Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of the recently published Kosher Jesus, describes himself as “an apostle to non-Jews.” He is also a relationships counselor, rabbi to celebrities, motivational speaker, and frequent guest on American talk radio and cable television. Now, the man who’s been called “America’s Rabbi” seeks another title: United States Congressman.
Boteach is running as a Republican for New Jersey’s Ninth Congressional District in the US House of Representatives. His campaign website’s tagline is, “Congress Needs a Values Voice.” In Part One of this wide-ranging interview with the Times of Israel, Rabbi Shmuley weighs in on the issues and gets personal about what motivates him to get out of bed in the morning.
Are you serious about running for Congress? A Republican hasn’t held New Jersey’s 9th congressional seat since 1982 – three decades. Do you really think you can win?
Well, it’s an uphill battle, but of course I’m serious and confident I can win.
So what’s your pitch? Why should Mr. Average Joe New Jersey vote for you?
I have a values message. The difference between the values that have been guiding this country for 30 years and the values I’m trumpeting are that the values I’m supporting work. You can scream from the mountaintops about gay marriage, for example, and it’s not going to bring down the divorce rate. How does the gay marriage debate plan to save the institution of marriage? There’s no connection. There’s a 50 percent divorce rate, I want to bring that down by half.
Does that mean you support gay marriage?
Let’s leave social issues for a moment. I’ll get back to that. But regarding my pitch to New Jersey voters, number one, I want to make marriage counseling tax deductible. Number two, I would give tax incentives to businesses to shut on Sundays. Here in Bergen County, New Jersey, we have some of the last blue laws in the US where businesses are coerced into closing on Sundays, and yet we have $5 billion in retail sales — the highest in the country. So these businesses make more money being closed on the American Sabbath than if they were open. So, we have a family day here that all of America should have. You should take your kids to a park, not to a department store or shopping mall for an impulse purchase. America is rampant with runaway greed. Greed is what collapsed our economy. Greed is what created all the economic problems we have today. We took too much out of the economy by being insatiable and we have to begin to address that.
I would also bring college down to three years instead of four. That’s the number one way I would deal with tuition and student loans. I think you should give one year to your country just like they do in Israel. You give it to the military, schools, homes for the elderly, you can volunteer anywhere you want and get a full year of college credit.
Finally, I would create school vouchers so parents can have a choice as to where their kids go to school. I would even bring a values course into the public school system so students aren’t just learning geometry and geography and history and mathematics, they’re also learning about the core American values that make this country great. Kids should be learning about the value of entrepreneurship, personal responsibility, and accountability. And the equality of the individual. I’m talking about values. Not religion.
The reason why this has vast appeal is like what John F. Kennedy said in a speech to an American university in 1969. He said what united us all, Democratic and Republican, liberal and conservative, is that we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s future. Americans love values and they finally want values that work.
Yet polls show that Americans in this election cycle are far more concerned about economic issues than anything else.
Yes, I believe my economic policies are right for this time in America and will appeal to people in this district. In addition to the Jewish community, which I hope will support me, I’m going beyond it. There’s a substantial Asian-American community here. These are entrepreneurs, they open businesses. I believe businesses generating $500,000 a year in sales and revenue should not be paying any taxes at all and businesses over that should be paying a 15 percent corporate tax rate instead of the current 35 percent, which is insane, the highest in the industrialized world.
The African-American community is also entrepreneurial, they also build businesses and I think they want much better schools for their kids and I think they’ll go for school vouchers and school choice. As opposed to the Democrats upon whom the teachers unions a near absolute lock.
Are you counting on the Jewish community’s support?
As far as the Jewish community is concerned, they have a choice. On the Democratic side, you’ve got Bill Pascrell, who signed the ‘Gaza 54’ letter [criticizing Israel’s 2009 Gaza raid], who also signed an earlier letter that criticized Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. He’s also very close with the terror-linked CAIR [The Council on American Islamic Relations].
Wait, there’s a good chance that US Rep. Steve Rothman will defeat Pascrell in the Democratic primary. He’s long been considered a champion of Israel in Congress. In fact, neoconservative icon Bill Kristol last week said his Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) group will likely be supporting Rothman — the only time I can think of that ECI has backed a Democrat.
Rothman is a surrogate for Barack Obama. He is Obama’s man lock, stock, and barrel. He was the first person to support Obama in New Jersey. He never once broke with Obama when Obama was treating Israel abysmally. When Obama started his presidency and identified Israeli settlements as the main obstacle to peace, Rothman was silent. When Obama told Jewish leaders at a private White House meeting that Israel needed to do soul searching, not the Arabs, not Hamas, but the Jews, Rothman was silent. When Obama used the ‘67 lines in a speech on the Arab Spring, Rothman was silent.
If you believe Obama is the best thing for Israel, you should vote for Rothman
Here’s my argument to the Jewish community: If you believe Obama is the best thing for Israel, you should vote for Rothman. But if you believe what I believe, that Barack Obama is an unreliable steward of the America-Israel relationship and does not understand the real issues in the Middle East – mainly that Israel is not the real reason there isn’t peace, rather Arab hostility to Israel is the real reason there isn’t peace – then you vote for me.
