Friends Like These

Cory Booker's Rabbis

Beneath Cory Booker’s oddball friendships with Chabad rabbis Shmuley Boteach and Shmully Hecht lies a contradiction, writes Peter Beinart.


One day in the mid-1990s, when I was a student at Oxford, I went to the L’Chaim Society to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim. L’Chaim was the brainchild of an already flamboyant but not yet famous Chabad (or Lubavitch) rabbi named Shmuley Boteach. I remember a mass of drunk people dancing raucously, which wasn’t surprising given the ecstatic nature of Purim celebrations, especially at Chabad. What was surprising was that at the center of the debauchery stood an athletic, handsome African-American Christian named Cory Booker. He was the L’Chaim Society’s president.

If you don’t already know about Cory Booker and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, you will. Boteach has gone on to star in his own reality-TV show, run for Congress, and serve as Michael Jackson’s spiritual adviser. Booker, Newark’s mayor, is the heavy favorite to be the next senator from New Jersey. In between, they’ve made a side career reveling in their odd-couple friendship.

If that’s not unusual enough, when Booker left Oxford for Yale Law School, he founded a Jewish society there too, now called Eliezer. This time his primary partner was a Chabad rabbi named Shmully Hecht. Twenty years later, Booker remains close to both Shmuley and Shmully. Boteach has taken him to pray at the last Lubavitcher rebbe’s grave. Booker says he studies Torah weekly with each rabbi, usually over the phone. (Hecht—with whom I’ve maintained a both friendly and contentious relationship—confirms that he and Booker talk once a week. Boteach didn’t return two emails.) And judging by Booker’s speeches to Jewish audiences, which he peppers with references to the weekly Torah portion, the studying has paid off. Indeed, one of Booker’s idiosyncratic but highly effective techniques for winning over Jewish audiences is to gently reprimand them for not showing as much interest in Jewish texts as he does.

Among Cory Booker watchers, there are two competing explanations for all this. The first is that Booker is a master cynic. Early on, the theory goes, he realized that befriending rabbis would help him win the trust of New Jersey’s influential Jewish community. But not just any rabbis. Unlike Barack Obama—who in Chicago befriended the controversial Reform rabbi, and Israel critic, Arnold Wolf, and found the relationship a mixed blessing when he began wooing the American Jewish mainstream—Booker has forged ties to rabbis on the right of the Jewish religious spectrum. The brilliance of that strategy, Booker skeptics suspect, is that he doesn’t need rabbis to win over progressive, relatively secular Jews: they vote for liberal Democrats like him anyway. What Boteach and Hecht provide is entrée into the largely Republican Orthodox community, which is particularly strong in the Garden State.

The problem with this theory is that even if Booker once needed Shmuley and Shmully as chaperones into the Jewish world, he doesn’t anymore. He now has an impressive network of Jewish (and non-Jewish donors) throughout the greater New York area and beyond. Even in the Orthodox community, notes the Forward, he’s befriended influential figures like the Orthodox Union’s Menachem Genack. People close to Eliezer claim its alumni network represents a fertile source of contributions. Still, studying Torah with ultra-Orthodox rabbis isn’t the most efficient way to raise cash. Chabad, notes Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman, who knows all three men, “is in the business of raising, money not giving it.”

The alternative explanation, more popular among Booker’s friends, is that his friendship with Boteach and Hecht is the opposite of cynical. “Cory’s actually quite innocent,” notes Feldman. “He’s a person who’s genuinely curious, genuinely open, and loves a feeling of community. When he walked into L’Chaim he found this student community that Shmuley had created that was genuinely warm, genuinely welcoming. There wasn’t a single other institution like that at Oxford, and so Cory threw himself into it in his typically warm, energetic way.” Richard Primus, a University of Michigan law professor who also studied at Oxford and Yale Law School with Booker, adds that, “Cory’s a Baptist. He believes in God. He believes in Christ. He sincerely believes in the goodness of man. He found in Boteach a committed Jew who was also swept up in religious spirituality. They forged a bond of the kind that exists between two strong spiritual seekers.” Ben Karp, another co-founder of Eliezer (initially called The Chai Society), who is both black and Jewish, speculates that Booker’s African-American Baptist heritage may have instilled in him an affinity for Jews as the living remnant of Biblical Israel, into which both Boteach and Hecht tapped.

