It shouldn’t come as a big surprise that Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the publicity-hungry rabbi who has cozied up to any major celebrity who lets him come into their orbit, is now getting close to the future Trump administration.
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From Michael Jackson to Oprah Winfrey, from Elie Wiesel to Cory Booker and Pamela Anderson and Dr. Oz, there has never been a potential photo opportunity that Boteach hasn’t seized – and what could be brighter than the spotlight trained on Trump Tower right now?
With that, Boteach bills himself alternatively as “America’s Rabbi” and “the most famous rabbi in America.” He first won fame as the author of books like “Kosher Sex,” and has published 30 more since then, become a reality TV star with his show “Shalom in the Home,” and made a go at Republican politics when he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in New Jersey in 2012.
Boteach’s widely distributed columns appear in mainstream and Jewish publications from the Jerusalem Post to the Huffington Post. Two notable outlets where his opinions regularly appear: Breitbart News, where Bannon had been chairman before leaving to join the Trump team, and the New York Observer, which is owned by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Over the years, he has also been closely associated with casino billionaire and political kingmaker Sheldon Adelson, who has given generously to his World Values Network, as well as heavily backing his congressional run.
So it’s little wonder that since Election Day, the father of nine has made it a point to be spotted in the lobby of the building during the Trump transition – in case anyone missed it, he tweeted out the photos himself. However, the pictures on his Twitter feed that have received the most attention were those that appeared on Wednesday, where he poses with Steve Bannon, strategic adviser and top aide to Trump,who is best known for his association with the white supremacist alt-right movement during his stint as chairman of Breitbart News.
Reaction to the photos on Twitter was brutal, replete with name-calling at Bannon and at Boteach for his show of friendship.
The photographs appeared several weeks after Boteach publicly came to Bannon’s defense when individual Jews and leaders of Jewish organizations, most prominently Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League, sharply criticized his White House appointment. Greenblatt issued a statement saying, “It is a sad day when a man who presided over the premier website of the ‘alt-right’ – a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists – is slated to be a senior staff member in the ‘people’s house.’”
In an open letter to Greenblatt, Boteach, while confessing that he “barely knows” Bannon, vouched for him and said he had been assured by people he trusted that Bannon is not personally anti-Semitic, and that it was unfair to object to his appointment on the basis of Breitbart’s messaging and its audience.
Boteach wrote: “Guilt by association is not fair. If you have issues with Mr. Bannon, focus them squarely on pronouncements attributed to him. I am aware that in a contentious divorce proceeding he is said to have uttered something about his daughter not being with Jewish students. I have no idea about the veracity of the statement and as a marriage counselor, I know that in a divorce, harsh things are often alleged. Aside from that, I don’t think even the most hostile media can point to a single reason to consider him anti-Semitic.”
Boteach, however, has not stood consistently behind Trump throughout the course of the contest for president, with his support taking something of a roller-coaster ride.
The rabbi publicly backed Trump on May 13, 2016 – not-so-coincidentally just after his benefactor, Adelson, published his May 13 piece in the Washington Post officially endorsing the New York billionaire as it became clear his path to the Republican nomination had been paved.
Boteach said in his own piece that while he disagreed with Trump on the Muslim immigration ban,“whatever my differences with Donald Trump, he is the right candidate to protect Israel, bolster the security of the United States, and hold terrorists accountable for their atrocities against innocent civilians around the world.”
But shortly afterwards, only a month later, after Trump renewed his call for a Muslim immigration ban, Boteach appeared to rescind his endorsement, he told a reporter that he wasn’t certain if he would give his vote to Trump. He said, “I disagree with him on the Muslim ban, I’m not in accordance with his values on some other things. I will decide who I will vote for as this campaign unfolds.”
He worded his hesitation more seriously in July, during the firestorm over a Trump tweet of Hillary Clinton with Stars of David and cash. Writing in the New York Daily News, Boteach said that while it was “ridiculous” to call Trump, whose daughter and grandchildren were Jewish, a “Jew-hater,” Trump’s campaign did not sufficiently reflect “Jewish values,” and he issued a “public plea” to Trump to “start running a campaign rooted in the universal tenets of the Hebrew Bible.”
Calling the Muslim ban “immoral,” Boteach said it was “high time the candidate condemn the disgusting, vile, white supremacist nutjobs, way too many of whom support him. I do not believe for a moment that Trump agrees with their rabid anti-Semitism. But the job of a leader is to lead. And when many of his followers are lunatic racists, he has an obligation to rise and tell them and the rest of us that he’s sickened by what they say about Jews and minorities and they can take their support elsewhere.”
Regarding the Star of David tweet, he said, “Trump could have put this whole stupid star-tweet controversy behind him had he simply said he’s sorry if anyone was offended and moved on. Instead, he did the opposite, claiming his campaign was wrong to take the image down – and that those who were offended are ‘sick people.’ Why is it such a big deal to apologize? Weak men are afraid to apologize because they feel compromised while strong men are comfortable saying sorry because they would rather be righteous than right.”
But no such apology was forthcoming. In October, Boteach referred to Trump’s speech on the Access Hollywood tape as “vulgar, nauseating, and lewd,” but adopted the Trump camp spin of equating it with Bill Clinton’s behavior. He stopped short of condemning Trump personally, saying that “the broader, more important point [is] that [Trump and Clinton’s] behavior is a reflection of our unhealthy sexual culture.”
It’s unclear precisely what Boteach was doing in the photographed visits to Trump Tower and his encounter with Bannon. Back in July, when he was chiding Trump over the allegedly anti-Semitic tweet, Boteach suggested that if Trump truly wanted to “Make America Great Again” what he needed on his team was “a values czar, a moral voice the candidate respects who can help him identify the core values of righteous living that has made America great in the past.”
Perhaps he was telling Bannon he knows just the rabbi for the job.