Recently a very high profile rabbi decided to run for congress in New Jersey. He is now gaining national attention with his political ads which show him running around district holding a suit on a hanger while deriding his opponent. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach who has previously labeled himself ‘America’s Rabbi ‘ is the Republican Congressional candidate in New Jersey’s 9th district.
I have no problem with people changing careers in midlife. Others have done this very successfully. Most notably Arnold Schwarzenegger went from being a mega Hollywood actor to becoming the Governor of the State of California. Obviously his career as an actor, businessman and bodybuilder informed who he was as a governor but when he was in politics he was a politician. Mike Huckabee was a pastor and religious leader for twelve years and then ran for elected office and did so as a ‘former ‘ pastor.
But Rabbi Boteach is running for congress as a rabbi, he insists that people refer to him as Rabbi Shmuley. Herein lies a dichotomy that cannot be bridged. Newark Mayor and good friend of Boteach said as much when he commented that he did not think that politics was Boteach’s ‘calling. ‘ He added that he thinks Boteach, ‘diminishes his brand in one way by entering the fractious, partisan world of politics, ‘ and concluded that entering it was the wrong decision for Boteach.
Although Boteach and I know each other we are not close enough for me to decide whether or not politics is his calling. Or if his decision to run for office was right or wrong for him as an individual. However, I can say that, from a strictly Jewish perspective, being a rabbi and a politician are incompatible.
This election cycle has shown that it is virtually impossible to get elected to public office without going negative. One has to publicly criticize one’s opponent and research their failings and then bring them to light. Whilst this is good for democracy it is not something that my religion is fond of. But more disturbingly that that, to be elected one needs, at the very least, to compromise the truth.
There are only a two Biblical commandment which the Torah itself not only warns us against but also warns us to keep a distance from. Falsehood is one of them -the other is sexual immorality. Not only does the Torah not want us to lie, in fact it says ‘keep a distance from falsehood, ‘ (Exodus 23:7), is a fundamental value in Judaism. Being a professional politician is incompatible with this value.
One may argue that Boteach is running a truthful campaign in which he never lies. This may be the case -in fact I expect it to be the case. However, the Torah does not tell us not to lie, we are to ‘stay away ‘ from all falsehoods.
Becoming a politician is getting far to close to falsehoods. Just watch any of the tens of thousands of political ads playing all across this country and then fact check them and you will find an illustration of this point. As such, becoming a politician is getting too close to falsehoods, especially for ