After being dubbed “the most famous rabbi in America” by Newsweek, Rabbi Shmuel (Shmuley) Boteach (45 and the father of nine) hopes to become the first rabbi serving in the United States Congress this coming November. If he is elected, he will bring a great deal of interest with him, and also quite a bit of color.
Rabbi Boteach studied in the Torat Emet yeshiva in Jerusalem and was ordained in 1988 by Chabad in New York — which puts him in squarely in the Orthodox camp. He has written 21 books, including "Kosher Jesus" and "Kosher Sex," and was also a close friend and advocate of pop star Michael Jackson.
There is no argument that Rabbi Shmuley is an unusual rabbi, in the positive sense of the word. Yes, he is also a man of contradictions. He supports civil unions for same-sex couples, but he is running for Congress on the Republican ticket in the ninth district of New Jersey. Who said that only Democrats could be liberals?
How many rabbis do you know who sit at a computer to write a book that answers questions such as: What is the connection between love and lust? Should one give in to the temptation to have an extramarital relationship in order to revive one’s sex life? Is the Kama Sutra kosher? And that is just the beginning. In "Kosher Sex" (published in 1999), which was translated into Hebrew by the Modan Publishing House, Rabbi Boteach also wrestles with questions such as whether oral sex is kosher, wonders whether size really does matter and firmly states that the “hole in the sheet” is against Jewish law. On the contrary, the couple is supposed to be completely undressed so that there will be no barrier to intimacy.
Kosher Sex was chosen to open the issue of Playboy Magazine celebrating its 45th anniversary. Now you are just beginning to understand how unique this rabbi is. Once more, this is just the beginning.
Q. Rabbi Shmuley, before we start, I’m curious to know how your wife felt about "Kosher Sex."
“She accepted it. I wrote the book because my parents divorced when I was eight years old. It really affected me. I wanted to see how a couple stayed together. I realized that when things aren’t going well for a couple in the bedroom, they aren’t going well in the living room either. I wrote the book to explain to couples that the best way to save a marriage is by preserving the sexual attraction between them.”
Q. Were you criticized for it?
“I wrote the book using Jewish values and people criticized me, but the book became an international best-seller in 20 countries, including Australia, France and Belgium. The book was a great success, particularly among non-Jews. It was translated into 20 languages. God loves the love between man and wife. According to Jewish tradition, God was the first matchmaker.”
Q. How does a person with a list of friends like yours and such liberal opinions run on the Republican ticket?
“The Republican Party is Israel’s strongest and most steadfast ally. They also invited the prime minister to speak before Congress. There’s no comparison between the Republican policy toward Israel and that of the Democrats.”
Q. Such as what, for example?
“I don’t like the whole idea of aiding the Palestinians when Hamas is sitting in the government. President Obama has stated consistently that the settlements are the reason for the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Factually, that’s not correct. The real reason is that the Hamas terrorists have no desire to recognize the existence of the State of Israel.”
Make no mistake: Rabbi Shmuley has no particular problem with the Arabs. “We have to remember,” he says, “that President George Bush is the one who overthrew Saddam Hussein, the man who murdered 800,000 Muslims. The Republicans were the ones who helped the Arabs win freedom. In my election district in New Jersey, the percentage of Arabs is the second largest in the U.S., and I call upon my Arab brothers and sisters to vote and remember on that day that George Bush saved more Arab lives than anyone else.”
While the current upheaval in the Arab world interests Boteach a great deal, it also disturbs him. He says, “If democratic Israel had not been established in 1948, there would have been no Arab Spring.”
“The Arabs observe the nakba of 1948, but actually the opposite is true. That same year, they got the hope to live a different kind of life — the hope that they would live in a state where they would read the truth in their newspapers and feel that they were free. On that day, they realized that they could be free, like in Israel.”
Continuing that train of thought, Rabbi Shmuley returns to the present: “Where is Obama’s voice when it comes to Syria? He comes to New York City often to raise money, so let him find time to go to the U.N. headquarters there and state from the podium that Bashar Assad is a murderer and that America is putting $25 million on his head to lead to his capture. This is a matter of human rights.
“I can’t understand why Arab-Americans support President Obama, who is doing so little to save Muslims.”
Q. He intervened in Libya.
“It’s true that the U.S. intervened in Libya, but we have to remember that Obama was dragged in after France and the U.K. They initiated the military action.”
Good — so now you understand that Rabbi Shmuley is not an admirer of Obama. He criticizes the president a great deal on almost any international topic. “Obama did not do a thing to stop the rise of dictatorship under Putin,” he says. “Why didn’t he recall his ambassador from Moscow after there was found to be fraud in the Russian presidential elections?”
Rabbi Shmuley continues: “Why did Obama remain silent for three weeks about what went on in Iran in 2009, when the Iranians went out into the streets to protest the fact that the election had been stolen from them? Also, take note that what I am telling you has nothing to do with the administration’s attitude toward Jews. Ahmadinejad killed Muslims in his country, and the administration did not respond.”
Q. But the president’s respect for human rights in general and in the Arab world in particular is above suspicion.
“Obama is the first African-American president, so he has a historical obligation. He has a constant duty to act against any kind of oppression.”
