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03.16.12

Shmuley Boteach: Michael Jackson’s Rabbi Is Running for Congress

The Hasidic cleric and reality-TV star, famous for his friendship with Michael Jackson, is a candidate in New Jersey. Why the publicity hound’s message may resonate beyond the GOP.

Onto the political scene arrives the Hasidic cleric once known as Michael Jackson’s rabbi.

He made his own bid for stardom in the short-lived reality-TV show Shalom in the Home.

He has scandalized his fellow Lubavitchers by authoring such books as Kosher Sex, The Kosher Sutra, and Kosher Adultery, as well as Dating Secrets of the 10 Commandments.

And his Brooklyn brethren were already unhappy that he had recruited so many non-Jews into the Jewish student society he was dispatched to establish at Oxford University—its president for a time was Cory Booker, an African-American Baptist, who went on to become the mayor of Newark.

Now, 45-year-old Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is himself venturing into the gritty grime of New Jersey politics, having declared himself a Republican candidate for the Ninth District of New Jersey, which includes his hometown of Englewood, where he resides with his wife and nine children.

Shmuley—he likes to be known by his first name in the way of Cher or Beyoncé—ventures into political life having once half-jokingly intoned to a journalist friend what he called his 11th commandment.

“Thou shalt do anything for publicity and recognition.”

In this regard, Shmuley has been remarkably successful. What other rabbi could say that Jay Leno gave his sex book to Dennis Rodman? It would be easy just to dismiss Shmuley’s candidacy for Congress as yet another grab for publicity and recognition, the political equivalent of his reality show, on which he parked outside participants’ homes in a silver Airstream trailer (bearing the New York license plate: SHALOM) and gave families advice on how to solve domestic troubles.

But, in an interview with The Daily Beast following his formal announcement on Wednesday, Shmuley proved to be something of a surprise. He seemed in some ways to be the opposite of most politicians, particularly of the Republican variety.

Shmuley did not seem to be just another fake whose purported beliefs turn out to be simply what he figures will best further his ambitions. Shmuley’s shameless devotion to the 11th commandment appears to be accompanied by actual beliefs about issues that are truly important. Where other Republicans seek to capitalize on intolerance and to shrink already small minds down to the size of a vote for them, Shmuley preached tolerance and accommodation. On the question of homosexuality and Jewish tradition, Shmuley noted that there are 614 commandments in Judaism and only three concern being gay.

“If you decide not to keep those, you have 611 commandments left,” he told The Daily Beast. “That will keep you very busy.”

As for same-sex marriage, he said, “One commandment is not to engage in gay sex. Another is to marry.”

He went on to say that all the fuss about same-sex marriage along with abortion and contraception are distractions from what he considers a truly important issue: the state of marriage in general. He began to sound shockingly genuine for even a novice politician as he recalled the trauma of his parents’ divorce when he was 8.

“One of the most painful events of my life,” he said. “I was deeply scarred by it.”

He said the divorce is intertwined with him becoming a rabbi. He found father figures at a Lubavitcher summer camp. “They deeply influenced me, and I started to follow the path to rabbi,” he recalled.

At 22, the Brooklyn-based Lubavitchers sent him as a kind of emissary to Oxford. He soon proved that he had not been as deeply influenced and set upon the traditional rabbinical path as it might have seemed. He got an early taste of publicity when he invited Boy George to address his new Jewish group, which soon became the second-biggest student society in Oxford. A British reporter asked why he admitted so many non-Jews, and his answer was just what one would expect from a politician in the making: “To get Jews interested in the Jewish worlds, you have to get the non-Jews interested. The Jews will follow what the non-Jews are doing.”

His father figures back in Brooklyn were not pleased.

“Among the leadership, it caused a lot of anxiety,” he recalled. “It caused a lot of consternation.”

His sex books hardly had a calming effect.

“It led to a lot of attacks on me,” he remembered.

He was eventually removed from his position, but nonetheless managed to become the first rabbi to win a Britain-wide contest for Preacher of the Year. He returned to America after 11 years, the same number as the commandment by which he soon became listed as one of the most influential rabbis in America.

He still elicited grumbling in Crown Heights, but the rest of the country came know him as Michael Jackson’s rabbi. He now says that Jackson might still be alive had the star had only listened to his advice, though he allows it was only common sense. “The advice I gave him is what anyone would have given him,” he said.

Shmuley was asked about a news report that quoted Jackson’s manager as saying the rabbi ended up on the star’s enemies list.

“I don’t believe that’s true,” Shmuley said.

Shmuley was more forthright than most folks about this desire for attention.

He got an early taste of publicity when he invited Boy George to address his new Jewish group, which soon became the second-biggest student society in Oxford.

“Look, I think each and every one of us wrestles with ego issues, and I have always been honest about my own insecurities and my need to feel that my life is relevant,” he said. “I think everyone wants their life to be distinguished … and I’m no different.”

When Christopher Hitchens came out with his book God Is Not Great, Shmuley got another dose of publicity by debating him at New York’s 92nd Street Y. Shmuley made sure to hold up a copy of one of his own books in middebate and announce, “Available at all bookstores.”

And now he is running for Congress as “America’s rabbi.” He spoke to The Daily Beast as he drove with his family to meet a potential supporter in Manhattan. He is not so fired by ambition that he didn’t want to bring his kids along. “I asked if it’s OK,” he said. “They said it’s OK.”

The candidate then spoke about the importance of preserving marriages. The only government measure he could propose was a tax deduction for marriage counseling. He happens to be a marriage counselor.

At least when he talked, he seemed actually to believe what he said. That this made him unusual is less a comment on him than on the sorry state of politics where someone stands out for not being a complete fake.

Of course, Shmuley did not fail to mention his latest book, one that will not likely win him points among either his fellow Lubavitchers or his fellow Republicans.

Kosher Jesus.