It was quite typical of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, probably one of the busiest individuals you will ever meet. While I was planning to talk to him about his new controversial book, "Kosher Jesus" (and he wrote as many books as the former Speaker of the House and presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich) - he was already into his new endeavor, seriously exploring the possibility of running for a newly redrawn New Jersey 9th Congressional District - as a Republican candidate.
This is not necessarily something you would expect from a Rabbi who published a book about "Kosher sex," who used to be a friend of Michael Jackson, z"l, and intrepidly fought against deceased Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi, when he planned to open his famous tent in real estate adjacent to his house.
So where did this idea come from? Is it a final decision?
"I declared my intentions to run, I am seriously exploring the possibility, and I have one month to make up my mind,"Rabbi Shmuley says, adding he has been thinking about it for the past three or four years.
"I am friendly with (House Majority Leader) Eric Cantor, we study Torah together. He is a dear friend, a very committed Jew, and we talked about it at length. He told me to think about it carefully. Family is my first consideration - my wife's opinion will be the most important one, because my first duty is to be a loving husband and family man. But I am concerned about values in America, there has been significant values erosion in our nation - and I'd like to be the voice of values in Congress. I love America and I run for the state of my country. Gay marriage and abortion shouldn't be cornerstone issues in our political discourse. We should be introducing values-based education. There should be flat tax and it should be low and fair. And I am concerned about President Obama and Israel, especially as Israel faces existential threats from Iran. It shouldn't be forced to face Iran alone, and sanctions are not going to stop Iran."
I tell him there isn't any visible sign of pressure recently from the Obama administration.
"Yes," he agrees. "But we don't know why the President backed away from his pressure on Israel - maybe it was because, as he said, he took some "shellacking" in midterm elections, and if he is reelected - the question is how he will behave then."
You might want to talk about values, I said, but if you are a member of Congress, you won't be able to duck controversial issues. Let's take this week's fight over contraceptives - President Obama wanted them to be included in all healthcare plans, Churches exempt - and then, when the Republicans interpreted it as sort of war against religion - Obama offered a compromise, shifting the responsibility to provide the contraceptives from the faith employer to healthcare plan provider.
"Well," Rabbi Boteach says,"Contraceptives are absolutely allowed in Judaism, and my own belief is they should be allowed - but it shouldn't be imposed on Catholic institutions to pay for it, it's against their basic principles. President Obama has no right to impose laws on religious groups, and there is no need to make this a divisive. It's not fair to impose religion on secular people - or secularism on religious people. If it's a Catholic hospital - they have their rules and they deserve to be respected. You can't force Catholic institutions to do something against their conscience. Besides, I've always been opposed to universal healthcare plans, because America can't afford it. I was living in England for 12 years, and I've seen what an incredible strain it was on English economy."
He says in the current Republican primaries, he has not endorsed any specific candidate. When I ask what specific bills he was thinking about himself, he says the focus needs to be shifted to the really important issues.
"Why do issues such as abortion or gay marriage get the most attention? These are not cornerstone issues. On gay marriage - I personally believe in civil unions," he says.
"And we have to stop saying it's the end of the institution of marriage. What really threatens this institution is not gay couples, but the high rate of divorce and cynicism - many people simply do not believe in this institution, and this is really an important issue for the country. I would introduce legislation that makes marriage counseling tax deductible, encourage the creation of American Sabbath, to reclaim a day in a week not for work and shopping, but for the family. I've heard the claim it will hinder the economy - but it was refuted by the 2008 economic collapse. Corrosion comes from addiction to materialism, when your cars are never new enough, you just borrow and spend and spend and borrow, and the moral fabric of the nation suffers. I will introduce school vouchers - so parents can decide where they send their kids to learn."
I remind him that Congress approval ratings hit a new low - 10%, and maybe the contact sport of national politics is not a natural place for a religious leader.
"Politics can be a great noble calling," he says.
"Congress has low approval rating because people see its members as interested in petty politics rather than a grand vision, and in pursuing their own interests rather than the interest of their constituents. But all those negative things associated with politics - negative campaigns, moral questions - we are trying to navigate them in every field, in business, religion, community. Why should Congress be different? Should I chose to run, I'd like to believe I try to bring my values there and do my very best - and maybe help change the political discourse in this country that has become toxic. Ideally, every congressman should be a values based candidate."
When we talk about his recent book, "Kosher Jesus," that stirred quite a controversy among his Orthodox peers, Rabbi Boteach admits he always had a "strong interest" in Christianity, since those years he spend in Oxford as the founder of the University "L'Chaim Society." There, he witnessed some Jewish students convert to Christianity- and "thousands" of Christians students attending the events he organized.
"I started to think about the relations of Christianity and Judaism. The book about Jesus started back then. Besides, I speak in churches, I am very close to the Christian Evangelical community, and in 2010 I had the honor to meet in Rome with Pope Benedict XVI. I respect Christianity greatly, but my Jewish faith has never been shaken by it - not one iota."
Since the book was published, it was ferociously attacked by some Rabbis who called to shun it - and some critics, who thought the research undertaken by Rabbi Boteach wasn't serious enough. Rabbi Boteach, who had stirred some controversies in the past, admits "it wasn't pleasant, especially when the attacks became personal. Some claimed "it' will help to convert Jews" - but I totally reject this view, that is very disparaging and antiquated view of Christians - the idea that the only thing they want is to convert us. We need to change that. For instance, Christian Evangelicals today are the most reliable stalwart allies of Israel."
He says the idea to remind readers that "Jesus was a Torah observing Jew that Christianity would be totally alien to him" was targeted mainly at the Christians - "to educate Christians about the Jewishness of Jesus and what impact our religion had on the world."
Wouldn't Christians be offended by his interpretation of Jesus?
"I demonstrate in this book that Jesus never wanted to found a new religion," he says. "As for him being presented as human - even Christianity says that he was fully human and fully divine. But Christianity focuses almost exclusively on the divinity part and ignores his humanity, which is inevitably linked to his Judaism."
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