or, better, and electrified wiring atop a high stone wall. But all the residents agree the crime has subsided dramatically and the South African economy seems to growing a lot better than it is in the United States. While there are still some shanty towns, South Africa strikes one as modern, forward-looking, and upbeat. It is, quite simply, one of the finest places in the world to visit.

There are some obvious similarities between South Africa and Australia – where I visit so often seeing that my wife is from Sydney – which explains why tens of thousands of South African exiles chose to emigrate to Australia more than any other country. But the obvious difference is that for the most part Australia is a homogenous society of whites. True, there are many Asians and a scattering of Aboriginals in the big cities. But what you feel most in Australia – itself one of the most beautiful countries in the world – is a white country flourishing in its own self-contained continent. South Africa could not be more different. It’s a country of blacks with many whites. It has a large and thriving Islamic population and its Jewish community is vibrant, philanthropic, and well-established. It has all the flavor of Africa yet set in a first world economy. It has lessons to share with all the world about racial coexistence. I don’t live here. I am only on a guest. But here are some of the obvious lessons that come to mind the mind of a visitor.

1. South African blacks possess an incredible capacity for forgiveness. True, there is the occasional black demagogue who preaches prejudice and revenge against whites. But they are the tiny exception that proves the overall rule. The black leadership of South Africa is committed to total racial harmony and it’s impressive. And when you compare it to what’s going on next-door with their neighbor, the murderous dictator Robert Mugabe, responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of whites and blacks, you get a good idea of how remarkable the South African black community is. When I visited Zimbabwe last year I saw a country paralyzed with fear. In South Africa I see a country flourishing amid cohesiveness and forgiveness.

2. It all comes down to leadership. Few would argue that Nelson Mandela is the most respected statesman alive. With good reason. The man is that rare human who somehow transcended what life did to him. In a world where so many emerge so utterly twisted by life’s complications – not to mention its tribulations – Mandela is a man utterly uncomplicated. In the simplicity of his convictions he inspired a nation to transcend its troubled history and move into a brighter future. The South African book stores are filled with his new best-seller which focuses on Mandela in his own words. If any American wants to know how the country must have viewed Washington while he was alive during revolutionary times, just come to South Africa. Mandela is a man revered. There is also the incredible fact of his having let go of power after a single term in office as President, an act that reminds this American of Washington surrendering his commission to Congress as soon as the revolutionary war was won.

3. Culture can unite people in ways that few other things can. Wherever you go in South Africa you feel the deep-ingrained African culture. True, it is a modern country and one cannot discount the qualities brought to this part of Africa by Europeans who gave it its modern hew. But none of that erases the deep feel of Africa that surrounds you at every turn. America, whose culture increasingly is that of fast-food, reality TV, and a salacious recording industry has much to learn from how South Africa has held on to an older culture that brings together young and old, black and white, religious and secular.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s newest book is ‘Honoring the Child Spirit: Learning and Inspiration from Our Children.’ Follow his trip to Africa on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.


Touché. The man has a point. America as a nation would probably get an overall A in the success department but a D minus in getting along with each other. With half the population divorced, families disintegrating all around us, and some nutjob shooting up innocent bystanders about every other week, we clearly have demonstrated something of an inability to master interpersonal relationships, both with those we love most as well as strangers.


But I have a variation on Brooks’ argument. The draconian parenting advocated by Chua in her book breeds a real and potentially toxic narcissism. In essence her argument is that we must raise children with an extreme focus on self. Our kids are brought into this world not to be a blessing to others through a life of service but to become immensely successful, with success defined narrowly and almost exclusively in terms of personal achievement. A success is a concert pianist and a Nobel prize winner, an Olympic Gold medalist, a billionaire businessman, and a powerful politician. Great. Knock yourself out. But I counsel some of these “successful” people. Their lives are often ill-balanced and given their egos’ strangle-hold on their happiness, they often struggle to find meaning and purpose beyond the dictates of their ambition.


Sure, we can all agree with Chua that TV and video games are a waste of time and I endorse her call for far greater discipline in parenting. But where does selflessness figure in the values by which she raises her children? Should every child really be raised believing that the greatest gift they can give the world is to inflict their vast achievement on it?


Indeed her book has generated such a wide readership precisely because American parents seem so much more interested these days in raising successful rather than good children, kids who excel at making money rather than making friends, at obtaining status rather than obtaining wisdom, at winning championships rather than championing a cause larger than themselves.


I wonder what the Amy Chua’s of this world do when one of their kids expresses a desire to be, say, a Rabbi, Priest, or teacher? Do you rent your garments and don sackcloth and ashes? Or do you simply them, OK, but only if you rise to be Chief Rabbi, the Pope, or the secretary of education?


