Shmuley Boteach wants to be the first rabbi elected to the U.S. Congress.
The onetime Chabad emissary is perhaps best known for his books about sex and for his celebrity ties. But now he is taking his message about Jewish values to New Jersey’s electorate, in the process raising questions about how the outspoken public relations whiz will transition to the more constrained world of the political campaign.
A Forward examination of public records reveals that the charity Boteach heads spends a significant portion of its revenues on payments to Boteach and his family. The examination also raises the possibility of a future conflict between the group’s role supporting Boteach’s work and Boteach’s political campaign.
“Why would a rabbi run for Congress?” Boteach asked in a column in early February. “Because the problems we’re seeing in our great nation are not caused by an economic downturn but by a values erosion, and I intend to be the values-voice that Congress so desperately needs.”
Boteach, who lives in Englewood, filed a statement of candidacy with the Federal Elections Commission on January 31 to run as a Republican in New Jersey’s 9th Congressional District. He says he won’t make a final decision about his run until March 14. Primary elections are to be held in June.
The district is heavily Democratic, and the winner of the hotly contested Democratic primary is expected to win the congressional seat. But one local Republican official expressed enthusiasm for Boteach. He’s a “very dynamic guy, if I don’t say so myself,” said Robert Yudin, chair of the Bergen County Republican Organization. “He has name recognition, he’s written books. He would certainly give the Democrats a run for their money.”
In an essay posted on the Huffington Post and Jerusalem Post websites, Boteach outlined a political platform that hews closely to the Republican mainstream, with a particular focus on social issues. He supports a flat tax, an aggressive foreign policy, and school vouchers. He also proposed an extension of the so-called blue laws, religiously motivated legislation common in New England that keeps certain stores closed on Sundays.
“[L]et’s consider legislation to recreate an American Sabbath so parents have an incentive to take kids to a park rather than teaching them to find satisfaction in the impulse purchase,” Boteach wrote.
In a departure from Republican Party norms, Boteach called for a de-emphasis on opposition to gay marriage and abortion in favor of a focus on opposing divorce. Boteach, who is a marriage counselor, is proposing that marriage counseling be made tax deductible.
The 45-year-old rabbi has had little involvement in politics. An online database of donations to federal election campaigns going back two decades revealed no gifts by Boteach.
But the rabbi has been a public figure since the early 1990s, when he was in his 20s and the leader of the campus Chabad House at Oxford University. Boteach clashed publicly with Chabad. Contemporary press accounts suggest that Boteach outgrew his role in the movement as his campus activities and public profile swelled. He resigned as a Lubavitch representative in 1994 after movement officials in the United Kingdom objected to his invitation to then-Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to speak at Oxford. In a 1995 profile of Boteach in a publication called Inside, a Lubavitch spokesman praised Boteach’s work but said that he is “an individualist. He cannot be encumbered by the framework of an organization.”
While at Oxford, Boteach began building ties to the impressive intellectual and public figures with whom he has become linked, including Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker and Harvard law professor Noah Feldman, both of whom were Rhodes Scholars when Boteach was at Oxford, and who remain close to Boteach.
“If you asked yourself the question among people who are not Orthodox Jews, who are the best-known rabbis in the English-speaking world, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that he’s the single best known,” Feldman said in an interview with the Forward.
Though Boteach lost his funding from Chabad, he kept control of the organization he had built. It’s that organization’s American entity, now called This World: The Jewish Values Network, that currently pays Boteach’s salary. Boteach told the Forward that the group exists to support his writing and lectures.
“The people who are supporting us, these are all dear friends and acquaintances who believe in my vision that Jewish values must have a seat at the table, that Judaism must have a high profile,” Boteach said. “The organization was set up for me to do this work by people who want me to do this work.”