Each spring, Newsweek magazine publishes a list of America’s “Top 50” rabbis. Most of the names on the list probably won’t be familiar to people outside the Jewish faith, but a few stand out. One of those is Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who is famous outside Jewish circles for his books on sex and marriage, and for his connection to celebrities like Michael Jackson and Oprah (whose show he has appeared on several times).
Boteach has always ranked near the top of the Newsweek list. In 2007 and 2008 he was #9 on the list. In 2009 he went to #7 and then peaked at #6 in 2010. He was #11 on the 2011 list, still quite respectable. And then, this year, he suddenly slid all the way down to #30. What happened? Here’s Newsweek‘s explanation:
Known for his bestselling books on parenting and sex, Boteach “threw his yarmulke in the ring” to run for a congressional seat in New Jersey to “bring Jewish values into the political discourse” and won the Republican nomination.
One might think that announcing a run for office would make a rabbi more influential, not less. After all, no rabbi has ever been elected to Congress. If he won his race in New Jersey’s ninth congressional district, Shmuley Boteach would be the first.
We often hear that these sorts of firsts (i.e. the first black woman, the first Hispanic) are important cultural milestones. Not so when you’re running as a Republican, it seems.
The Newsweek description provides a partial excuse for why Boteach’s ranking has fallen, a few sentences later:
his political candidacy has not been helped by a report in The Forward that said an “examination of public records reveals that the charity Boteach heads spends a significant portion of its revenues on payments to Boteach and his family.”
The Forward is a Jewish publication with a decidedly left-leaning bent. Not surprisingly, it published a hit piece on Boteach before he had even formally announced his candidacy.
The core of the Forward piece is an attack on Boteach’s charity which suggests something is wrong with the salary the organization’s board chose to pay him. But, critically, nothing specific is ever alleged. On the contrary, count the number of weasel words in this sentence introducing the topic:
Some aspects of the organization’s finances are of the type that, depending on the circumstances, could raise questions among regulators.
So some aspects could raise questions, depending on circumstances. The circumstance that clearly mattered most in the case was that Rabbi Shmuley had chosen to run as a Republican.
Note that the piece also points readers to the worst possible conclusion by suggesting that the charity spends money on Boteach’s “family.” In fact, the only recipients from Boteach’s family are the rabbi himself, and his wife, who is an employee of the charity. The Forward chose to spin these salaries as if they were suspicious, possibly corrupt payments to outside relatives.
That would certainly be news to the charity’s board–which happens to include Newark mayor (and prominent Democrat) Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ).
The piece goes on to suggest that Rabbi Boteach (read GOP candidate Boteach) could be risking the political independence of his charity based on a statement he made at a book party in February:
Boteach also briefly discussed his candidacy at a launch event for his new book, “Kosher Jesus,” while seated in front of a banner bearing the name of his organization. (Forward Editor Jane Eisner moderated the discussion.)
“I’m not here to criticize anyone because this isn’t a political conversation,” Boteach said. “But I will say that now I am seriously considering a run for Congress…I’d like to bring a values conversation to the American political radar.”
There’s really nothing here but wishful thinking. Boteach had not announced his candidacy, so he was not a candidate at the time. Furthermore, the content of the statement is completely innocuous. It doesn’t mention any candidate or even any specific platform other than “values.” Even if he had been a candidate at the time, this statement would not have caused Boteach or the organizers of the event any trouble.
Also, note that the reason the Forward was there to record that statement is because they had been invited by Rabbi Boteach. In essence, they turned the invitation to participate into an opportunity to write a tissue-thin hit piece. Nice!
It’s really not surprising that a mainstream media magazine like Newsweek would attack a Republican nominee. Nor is it surprising that Newsweek would rely on a hit piece in a similarly left-leaning publication to knock a newly minted GOP candidate down a few pegs. That’s how the media operates, especially in an election year.
If Rabbi Boteach wins his race in New Jersey’s ninth congressional district, he may find himself dropping off the Top 50 Rabbis list altogether.