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‘America’s rabbi’ seeks congressional seat

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach ata 2011 menorah lighting ceremony at Newark City Hall in New Jersey. (Robert Wiener, NJ Jewish News)

(NJ Jewish News) — Known by some as “America’s rabbi,” he is a Lubavitcher rabbi, a television host, frequent talk-show guest, and the author of 27 books — among them such provocative titles as “Kosher Sex” and Kosher Jesus.

As of March 12, Englewood, N.J., resident Shmuley Boteach can add another role to his long resume — Republican candidate for Congress.

Boteach is the pick of the Republican organizations in Hudson, Passaic, and Bergen counties to run against either of the two incumbent Democrats — Bill Pascrell, currently representing District 8, or District 9’s Steve Rothman — now locked in a primary fight to represent the redrawn ninth district.

Unlike the candidates for the GOP’s presidential nomination, Boteach views such hot and divisive issues as birth control, abortion, and gay rights as distractions from America’s key social problems. He doesn’t think that focusing on what he calls this “trifecta of sexual issues that dominate the political landscape” will bring “healing to America.”

Instead, he proposes changing the subject.

“I believe the social-sexual obsession of the United States is destroying America in general and is particularly hurtful to the Republicans,” he told NJ Jewish News in a March 14 phone interview.

And while the reason he is a Republican is that he is a social conservative, in Boteach’s view that stance is not only about these three issues. “For me,” he said, “social conservatism is about the American family.”

And for Boteach, that particular issue is addressed through the prism of his own particular perspective; he is running for Congress, he said, in order to “bring Jewish values to the discourse,” with the specific aim of keeping families together. As a child of divorce, he said, he views stable marriages as an imperative.

To help further this goal, he said, if he gains the seat to become the first rabbi ever to become a member of the House, his top legislative priority would be to make marital counseling tax-deductible.

Such a move “would give families the financial incentive to get the help they need. The distraction of a 30-year debate on gay marriage is not going to save heterosexual marriage,” he said.

Although Boteach believes constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom would be violated if institutions such as the Catholic Church were compelled to provide insurance coverage for birth control to employees, he declared, “I believe in contraception. Judaism believes in contraception. My values are informed by Judaism.” The religion does not view sex as being for procreation only, he said; “we believe in sex for intimacy.”

While he favors civil unions — but not marriage — for same-sex couples, that position sets him apart from the four most prominent candidates in the race to unseat President Barack Obama.

But Boteach does not seem to mind.

“Even if you are part of a political party, you must retain your individuality,” he said. He follows his own path in another arena. “I am a Jew. I am a part of the Jewish community,” he said. “But I am not in step with all things the Jewish community wants to focus on and highlight.”

As an example of an organization that is able to draw widespread support from throughout that community, he cites the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “When the Jewish community wants to organize from a specific objective they are incredible…. But here’s a question: How could we be so potent when it comes to strengthening Israel and so impotent when it comes to strengthening social values?”

That he chose the GOP as the base for advancing his agenda may still appear an odd choice. Conceding that “an overwhelming majority of my intimate friends and close associates are liberals and Democrats,” the rabbi said, “I salute the liberal desire to clothe the naked and feed the hungry. So why am I a Republican?” he asked. “It strikes to the core of Jewish values. What people want above all else is dignity, and dignity comes from self-reliance. Government has to help people, and there has to be a safety net. The question is will that give them dignity?”

He declined to criticize Pascrell — one of his potential Democratic opponents — saying, “I don’t know him, and to my knowledge I have never met him.” But Boteach has much to say about Pascrell’s primary opponent, Steve Rothman.

“We had a warm relationship,” he said. But the closeness came apart when the Libyan ambassador to the United Nations, Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham, moved next door to the Boteach home.

“I hit the roof,” said the rabbi. “I then read that Congressman Rothman said he hopes everyone behaves in a neighborly way. That disappointed me.”

Boteach also gave mixed reviews to President Obama in regard to his stand on Israel.

“There have been some good things and some not such good things,” he said.

He did praise the president for “military and intelligence cooperation with Israel” and for “standing up for Israel with the Palestinian attempt for declaring unilateral statehood at the United Nations.”

But Boteach said he objects to “Obama’s putting pressure on Israel by demanding a settlement freeze” and criticized him for “not doing enough on Iran. I would like him to draw red lines and say, ‘If you pass these red lines, you face a near-certain military action.’”

The rabbi opposes a two-state solution and sees the establishment of a Palestinian state as “a threat to Israel. The idea that Hamas would play a dominant role troubles me greatly,” he told NJJN.

He supports the West Bank settlements’ existence, asserting that “Jews and Arabs should be allowed to live anywhere in Israel or Judea and Samaria. If someone said to me, ‘Arabs cannot live in Jerusalem,’ I would be one of the first to object.”

At this point, Boteach appears to be unopposed in his quest for the Republican nomination as he plans his first run for elective office.

“I am going to be a rabbi in this campaign, and I am going to do my best to uphold my values. Judge me by my ideas. Judge me by what I represent,” he said.

“Yeah, I am a Republican because I believe in more limited government, but in the final analysis I think we need a Jewish voice in Congress. There are other Jews in Congress, but I am talking about someone whose platform is to bring the universality of Jewish values to the political discourse.”