Shmuley Boteach has never been what you might call shy. The man, whom others have described as a shameless self-publicist, would characterise himself slightly differently, as a shameless publicist for Jewish values — if he happens to become famous himself in the process, this merely means he is doing that job properly.
It is a role he has been fulfilling thoroughly for years now. As a young rabbi in Oxford his L’Chaim Society attracted high profile speakers and earned him a Times Preacher of the Year award. More fame arrived with his friendships with Michael Jackson and Oprah Winfrey, his Discovery Channel show, Shalom in the Home, and his best-seller, Kosher Sex. But his latest project, if successful, will put all others in the shade. Boteach is hoping to be the first Orthodox rabbi to become a United States Congressman.
He has received the Republican nomination to run against the Democrat incumbent Bill Pascrell in New Jersey. It is historically a safe seat for the Democrats but Boteach, never short of self-confidence, believes that is all about to change. On a brief visit to London, he says that his prospects of winning are realistic.
“I believe my chances are very strong. My campaign has great momentum, it has compelling ideas and it’s receiving regular national media exposure. My opponent is not getting any traction at all. He’s been in Congress 16 years now and he’s not saying anything new. A lot depends on the national situation but I don’t think Obama is going to be re-elected and that will help my race.”
But what is a rabbi doing jumping into choppy political waters in the first place? “I have been involved in the media for the past few years. If you are in broadcasting you either have to exist in the reality TV jungle or you become a talking head on a partisan political talk show where you just mouth off. I’m 45 years old now and I want to do something serious.”
By doing something serious Boteach means that he will be following the same set of values which prompted him to launch the L’Chaim Society, the talk show and Kosher Sex. He feels that America needs Jewish values. His is also a response to the evangelical Christian block which he thinks has control of the moral agenda in the US.
“For 30 years, the Christian evangelicals have said they want to protect the institution of marriage. How? By stopping gay marriage. If we stop gays from marrying, will we save the institution of marriage? I have repeatedly pointed out, only half facetiously, that the only people who want to get married in the US these days are gays. The fact is that if every gay man and woman in the US moved to Canada, you would still have a 50 per cent heterosexual divorce rate.”
This is not to say that he necessarily approves of gay marriage, but he is sympathetic to the gay community, citing the case of his own brother who is an Orthodox gay Jew.
“The Torah consists of 613 commandments. They might be transgressing two of these. I don’t know why people make it such a red line. If you are in a gay relationship that is not in accordance with what the Torah says, but in my view they are doing nothing worse than people who smoke or drive on Shabbat — in fact, smoking is probably a more severe transgression.”
Boteach thinks a different approach is needed to combat the social problems of divorce and abortion. He advocates making marriage counselling services tax deductible — giving people a financial incentive to work on their relationships. He also believes that, seeing as 85 per cent of abortions take place outside of marriage, strengthening the institution is the key to reducing the number of abortions.
Boteach fervently believes that the Jewish religion has other things to offer mainstream American society. For example, one of the key planks in his campaign is to re-establish the American sabbath.
“In 2008 the economy nearly collapsed. There is a consensus that what caused this breakdown was greed — people maxing their credit cards. My answer was that we should recreate the sabbath. Christianity is the majority religion, so there’s nothing wrong with Sunday being the family day. These ideas have received a huge amount of national attention in the States and that’s because people need something different. In a country where the principal form of happiness seems to be in going to the mall, I would give tax incentives to businesses that close on Sundays.”
Whereas Boteach is hopeful of targeting the Jewish vote, he is also confident that he should be able to win over Arab Americans.
“I have the highest proportion of Arab Americans in the country in my constituency. A lot of them are very concerned about what’s going on in Syria. I have been talking continually about the violence over there and how the world isn’t doing enough to stop it. As the world’s largest democracy the world has a responsibility to stand up for human rights. I don’t think President Obama is doing nearly enough to stop the bloodshed in Syria. I see it as part of my responsibility to highlight human rights and to put resources into stopping genocide and mass slaughter around the world.” As part of this campaign Boteach is en route to Rwanda, which is the reason he is making a whistlestop visit to London (although he says he hoped to take in a couple of Olympic events while he is here). “Visits to Rwanda will not win me votes in my country but this is the right thing to do.”
Certainly if New Jersey voters are looking for energy and the ability to juggle issues and commitments, then Boteach is their man. During our phone conversation on his mobile, he is constantly stopping in mid-flow to answer questions, deflect other calls and to ask for directions. In a similar vein, while he is campaigning for election and for human rights, he is also promoting his new book, Kosher Jesus, whose theme, he feels dovetails nicely with his election bid.
He has for years debated with the Christian evangelical community. But while he has major theological differences with them, he also accepts that this hugely influential voting block is very supportive of Israel.
“This block is 80 million strong and of late has shown unwavering support to Israel. What I wanted to demonstrate to these people, for whom I have the utmost respect, is the Jewish foundation of Christianity and particularly the Jewishness of Jesus. Our relationship cannot be sustained without a theological bridge. I thought it was important to point out that Jesus was a committed and an observant Jew.”
In this country Boris Johnson has demonstrated that under the right conditions the electorate is happy to back a maverick. If passion and words per minute turn out to be decisive, Boteach could win a landslide come November.