The Kosher Candidate
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach writes sex therapy books and advised Michael Jackson on spirituality. Now will he represent New Jersey?
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.”
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.