Here’s the thing. I want my kids to be successful, sure. But more than anything I want them to be soulful and moral. Yes, I would like to see them prosper, afford nice things, and earn the admiration of their peers. But damn it, if money and status become more important to them than being ethical, altruistic, and giving then I have utterly failed as a parent.


My friend Dennis Prager, the radio host and author, tells a story of a woman who bragged to him that her children were top doctors and lawyers. He asked her, “Are they good people?” “Why of course,” she responded. And then his clincher. “Then why didn’t you tell me that first?”


I am proud when my kids show me a good report card. But I receive real joy when people who have met them tell me how respectful and warm they are.


Let us reemphasize the point. If you raise kids who get into Julliard and Yale – Chua’s favorite playgrounds – but they are selfish egotists, you blew it.


To the Amy Chua’s of this world I ask this question: Is America really missing success, or are we beginning to squander that success through an erosion of values? Success without values always ends in misery and failure.


That does not mean I dismiss many of Chua’s important points. I too have been mostly opposed to sleepovers because they involve no sleep before they are over. The kids come back dead tired and blow the next day. And often there is no parental supervision to speak of.


Kids should not be veging in front of TV’s and the last thing a chil
d needs for their healthy development is to beat up a hooker with a lead pipe on a video game.


I do believe that American kids are spoiled and indulged and that far too many parents seem to be afraid of their kids. Afraid of saying no, afraid of giving simple, unalterable rules, afraid of giving them chores and responsibilities around the house. Why? First and foremost because we have such bad marriages these days that for many a parent their principal form of affection comes not from a spouse but from their children. And the last thing they’re going to do is bite the hands that feeds them. Second, we can’t say no to our kids because we feel guilty about how we neglect them as we ourselves veg in front of a TV. And finally, discipline takes a lot of out of you and we’re so tired and stressed from our jobs, where we invest the major part of our creativity, that we arrive home a depleted wreck, scarcely able to muster the strength to stand up to our children.


But there is also an overarching, pernicious American belief that the essence of good parenting is giving your kids all the things you yourself didn’t have as a child. But by giving your kids all the material things you lacked, you are robbing them of the one big thing you did have, namely, pride in your own effort and achievement. We’re not supposed to give our kids everything. They’re supposed to earn it.


But what Chua doesn’t seem to recognize is the need, as Maimonides expressed it,  for moderation in all things. And this is especially true of parenting. Effective child-rearing involves finding the balance between how much we ought to actively chisel our children into what we believe is the perfect image versus passively allowing their own personalities and gifts to unfold.


But what most rubbed me the wrong way is Chou’s seeming insistence that having a kid who can play the piano or the violin is the ultimate in success. I believe in developing a child’s potential. But our kids aren’t a bunch of circus monkeys that we’re just supposed to train to impress teachers, ace exams, and perform in front of admiring audiences. They are people too and we have to help then find a personal truth that accords with their unique gifts and disposition. King Solomon expressed it wisely: Educate a child according to his way.


In the final analysis what Chua exhibits above all else is considerable insecurity. She tells her children that they risk becoming losers, which is what she terms anyone who is second-best. Life is a winner-takes-all competition and Chua’s ambition rules her like a demon. Yet she thinks nothing of coercing her children into the same cult  of demonic possession.


At Oxford I met many people like Chua. They inevitably ended up, like her, as professors at elite universities. Their rigidity and obsession with success ensured that they never took real risks, preferring tenured and comfortable positions for life to the rough-and-tumble of entrepreneurship. For all their ambition people like Chua would never go into politics, for example, for fear of allowing a force outside themselves to determine their fate, the fear of failure precluding the ability to take real chances.


And are we really be loving to our children when we raise them in a climate of overarching fear?



Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has just published ‘Honoring the Child Spirit: Learning and Inspiration from Our Children.’ He is previously published the critically-acclaimed parenting manuals ‘Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Your Children’ and ‘Parenting with Fire.’ Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.




On Tuesday night, December 14, Rosie O’Donnell and I will be
conducting a public conversation in New Jersey about families and kids, the
celebrity culture and the affects of fame, balancing work and career, and
learning how to inspire our children.


It’s a subject Rosie is eminently qualified to address. This is, after
all, the woman who walked away from one of television’s most successful
programs and tens of millions dollars per year in order to raise her children.
It will be followed by a fundraiser for Turn Friday Night Into Family Night,
our national campaign to create weekly family dinners so that children are
prioritized in the lives of their parents.




So forty percent of
Americans in a Pew Research and Time magazine poll think that marriage is
caput. And who can blame them? Marriage in our time is such a bore that eighty
percent of married couples use their one date night a week, usually a Saturday,
to go to a movie. Here they have an evening to finally get to know each other
again as man and woman rather than Mom and Dad and the silence is so deafening
that they require Hollywood noise to fill the empty spaces.