Shmuley Boteach, the orthodox rabbi, reality-TV host, and self-help guru now running for Congress as a Republican in northern New Jersey, has a lot of friends. Over the course of a 90-minute interview, he drops the names of the following pals: Michael Jackson, Benjamin Netanyahu, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Joe Lieberman, Jon Corzine, Frank Lautenberg, Dr. Phil, Samantha Power, surgeon-turned-TV personality Mehmet Oz, Eric Cantor, and Daniel Shapiro, President Obama’s ambassador to Israel.
Only two of these people, you’ll notice, are firmly on the right. “It is absolutely true to say, beyond any cliché, that my closest friends are Democrats and liberals, and always have been,” he says. His campaign manager, Jason Kitchen, is a self-described “staunch liberal” who previously worked for Michael Moore. Boteach has a beloved gay brother and says he believes that the GOP’s “obsession with social and sexual values is ruining this country.” Traditionally, he’s voted as an independent, and his reputation for progressivism was such that he was invited to be co-chairman of Rabbis for Obama in 2008. (He declined.)
The mystery of his campaign, then, is why he suddenly wants to trade his comfortable perch as a pop-religious icon for the partisan grind of the GOP congressional caucus. This is someone, after all, who used to appear on Oprah and who had a family-counseling show, Shalom in the Home, on TLC. Newsweek once described him as “the most famous rabbi in America.” A polarizing political campaign could destroy the broad-based appeal he’s spent a lifetime constructing. Why risk it just for a chance to become the first rabbi in the House of Representatives?
The answer has something to do with sex, something to do with the Middle East, and something to do with Theodore Roosevelt. And maybe something to do with publicity, too.
“I have been very significantly impacted by Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Man in the Arena’ speech,” says Boteach, a 45-year-old father of nine with a scraggly beard and piercing blue eyes. In that speech’s most famous passage, Roosevelt said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.” Says Boteach, “I don’t think you can change the system without being something of an insider.”
Part of what Boteach wants to change is the GOP’s approach to moral issues. Like others in his party, he says a crisis of values underlies our various political problems, but he has a different idea than most about the nature of that crisis. For him, it’s about family, not sex. It might seem a subtle distinction, but it means that instead of harping on gay marriage, abortion, and contraception, he champions a quirky menu of policies designed to protect familial closeness, like tax-deductible marriage counseling and blue laws to keep shops closed on Sundays, forcing people to spend more time with their kids.
National blue laws are probably a nonstarter. They’d curtail both personal and corporate freedom and violate states’ rights; pushing them could successfully unite right and left in furious opposition. More interesting than Boteach’s policy ideas, though, is his hope of fashioning a version of family-values conservatism that isn’t sexually puritanical. As a rabbi, he’s convinced that Judaism can light the way.
“We don’t believe that sex is for procreation,” Boteach says. “We love children—I have nine kids. And yet we believe in great sex, passionate sex, electrifying sex. Sex is for intimacy, and the Bible makes that absolutely clear.” So do Boteach’s books, which include Kosher Sex, The Kosher Sutra, and Kosher Adultery: Seduce and Sin With Your Spouse.
Contrast this vision of conjugal kink with traditional Christianity, which tends to treat sex as, at best, a necessary evil. Boteach sees something politically problematic in “the emphasis on the celibacy of Jesus, the virginity of Mary, let alone the immaculate conception, culminating in Paul’s letters where he speaks about the importance of celibacy” and presents marriage as an inferior alternative. “This is in sharp contradistinction to Judaism, where virginity and celibacy is a grave sin. God loves the love between a man and a woman. In our religion God was the first matchmaker.”
This doesn’t get us much closer, however, to Boteach’s reasons for running for Congress—much less for running for Congress as a Republican. The House of Representatives, after all, seems a less-than-ideal venue for urging conservatives to rethink the theological underpinnings of the culture war. And if you really believe that sexual repression is a toxic element in our politics, why align yourself with the GOP?
It may be because, for all of Boteach’s heterodoxy on social policy, he is at bottom a classic neoconservative. “One of the principal reasons that I chose to be a Republican is because of a more aggressive, pro-democracy foreign policy,” he says. “I believe that George W. Bush, for the most part, had a very moral foreign policy that I applaud.”
Boteach is no Obama hater. The president, he says, is “a great friend of the Jewish people, and to say anything else is character assassination.” He believes that Shapiro, Obama’s ambassador to Israel, is the best Israel ambassador the United States has ever had. But on most Middle Eastern issues, he’s in deep disagreement with the president. He’s critical of Obama for failing to intervene in Syria—he believes the U.S. should be arming the rebels—and for not taking the lead on Libya. He opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and thinks that Jews should be allowed to settle anywhere they like between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
Come November, though, Boteach will almost certainly face off against an opponent with impeccably hawkish credentials on Israel. Because of redistricting, two sitting congressmen, Steve Rothman and Bill Pascrell, are battling for the Democratic nomination; Rothman is expected to win. Rothman is a liberal on many things, but not on Israel. Last year, he reacted with outrage when Tom Friedman suggested in The New York Times that Congress’s hearty applause for Netanyahu was due as much to pressure from the Israel lobby as to genuine enthusiasm. “I gave Prime Minister Netanyahu a standing ovation, not because of any nefarious lobby, but because it is in America’s vital national-security interests to support the Jewish State of Israel and it is right for Congress to give a warm welcome to the leader of such a dear and essential ally,” Rothman wrote.
Boteach, then, will have a hard time outflanking Rothman on Zionism. And without a wedge, Rothman is going to be hard to beat. The district where they’re running is deep blue, and Rothman has cruised through his last seven races with 61 percent of the vote or more.
It’s tempting to think, then, that Boteach is simply searching for a new platform. After all, this is someone who once said that the “11th commandment, which they expunged but which has come down orally, is ‘Thou shalt do anything for publicity and recognition.’” He treasured his relationship with Michael Jackson, whom he still believes was innocent of child molestation, in part because it gave him the chance to harness such enormous public renown. “The reason why I think me and Michael—whose memory I cherish—the reason we got close is that I think he warmed to my challenge to him that he had to use his fame, this gargantuan fame that so few people in the history of the world have ever achieved, for a cause larger than himself,” says Boteach. (That cause, he adds without irony, “was to give children the childhood he had been denied.’)
But Jackson is dead. Oprah is off the air. Boteach is proud of the work he did with Shalom in the Home, which won him a 2007 award from the National Fatherhood Initiative, but he believes that reality TV is devolving, making it ever more difficult to create similar shows. “If you look at the direction of reality TV today, is it still possible, even just a few years later, to really communicate a positive message?” he asks. “It is possible, but it’s much more challenging.”
A political campaign offers a whole new audience. But it also guarantees a level of conflict, and perhaps a level of moral ambiguity, unlike anything a genial celebrity rabbi usually has to face. “This is the great beyond,” he says. “I’d be lying if I told you that it’s all going to work out great. God willing.”