I buy this. I buy it partly because of what I remember about Oxford, an emotionally desiccated place where homesick Americans of all races and creeds were looking for a place where someone knew their name. And I buy it partly because of what I know about Booker. Although for obvious reasons he’s often compared with Obama, Booker is more temperamentally similar to Bill Clinton. He’s a hyper-extrovert who devours exotic people and experiences, and feeds off their energy. And Shmuley and Shmully are about as exotic and energetic as it gets.

But beneath this oddball kumbaya story lies a contradiction. The public message of Booker’s friendships with Boteach and Hecht is all about tolerance, multiculturalism, and social justice. Boteach says that because of his relationship with Booker, he’s spoken at Morehouse College, helped relocate victims of Hurricane Katrina, and traveled to Rwanda to learn about its genocide. For his part, Booker last year told a Jewish audience that the “theme of Judaism,” as he’s learned it from Boteach, is that “you never accept injustice.”

In their own ways, all three men sincerely believe this. By Chabad standards, after all, Boteach and Hecht are universalists. While most Chabad rabbis focus on returning secular Jews to religious observance, Boteach and Hecht each founded institutions devoted to dialogue between gentiles and Jews. In that regard, they’re continuing a tradition begun by Menachem Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher rebbe, who wanted Chabad to reach out to gentiles in hopes of convincing them to follow the seven Noahide laws, rules of human conduct that apply not just to Jews but to all humankind.

But if Boteach and Hecht are unusually universalistic Chabad rabbis, they’re still Chabad rabbis. (Boteach, although forced to resign from his position as Chabad’s emissary to Oxford in the 1990s, still acknowledges his “incontrovertible Chabad identity.”) And the values of Chabad rest uneasily alongside the values publicly espoused in the Booker-Boteach-Hecht show. Theologically, Chabad emphasizes the fundamental difference between Jewish and non-Jewish souls. And while difference does not necessarily imply superiority and inferiority, the late Rabbi David Hartman, one of the most revered Jewish thinkers of recent times, in 2009 called Chabad’s theology “deeply primitively racist.”

The theology of souls may sound abstract, but it has real-world implications, especially in Israel, where Chabad is active. In 2010, for instance, the leading Chabad rabbis in the northern city of Safed endorsed a letter “prohibit[ing] the sale or renting of land in Israel to a non-Jew.” When I asked Hecht his view on the subject, he suggested that my question be “addressed to the leadership of Chabad.”

Hecht’s own thoughts on Israel and the Palestinians also don’t quite align with the claim that the “theme of Judaism” is to “never accept injustice.” Schneerson vociferously opposed handing over any part of the biblical land of Israel to Palestinian control. In that tradition, Hecht opposes creating a Palestinian state. When I asked him what should happen to the Palestinians now living under Israeli control in the West Bank, he said that if they accept Israel as a Jewish state, Palestinians should receive Israeli citizenship. And if not? “There are 22 Arab states and one Jewish one, hence Arabs that don’t want to live in the Jewish one can move to one of their 22 states.” To understand the implications of what Hecht is saying, it’s worth noting that very few Palestinians want a Jewish state to control all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Some support a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Others want Israel, the West Bank and Gaza to become a “state for all its citizens” with no ethnic or religious character. Others want an Islamic state. To suggest that those Palestinians who don’t support Jewish sovereignty throughout Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza should leave the country is tantamount to calling for the physical removal of millions of human beings.

