Project Wonderful

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Rep Rebbe? Shmuley Boteach's Run for Congress

I first heard about Shmuley Boteach (Pronounced Bo-TAY-achk) when a friend posted an article about his book, Kosher Jesus, on my facebook wall. The article was Rabbi Boteach's rebuttal to (what he alleges were surprising) attacks on the "heretical" nature of the title by other Chabad rabbis. A quick Google search determined that this Rabbi was no stranger to notoriety. His other titles, such as Kosher Sex, had provoked similar if less virulent attacks, not to mention his television show, "Shalom in the Home," or his role as the late Michael Jackson's spiritual adviser. Two things were clear 1) This man liked being in the spotlight and 2)He was an incredibly charismatic speaker.

My interest was piqued and I was excited when I found him on the roster for Limmud NY, a Jewish learning conference I attended the following week. I was explaining what I knew about Rabbi Boteach to my conference companion when her more religiously devout brother came over to say hello. "You'd never heard of Shmuley Boteach?" he asked incredulously, as if he had walked in on me saying, "Have you heard of this Lady Gaga character? Apparently she makes quite the dance music." "Well," he said "the man knows how to sell a book."

We decided to attend his lecture (which was scheduled to be about greed but wound up being about "The Rebellious Man of Faith") and I think it's fair to say we were both pretty impressed. To anyone who grew up even remotely Jewish, Boteach has a certain avuncular charm and a warmth that I'd imagine is universal. Here was an Orthodox Rabbi joking about smoking pot, railing against anti-feminist forces in religion and promoting a doctrine of tolerance and acceptance. Yes, it was clear that Rabbi Shmuley enjoyed courting fame and controversy, but years of working around politicians had taught me to forgive these qualities in those who are intelligent and captivating.

So it should have come as no surprise when a few weeks later Boteach announced his intention to run for Congress, and for what it's worth, as a Republican.
"Why would a rabbi run for Congress? 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 offers a refreshing perspective on family values and one that, in part, I agree with.
"If I hear one more thing about same-sex marriage, I’m going to eat my yarmulke,” he said in an extended telephone interview. “It’s been a massive distraction.”
"The values that have dominated the American political landscape for decades are the American obsession with gay marriage and abortion, to the exclusion of nearly all others, which explains why our country is so incredibly religious yet so seemingly decadent. It’s time to expand the values conversation and policy agenda. Let’s begin with really saving the institution of marriage by focusing squarely on the outrageous 50 percent divorce rate. I will promote legislation that will fight marital breakdown by making marital counseling tax-deductible."

But for all his independence, the conclusions Boteach draws about the moral imperatives of our financial crisis are the myopic assertions of a man who has been able to rationalize his own financial success (and others' poverty) and still spends his time in a relatively insular community.
If there's one liberal philosophy I would expect of an empathetic religious leader, it's caring for the poor. It is at best naive and at worst destructive to claim that our financial problems can be solved by
"recreat[ing] an American Sabbath so parents have an incentive to take their kids to a park rather than teaching them to find satisfaction in the impulse purchase....Beyond helping the family this will also help counter the growing materialism that continues to poison the American soul leading to the near-collapse of a $10 trillion economy just three years ago when we had homes that were never large enough, cars that were never new enough, and designer labels that were never fashionable enough."
And there's another issue at play. Boteach, despite his warmth and good intentions, is a bit of a loose cannon. I don't know that a man who deigns to be Michael Jackson's spiritual adviser or who intentionally incites controversy in his own community is the face I want on Jewish politicians. There are several Jews on the national political stage (Barbara Boxer, Al Franken, Bernie Sanders...) but the most vocal about his Judaism is Joe Lieberman and we all know how that worked out for the Democrats and the Jews.

Finally, at a time when religion is again on the rise in our political discourse (ahem, birth control) I would be just as pleased for Jews to sit this one out the side of religion creeping its way into politics. I don't suddenly oppose separation of Church and State just because the church is a synagogue and I like the rabbi.

There's a good chance Boteach won't make it past the primary and even if he does that he'll miss in the general. I hope for both our sakes that this is the case. Better the rabbi I'm surprised to love than the politician I'm loathe to hate.

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