The bolt-black SmartCar parks, and out walks Rabbi Shmuley Boteach—spiritual adviser to Michael Jackson, author of Kosher Sex, candidate for U.S. Congress. He crosses the street, doffs his black sunglasses, and apologizes for running a little late to our coffee meeting in his adopted city of Englewood, N.J.
“We just got back from Rwanda,” he says, rubbing his eyes. (“We” are the rabbi and an assistant.) “It takes time to recover from an experience like that.”
The Rwanda visit came during a two-week journey across Africa, a soul-searching interruption of the campaign. He didn’t see it as an interruption. As he wrote in the Huffington Post, where his byline appears several times every month, “I always promised myself that if I ever ran for public office I would highlight anti-genocide legislation as one of the principal planks of my platform.” It makes sense to me, but when I bring it up, he starts defending the trip as if he’s talking to a critic.
“Everyone’s saying that the biggest issue in the campaign is the economy,” says Shmuley. (Note: Nobody calls him “Boteach.”) “And that’s obvious, right? But where I differ is, I don’t think you can fix an economy without a national sense of purpose. I’m reading Robert Caro’s book right now, his latest installation of the LBJ biographies, and you’d be amazed. During JFK’s administration, it was all economics. It’s always economics. And yet if you look at JFK’s inaugural, the most eloquent inaugural of the modern era, it spoke about freedom, and liberty, and America’s responsibility to others. If you frame the economy and everything else within a sense of national purpose, people know why they’re working hard. It’s not just to buy the newest PDA, it’s not just to buy the newest plasma TV.”
Shmuley’s cinnamon dolce latte arrives, as does my frappe. Shmuley takes a swig. He delves deeper into this well-practiced lament about hyper-consumerism and the loss of values. This riff is all over his recent book Renewal, which means he’s promoted it on TV shows, which means he’s written columns about it. If Rabbi Shmuley has an idea, that idea is transmitted to as much media as humanly possible. Shmuley has been a celebrity rabbi—the first and only of his kind—for more than a decade. His campaign literature prints a picture of Shmuley rallying against Muammar Qaddafi when the late dictator wanted a visa. Right above that picture, this bio:
Shmuley has authored 27 books and hosted television and radio programs including ‘Shalom in the Home’ on The Learning Channel, as well as The Rabbi Shmuley radio program on WABC and XM Satellite Radio. He is a regular contributor on Fox News, CNN, and other broadcast outlets, as well as a guest on programs such as The Dr. Phil Show, The Dr. Oz Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and many others.
And now he’s a Republican congressional candidate who will soon reap the gains from a $500,000 Super PAC donation from Sheldon and Miriam Adelson. He tells me that lessons learned in a country that survived genocide work both “microcosmically” and “macrocosmically.”
“When you live for yourself,” he says, “I think your economy corrodes. When you live with a greater sense of purpose, I think you do really well. The United States when it had far higher defense expenditures, during the Cold War, had a far more robust economy for the most part. It stood for something. I think we need to regain that. That’s why I went to Rwanda.”
Democrats hope they can ignore this for a few months. Shmuley’s opponent, Rep. Bill Pascrell, won the seat after a blood-letting primary. He was forced to square off against Rep. Steve Rothman after redistricting forced the two of them into one district across the water from New York. Rothman was Jewish; Pascrell isn’t. Republicans—Shmuley included—exploited that opening by attacking Pascrell’s past support of Imam Mohammad Qatanani. But the Cook Political Report gave the new district a D+11 rating, meaning that it votes about 11 points more Democratic than the country as a whole. “If Joe the Plumber’s bid in OH-09 is a pipe dream,” says Cook’s disturbingly pun-conscious David Wasserman, “Rabbi Boteach’s run in NJ-09 has even less of a prayer.”
But there’s that Super PAC money—equal to one-third of Pascrell’s last campaign budget—and there’s the Israel issue. “Where there is no conflict, where there’s been no terrorism, Israel gives total freedom to 1.5 million Arabs,” says Shmuley. “They have Israeli passports, they can serve in the Knesset.” George W. Bush, whom Shmuley had “the utmost respect” for, understood that. “But now you have a Democratic, African-American president who is really Kissingerian in tone. When the Arab Spring broke out, he made that speech about Israel returning to the 1967 lines. I don’t even know why he made that speech.”
Shmuley rubs his temples. “President Obama broke my heart,” he says. “I’d expected that an African-American president would continue the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., but this time with the powers of the American presidency. That he’d be the foremost advocate and champion of human freedom and human rights in the world.”
The disappointment ran so deep that Shmuley—whose relationship advice and advocacy had never been really partisan—became a Republican candidate. His economic plan is straightforward—a flat tax and a tax credit for businesses that close on a Sabbath day. “There are times when the government needs to be big, like during the Second World War,” says Shmuley. “But the rest of the time, we should go back to what the Founders believed—an entrepreneurial citizenry, a government that is large enough to facilitate those opportunities but no larger.” This is a slight departure from what he’d just said about moments of great national purpose, but it’s the sort of libertarianism you hear from Tea Partiers all the time. As is the Shmuley spiel about regulation. “I’m at the lake with my son, and a water cop comes up to me on a jet ski and gives me a ticket because I’m not wearing a life vest. In two feet of water. That’s a nanny state!”
The tax-credit-for-Sabbaths idea isn’t so common. Shmuley ties it into his over-arching theme of cultural, moral restoration, which in turn he brings back to Michael Jackson. In one of the many tapes Shmuley recorded with Jackson, the pop star spoke of the need for a national Children’s Day, a time set aside to celebrate the whole family. “He made a simple point that was very well-argued,” says Shmuley. “There’s a mother’s day, there’s a father’s day—what about a kid’s day? He said he’d have had a better relationship with his father if, when he was a kid, there was a day where he could tell him ‘Okay, now we do what I want to do.’ When he died, and I wanted to honor his memory in some way, I started Friday Night into Family Night—you can see the website. And we’ve released an audio clip of Michael talking about Children’s Day.”
So far, Shmuley is the only Republican candidate talking about those ideas. But he gets along with the rest of the party. He adores House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, though they “used to talk about the Torah,” and now they talk politics. “He’s an incredibly busy man, but he graciously takes my calls.” When Mitt Romney said that “culture” explained the Israel-Palestinian wealth gap, Shmuley understood it, but gave his own spin. “I feel that in Palestinian culture, there is sometimes a greater regard for defeating Israel than there is for Palestinian interests.”
The interview has to end there, because Shmuley’s got another appointment. “I’m talking about 50 Shades of Grey,” he says. “Do you want to watch? Come on over to the house.” So I follow Shmuley’s SmartCar through the gates, into his stately Englewood home, and watch him turn on a dime to discuss what Christian Grey’s proclivities say about the degraded state of romance. If you switched some words around, he could be talking about the decision he wants Obama voters and liberal Jews to make when they go to vote.
“I go talk to audiences around the world,” he says into a camera, “and I ask them: There’s two factors in a relationship. There’s attraction, and there’s compatibility. Which is more important? All the hands go up for compatibility. We no longer believe that attraction—the raw, carnal desire of a man for a woman—is enough to sustain a relationship.”