He’s a deeply religious Republican, the father of nine children and a member of the clergy. The House campaign he’s now mulling will be about social conservatism and traditional values.
But Rabbi Shmuley Boteach believes people like Rick Santorum and the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins have it all wrong.
If Boteach makes good on plans to run for the House in New Jersey, conservative politics will be forced to tangle with a new dynamic.
Here is a Republican who calls evangelical Christians his brothers and sisters, but says their focus for the past three decades on gay marriage and abortion has been wholly misguided. The fight of his life has been to save marriage — from heterosexuals, whose 50 percent divorce rate he calls the great modern American tragedy.
“If I hear one more thing about same-sex marriage, I’m going to eat my yarmulke,” he said in an extended telephone interview. “It’s been a massive distraction.”
In his black skullcap and long, dark beard, Boteach is used to navigating the complex boundary between spiritual existence and American public life — and there’s little he hasn’t done.
Boteach was Michael Jackson’s personal spiritual adviser, and published a series of tapes he recorded with the pop icon. He’s written dozens of books, including Kosher Sex and his most recent work, Kosher Jesus. He hosted the television series “Shalom in the Home” for two years on TLC, helping families apply Jewish values to struggles with marriage and parenting.
He is also no unknown commodity in the political arena. When Obama adviser Samantha Power, whom he calls a close friend, was accused of being anti-Israel, Boteach defended her in columns and urged Jewish leaders to take a closer look.
Moammar Gadhafi owned the house next door to him in Englewood, N.J., and tried to pitch his infamous tent there in 2009, leading Shmuley to spearhead efforts to keep out the former Libyan leader.
Boteach said he’s especially thankful to God for his friendship with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), whom Boteach said has joined him from time to time for Torah study.
“He’s a real reformer,” Cantor told The Hill. “He is really someone who wants to try to do well by repairing the world, and to help those in need and instill some values back into the fabric of the country. And he does a lot of good.”
Cantor and Shmuley worked alongside Cory Booker, the Newark, N.J., mayor and rising Democratic star, to support a national “family night” initiative to encourage families to eat dinner together. That’s one of many ways Boteach said government can encourage the moral values that will facilitate cohesive families.
Boteach wants to recreate the concept of an American Sabbath, in part by reinstating the blue laws that are still in effect in New Jersey’s Bergen County, where Boteach and his family live. He wants to address American materialism and a cultural psychology that he argued promotes spending more than you take in. He has proposed creating a tax deduction for marriage counseling to incentivize couples to stay together.
“American kids are being raised like yo-yos, going from household to household, and nobody seems to give a damn,” he said.
But even if he wins the Republican nomination — Boteach has informed the county GOP of his plans to run and said he will make a final decision within weeks — this Hasidic rabbi has an uphill path to Congress.
Boteach plans to run in the same New Jersey district where two Democratic incumbents, Reps. Bill Pascrell and Steve Rothman, are both running already. Redistricting dismantled Rothman’s old district and forced him to either run against neighboring Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) in a more conservative district or fight an intra-party primary battle against Pascrell in the Democratic district that absorbed the rest of his territory.
With two incumbents vying for one seat, Democrats will likely sink major resources and energy campaigning there before the general election even begins, said Brigid Harrison, a political scientist at Montclair State University. And the district has been so heavily gerrymandered that it’s almost impossible for a Republican to succeed.
“The odds of a challenger pulling off a victory are pretty slim,” Harrison said.
In 2008, Garrett was challenged by Rabbi Dennis Shulman, a Democrat, who was endorsed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, The New York Times and others. But he lost to Garrett, the state’s most conservative congressman, by about 15 points.
With a head start on name recognition and a national network of supporters who would likely pitch in, Boteach will be in a position to dramatically alter the dynamics of the race — even if he loses.
The early stages of the Rothman-Pascrell primary have shown how quickly political brinksmanship can turn cordial relationships sour, but it’s hard to imagine Boteach in an adversarial role. He said the awareness that running for office will lead many to start viewing him as a politician is a major factor in his deliberations.
If emphasizing human dignity has characterized his rabbinical career, it also seems to be his approach to political discourse.
Boteach penned an editorial in The Huffington Post last week thanking Rothman — the man he could face in the fall — for nominating his son, Mendy, to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
“Even if Rothman and I end up later doing battle in the fall, it will never be as dangerous as any of the battles that our service men and women fight daily in hellish warzones against evil terrorists like the Taliban in Afghanistan,” he said.
And when Gov. Chris Christie (R) announced that New Jersey would fly the flag at half-mast in honor of pop icon Whitney Houston, Boteach called him a bold leader with moral courage, then said it was a mistake because the honor should be reserved for those who sacrifice in selfless service to the country.
“Our celebrities get plenty of attention. Our soldiers barely get any at all,” he wrote.
There is little doubt a Boteach campaign would be unconventional, but that could be politically advantageous if it plays to his strengths and diverts attention from his party affiliation.
As a spiritual adviser and celebrity rabbi, Boteach’s signature has been to take issues of great contention and sensitivity and offer an approach just foreign enough that listeners, instead of reacting with impulsive opposition, give new consideration to areas where they might agree. His approach to political issues has the same hallmark.
Boteach wants the abortion rate reduced, but says working against the circumstance where pregnant women find themselves single and without resources will do far more than battling over whether to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
He supports civil unions but opposes redefining marriage. But he also points to the Ten Commandments and notes that one tablet outlined moral sins against people, such as murder, theft and adultery. The other outlined sins such as breaking the Sabbath and worshiping idols. Boteach has said homosexual behavior falls in the latter category of things that are wrong because the Old Testament says so; it’s a religious sin, not a moral sin.
It’s a point of view he hopes both evangelicals and gays could accept as legitimate.
In an election year dominated by the economy, unemployment and taxes, Boteach will have a major struggle to convince voters the issues that most concern him should also be top priorities for the federal government.
Boteach said he’ll be running to win, but he’ll consider the exercise worthwhile if it elevates the values that other politicians aren’t talking about.
“I believe the universality of Jewish values has a great deal of healing to bring, particularly at this juncture in history,” he said. “The Jewish community needs a seat at the table of ideas in this great country.”