The question before the voters of New Jersey is a simple one: Is Newark Mayor Cory Booker too Jewish to be a U.S. senator?
I bet you didn’t know that this was even a question.
Before I provide the answer, here’s a story about Booker, who is the favorite to win the Democratic nomination — and therefore the general election in Democrat-heavy New Jersey — to replace the late Frank Lautenberg.
A couple of years ago, at a friend’s house, I fell into conversation with Booker about the Middle East. Talking with Booker can be exhausting; he makes President Bill Clinton seem like a study in introversion. One of my daughters was with me, and I introduced her to the mayor, noting — to her embarrassment, of course — that she was about to become a Bat Mitzvah.
Booker turned his attention to her. “What’s your parasha?” he asked, using the Hebrew word for portion, a reference to the section of the Torah she would soon be reading. I could see, across my daughter’s then almost-13-year-old-face, a bit of confusion and a trace of panic, but she answered: “Vayera,” which is the action-packed chapter in the Book of Genesis that includes, among other things, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
“Amazing parasha!” Booker said. He then quoted — in Hebrew — one of its more famous lines. And he shared his expert exegesis on the portion’s broader meaning — notably, the lessons that any troublemaker worth her salt could derive from Abraham’s audacious decision to negotiate with God about the future of these two sinful towns.
My daughter didn’t know quite what to make of Booker’s erudite and enthusiastic performance. “Is he Jewish?” she asked later. No, I said. He’s a Protestant. “He knows a lot about my parasha,” she said.
Yes, he did. He also knows a lot about Jews, so much so that his remarkable philo-Semitism has raised eyebrows, not among anti-Semites but among some suspicious Semites.
Booker’s close relations with Jews and Judaism have prompted two skeptical observations. The first is whether the sort of performance my daughter and I saw is a kind of elaborate parlor trick designed to draw Jewish voters and Jewish fundraising dollars. Booker is a politician, and so is burdened by the assumption of insincerity.
The second question has to do with the sort of Jew he’s consorting with, in particular, two of his closest Jewish friends and advisers, the rabbis Shmuley Boteach and Shmully Hecht.
The writer Peter Beinart suggested last week that these two rabbis, both of whom have been affiliated with the Chabad Lubavitcher movement, share a theology that is antithetical to the way Booker — and, not incidentally, most Jews — understands the world.
“Chabad emphasizes the fundamental difference between Jewish and non-Jewish souls,” Beinart wrote. “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.’”
Beinart does suggest that, on the spectrum of Hasidic intolerance, Boteach and Hecht are almost Unitarian-Universalists. Boteach, whom I know slightly, is the author of a book called “Kosher Sex,” and had served as a “spiritual adviser” to Michael Jackson (whatever that means). He has always seemed more interested in publicity than the advancement of fundamentalist ideas; if self-promotion were a Jewish value, he’d be Maimonides. But Beinart’s implication is clear: The presence of these men in Booker’s orbit, and the influence they might have on him in matters of Middle East peacemaking, should trouble liberal Jews.
I called Booker last week to ask him about this issue. He wasn’t at all defensive, and he seemed disinclined to distance himself from his Hasidic friends, although he was careful to endorse President Barack Obama’s vision of Middle East peace, which doesn’t have much support in conservative Jewish circles.
He and Boteach, he said, are particularly close. Their relationship began at Oxford University, when Booker was studying as a Rhodes scholar and Boteach was in charge of a Chabad-sponsored Jewish organization. They became friends, and Boteach eventually asked Booker to serve as the head of the L’Chaim Society. (That appointment, in fact, was partly why Chabad later censured Boteach, who would soon cut his formal ties to the movement.)
“I met Shmuley at Simchat Torah” — the holiday in which Jews celebrate receiving the Torah — “and the next day two friends were castigating me for hanging out with the Lubavitchers,” Booker said. “I decided to go back to Shmuley and tell him what they were saying. This led to a three-hour conversation and a deep friendship. You know, Alex Haley once told the story of how a conservatively dressed white businessman came up to Malcolm X and said that he disagreed with him but respected his style, and Malcolm X gets really close to the guy and says, ‘You know something? You can search the world two times over and you’ll never find two people who agree on everything.’ Shmuley and I have sat at Shabbat tables for two decades now, disagreeing.”
Boteach opposes a Palestinian state. When I asked Booker about this, he said, “One of the best speeches I’ve ever seen given about Israel was President Obama’s most recent speech, which he wisely gave to students, and in which he really articulated the sort of core Democratic Party understanding about Israel — the need for a two-state solution, a need not just for peace but for a penetrating peace for all people of the region, in a conflict that is just hurting everybody.”
There is no evidence — zero, none — that Booker is outside the mainstream of Democratic Party or Jewish community thinking on the Middle East. There is also no evidence to suggest that Booker’s relationship with Jews and their faith is insincere. He does so much more than the minimum required of non-Jewish politicians to build trust with Jews that his preoccupation could only be motivated by honest interest.
The Senate lost a Jewish member when Lautenberg died, but if Booker is chosen to replace him, he will undoubtedly find a place in the Senate minyan. He’ll be an unusual member of this prayer quorum, and not only because he’s a black Christian. I’ve met most of the Senate’s other Jews, and I can say, with a high degree of certainty, that Booker knows more Torah than they do.