The Obama Administration vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements. They thwarted the Palestinian unilateral bid for independence at the UN, they’ve imposed severe sanctions on Iran, and it’s said that American-Israeli military and security ties under Obama are as close as they’ve ever been. Do you give President Obama credit for these accomplishments?
I try to be as absolutely non-partisan a candidate as possible. I am part of a party but I am not wedded to any party’s orthodoxy. I absolutely believe in being fair and I’m on record saying that Obama is a good friend of the American Jewish community, just not Israel. There’s a difference. He’s appointed an Orthodox chief of staff. His previous chief of staff served in the IDF.
But Obama has been a very unreliable friend of the State of Israel. On the two UN examples, on the first one, the only reason the issue of settlements came up at the UN is because Obama inflamed the situation by identifying settlements as the principle impediment to peace. So we’re thanking him for vetoing the proposition that he created? Who was elected president and demanded an immediate end to Israeli settlements? Did the UN do that? Obama did that. Who said they’re illegal under international law? Hillary Clinton did, Obama’s secretary of state. Are we supposed to thank him for vetoing a situation of his own creation? And as far as the Palestinians’ unilateral declaration of independence, you have to give him credit because I believe you give people credit even if their motivations are not entirely sincere. Obama’s position on Israel changed completely after he was eviscerated at the November 2010 polls, when he suffered a shellacking as he himself called it. He lost so much of the Jewish vote, he lost so much Jewish money that the Jewish community turned on him, as they should have because he broke his word on Israel.
Obama is late to the table in understanding the Iranian threat
Even now, when Obama is facing election, you have to ask whether he has been a great friend of Israel when it comes to Iran. This administration is leaking so much classified information about Israel’s plans for Iran and you have [US Defense Secretary] Leon Panetta threatening Israel not to attack.
What are you talking about? Threatening Israel not to attack? Israel is a sovereign state and they’re being threatened by a UN member state with annihilation?
Obama is very late to the table in understanding the Iranian threat and only recently, in the past few months, has enacted very serious penalties against Iranians. He should let the Israelis do what needs to be done. But he should recognize it is Israel’s decision alone about how they want to stop another Jewish holocaust.
I want to add something about Obama. My issue with Obama is not mainly with Israel. My issue with him is that he is not a friend of freedom. Look at the story of the blind Chinese dissident. Does anybody on earth believe the assurances of Beijing that this guy is going to be okay, that he’s not going to be locked up somewhere? Come on. Are we being ridiculous, Obama saying he was given assurances by the Chinese that he’ll be okay? Are we supposed to laugh at that kind of stuff?
Obama is the man who hugged Hugo Chavez with a big grin, he’s the man who curtsies to the leader of Saudi Arabia, a country that persecutes and brutalizes women and homosexuals. Obama is the man who did nothing to stop the slaughter of Arabs in Syria, Obama’s the man who was dragged into the air campaign in Libya that was led, for goodness sake, by the British and French. He’s the one who did nothing to stop Putin from becoming a dictator.
President Bush is the man who said he looked into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul. He was also photographed holding hands with the Saudi Crown Prince on his Crawford ranch. Aren’t all of those accusations against Obama unfair? It doesn’t seem unique to this president.
President George W. Bush was far from perfect, but he had one of the great moral foreign policies of modern times. He decided to remove a genocidal dictator, who literally gassed his people to death in Halabja in 1998. He decided to commit American troops and treasure to depose the greatest murderer of Arab life in history. Saddam Hussein killed 1.1 million people according to the New York Times, 300,000 Kurds and 800,000 Arabs. He was the greatest murderer in that region in human history and President Bush removed him from power.
President George W. Bush… had one of the great moral foreign policies of modern times
It doesn’t mean he was perfect in everything. He didn’t do enough in Darfur, for example, but I recognize that the US is not God, not omnipotent; we can’t enter every conflict where there is injustice. But what we can do is make an example of the worst offenders. And what Bush did was make an example of the worst offender. And he obliterated him. Saddam was tried by his own people, found guilty, and hanged. So you gotta give the guy immense credit for that, let alone his evisceration of the Taliban. They were not the best fought wars, but he had a moral foreign policy. Contrast that with Obama. The only thing you can point to is Libya and there, it wasn’t our call, it was the Europeans.
Do you give Obama credit for taking out Osama bin Laden?
Absolutely. Definitely. I give Obama credit for what he deserves. And, by the way, he has done several good things for Israel. I’m not an Obama hater. I have no animus toward the president at all. In fact, I’ve written many articles praising him about many aspects of his life. For example, I was asked to be the national co-chair for the Rabbis for Obama in the summer of 2008. I turned it down, but I was asked because I wrote an article praising his pride in his name. He’s Barack Hussein Obama. He never changed his name. In high school, they called him Barry, but he went back to using Barack and he was asked about it and he said his father told him Barack means blessing in Hebrew. So I wrote an article saying, “Look at the difference between this guy and our Jewish community. In our community, we don’t use our Hebrew names, we change our last names. We lack pride.”
Let’s get back to gay marriage.