Q. I’m guessing that you didn’t vote for Obama in 2008.
“I didn’t vote for him, even though I have many liberal Democrat friends — Samantha Power [the president’s special adviser on human rights — B.B.] and, of course, the icon of the Democrats, the mayor of Newark, Cory Booker. When I say that many of my friends are liberals, that is no joke — it’s reality. I’m not a man of any political party. I’m a man of principles.
“I joined the Republicans because they matched my principles. The Republican Party matches my scale of ethics. In my scale of ethics, an administration intervenes when genocide is taking place.
“Think of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Could I have supported an administration that didn’t intervene in what was happening in Europe then? It’s precisely for that reason that I can’t support a Democratic administration, such as Bill Clinton’s, for example, which did nothing when there was genocide in Rwanda in 1994.”
Boteach also criticizes Obama for the administration’s interference in citizens’ lives. “I’m a Republican, and I believe in respecting the citizen. Obama believes in interference by the state. I want to be clear — the more the state interferes, the smaller the citizen’s place becomes. Independence breeds respect.
“There were times when I asked my family for financial help. Even though I was asking my parents, I saw that as very humiliating. Today, American citizens do not want the state to give them gifts. They want jobs.”
Q. In your opinion, could Obama lose the November election?
“I believe that he will lose the next election. That can be seen from the difficulty he is having raising money today. Also, the unemployment that did not come down from 8.5 percent was also a problem for him. Even though I like him very much as a person, he does not deserve to be re-elected. He failed as a president.”
Q. Do you have anything good to say about him?
“Although he is no friend of Israel, I have a lot of admiration for Obama. His friendship with and admiration for Judaism and Jews cannot be disregarded. Take a good look at the people around him. Look at who his chief of staff in the White House is (Jack Lew) and was (Rahm Emanuel). Every year, he holds a Passover Seder in the White House.
“On the one hand, he admires the Jews and their heritage. But regrettably, on the other hand, he doesn’t understand that Israel’s enemies want to destroy it. Like Clinton, he believes that pressure must be applied on Israel in order to reach peace. He thinks that Israel has to be changed, but not the Arabs.”
Q. Incidentally, do you support his having invited Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi to Washington? After all, he is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Yes. He must be respected. He was elected in democratic elections. If the Egyptian people want to elect a religious or secular candidate, that is their own problem. But it must be made very clear that economic support for Egypt is conditional upon its support of the peace process.”
Q. In your opinion, is it true that Israel is no longer as popular in the U.S. as it was in the past?
“Israel is not in a contest of which country is the most popular. The U.S. is not popular in the world either. All that says is that Israel is in good company. Being popular has nothing to do with being good. That said, I don’t remember there ever being as much support for Israel as there is in the U.S. today. People should know that there are whole Christian communities that vote for a presidential candidate according to his policy on Israel.”
Q. Does Mitt Romney meet the expectations that the Americans, and not necessarily the Jews, have of a president?
“We need to remember that elections are, first of all, a referendum that you conduct regarding the incumbent president. The question today is whether Obama deserves four more years. Economically, he is taking America backward — today, America is on its way to bankruptcy. Romney will have to bring America back to work, stimulate employers to hire workers. He will have to implement a smart tax policy.”
Boteach has another stinging remark for Obama even though he is liberal on the following subject. “We don’t have to keep talking about same-sex marriage and abortion. That’s not the subject of the election.”
Q. But it seems to me that you support same-sex marriage.
“It’s a bit more complicated. I have a homosexual brother. I see his suffering. My brother is a good Jew and he is also a wonderful brother. Look, even if you’re gay, you still have 613 commandments to observe. You still have the commandment to put up a mezuzah on the gate of your home and put on tefillin. I don’t understand why we’ve turned this subject into the worst thing of all. Anyone who is familiar with the Torah knows very well that lighting a fire on the Sabbath is much worse. Desecrating the Sabbath is mentioned dozens of times in the Torah, while the topic of sexual relations between men is only mentioned twice.
“But is the attitude toward these two things at all similar? The answer is no. If somebody smokes on the Sabbath, we encourage him and say, ‘Come to synagogue, and of course we welcome him because he’s a brother Jew whose presence is wanted. But is that the attitude toward homosexuals? We’ve made that subject into the worst thing possible. I checked and found that the word ‘abomination’ appears 104 times in the Torah. So why have we chosen to attach it to homosexual people?”
Q. What do you suggest?
“I believe that American should have civil union for homosexuals that will give them rights, but not marriage, because that is a sacred thing, and for that you need to go to a rabbi or an imam or a priest. Marriage is a religious affair, so I support civil union.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Rabbi Shmuley said that he went into politics for three reasons: 1) President Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech [in which he said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena”]; 2) the Middle East, and 3) sex.
Q. If you are elected, what can you add to Congress?
“I want to bring new values to political life in America. Universal Jewish values. I want citizens to contribute more to society. To shorten college from four to three years so that young people can contribute a year of national service to society. A citizen must contribute to the society in which he lives.”
Q. Are you talking now about a subject that is on the current Israeli agenda — the Tal Law and the Haredi draft?
“My daughter is my hero. She moved to Israel and is now serving in the army, in the international relations unit. She never misses a single prayer service. The Torah tells us not to be selfish. So the Haredim have to give back to society too, even if it’s in the form of national service. I don’t want to go into how many have to go to the army and how many have to do community service, but you have to serve your country.”
Q. Rabbi Boteach, one last question. Is there a chance that you will defeat the Democratic candidate in November?
“I’m going to win.”