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Boteach also opposes a Palestinian state. And although, to his credit, he’s called Islam “a great world religion,” his writing about Palestinians is also marked by a blindness to injustice that stands in stark contrast to the message of moral responsibility that he and Booker preach. In 2010, Boteach went to the West Bank city of Hebron to visit the Jewish settlers there, a community he called “liberated from hatred.” Evidently Boteach missed the public park in the settlement of Kiryat Arba, on the outskirts of Hebron, dedicated to Rabbi Meir Kahane, who famously proposed that Palestinians be evicted from Israel and sex between Jews and non-Jews made a criminal offense. Near the park sits a shrine to Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinians at Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994.

In his article, Boteach observed that in Hebron, Jewish “children were playing, utterly carefree, on pristine playgrounds.” He didn’t mention Palestinian children, who are banned from setting foot on Shuhada Street, once a bustling thoroughfare in the city, even if their houses abut it. Those Palestinian houses, as Israeli and other human rights groups have documented, have literally been turned into cages; in some cases barbed wire covers the windows and doors. Boteach added that the Israeli soldiers in Hebron “never wish to make the Arab population feel intimidated by their presence.” Why should Hebron’s Palestinians feel intimidated? They are only living as non-citizens, under military law, without free movement or the right to vote for the government that controls their lives. And some of their houses have been forcibly encased in barbed wire so they can’t walk out their front doors.

How could rabbis so blind to injustice against Palestinians forge such a close bond to a politician who has built his political persona on impassioned pleas for justice? The answer, according to almost everyone I asked, is simple: Cory, Shmuley, and Shmully don’t discuss Israeli politics. “Cory and I haven’t talked a lot about this issue in particular,” explains Hecht. “I never got into what Cory’s politics are on Israel.” Ben Karp remembers that he “never had a conversation about Israeli politics with Cory.” Someone who knew both Booker and Boteach at Oxford adds: “I don’t see anything that Cory would have gotten out of discussing Israel. I don’t think there was anything that would have required him to confront it.”

If that sounds strange, it shouldn’t. If Booker didn’t inquire deeply into what his Chabad friends believe, neither do most Jews. For decades Chabad has attracted liberal, relatively secular Jews for the same reason Boteach and Hecht attracted Booker: because a long, slow, intimate Shabbat meal is a lovely thing. Because it’s nice to be among people who care about you, even if you’re not exactly sure why. Because to both secular Jews and non-Jews, rabbis in beards and black coats who speak authoritatively about sacred texts represent authenticity, a connection to something ancient in a society where people often feel unmoored. The secular Jews who show up at Chabad’s door don’t investigate its theology. They don’t ask, in between the kugel and brisket, whether the rabbi at the head of the table believes Palestinians are equal to Jews? They see their connection to Chabad as essentially apolitical, which, it appears, is the same way Booker sees it.

I know whereof I speak. When our family travels to an unfamiliar place, we often go to the local Chabad for Shabbat. Our daughter attended a Chabad preschool, where the teachers enveloped her with love. I’ve been privileged to consider Chabad rabbis friends. Chabad, notes Primus, “offers a spiritualism and authenticity that lots of very nice morally inoffensive Reform rabbis can never offer.” In some ways, the challenging question for American Jewish liberals is not why Chabad offered Booker the communal warmth and spiritual wonder he craved. It’s why those movements within American Judaism that actually champion universal human rights, including for Palestinians, did not.

But Booker is no longer just a spiritual seeker looking for community in unusual places. He’s on his way to being one of the most important politicians in the country. He says he supports a Palestinian state but when he speaks on the Middle East he generally recites the standard AIPAC half-truths. Indeed, although he reminds audiences that the word “Israel” means “struggle,” he doesn’t appear to have struggled with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians at all. To truly become the moral leader he’s capable of being, he’s going to have to start. Maybe, after his next Shabbat meal with his old friend Shmuley Boteach, he can suggest that they go and really see Hebron.