I’m not for gay marriage, I’m for civil unions. I certainly don’t believe gay marriage is the end of the Republic. I don’t think it’s a really big deal. My position for the word “marriage” has to do with my religious convictions and I’ve always said that homosexuality is a religious prohibition, not a moral one. If anyone says it’s immoral, people are misunderstanding the Bible. The reason Moses brings down two tablets from Mount Sinai is that there are two sets of legal categories – laws between man and God and laws between man and his fellow man, human commandments. Homosexuality is not immoral, there’s no wronged innocent party.
Dennis Prager, a good friend and someone whose ideas speak to me in general, thinks gay marriage will do great harm to America. I don’t think it will do great harm to America at all. I’m opposed to it because of my religious convictions, but I believe fully in gay civil unions where they have all the rights married couples have. Of course they should be allowed visitation rights in the hospital. Of course they should be able to make end of life decisions that matter. I just wouldn’t call it marriage. In fact, I’m beginning to appreciate the argument that government shouldn’t be involved in marriage at all. I mean, what is the government doing being involved in a religious ceremony in a church or a synagogue at all?
Who are your political role models? Name one from the present and one from the past.
There are so many in history. One, for sure, is Abraham Lincoln. I think Lincoln was one of the great statesmen who ever lived.
And in the modern era?
I happen to admire [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, who I’ve known for 22 years, since he was the Deputy Foreign Minister. I admire him because I feel he has grown tremendously in the job. I think some of the errors he made the first time around, he has corrected. I know he’s pilloried and hated by many on the Left, but that’s to be expected, that’s politics. I think he is projecting a strong Israel that is also very humanitarian. I welcome and embrace his campaign to portray Israel as a country that solemnly protects the rights of homosexuals and women.
I’m an Orthodox Jew, but I have a gay brother and I want my gay brother to feel absolutely comfortable in Israel. My brother is Orthodox and he loves Israel because he can be a gay, Orthodox Jew without being hated by people. And he loves Israel with every fiber of his being; he wants to move to Israel.
What’s the most misunderstood thing about you?
I am one thing and one thing only: I am simply a rabbi… Everything I do stems from my passion for Judaism and for Jewish values. Everything
People look at all the various things I’m involved with and they don’t understand who I am. What they misunderstand is that I am one thing and one thing only: I am simply a rabbi. That’s it. And a rabbi is someone who gives advice on relationships. A rabbi is someone who speaks about the weekly Torah portion and a rabbi is one who counsels all kinds of people. I am not only focused on celebrities to the extent that I’ve occasionally been involved with people who have a high profile. But they’re also people; they also have issues in their lives. Everything I do stems from my passion for Judaism and for Jewish values. Everything.
And by the way, that’s why I’m running for office. America needs new values. And my essential argument in my campaign is that our Christian brothers and sisters have had ample opportunity to affect the United States with Christian values, especially the evangelical right over the past 30 years. I love evangelicals, I’ve lectured in their churches all over the world. But I don’t agree with their emphasis on social-sexual values. I think it’s hurting America tremendously. And it’s time for Jewish values in the political arena.
Some would say the common denominator of all those various hats that you wear is that they earn you publicity and attention. Is that fair?
The one they most point to is Michael Jackson. And look what I did with him. I took Michael Jackson to synagogue on Simchat Torah. I brought him to meet Ariel Sharon when Sharon was hated around the world and the pictures of a world famous rock star hanging out with Sharon softened Sharon’s image and it’s great Michael was prepared to do it. We gave a lecture together at Carnegie Hall about the importance of parents spending time with children.
We gave a lecture together at Oxford University about a Children’s Bill of Rights. We gave out books together in Newark, NJ with [current Mayor] Corey Booker to parents of low income families.
Did I go to Michael’s concerts? Of course not. In fact, I was invited to a concert of his in 2001 and I didn’t go. Michael said, “I’m sitting you next to Marlon Brando,” but I didn’t go because I knew it would just be an empty gesture and wouldn’t reflect who I am. I told Michael, ‘I’m not a fan, I’m your friend. I’m a rabbi.’ I love his work, but that’s not what our relationship was about.
We’ve known each a long time. I’m upset that you didn’t offer me that concert ticket.
I have an even better story. When Kosher Sex was published, Playboy chose it as their main excerpt for their 30th anniversary edition. They were very interested in how it said that sexuality can be something sacred. So they called me and asked if they can use the book and I said only if there are no pornographic pictures near it. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is amazing. Playboy is going to publish an excerpt from a book that is anti-pornography, it’s the craziest thing!’ So as a result of my letting them use the book, they sent me and my wife two invitations to the Playboy Mansion for the 30th anniversary party.
‘No bunnies for you — we’re not going anywhere!’
When they arrived in the mail, I said to my wife, “Hey, look at this, we’re going to the Playboy Mansion.” And Debbie looked at me and said, “No bunnies for you — we’re not going anywhere!”
Forget about Brando. Now I’m really disappointed that you didn’t offer me that invitation.
In Part Two of The Times of Israel’s interview with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the author of ‘Kosher Jesus’ discusses the controversy surrounding the book and argues that its examination of the life of Jesus of Nazareth should bring Christians and Jews together.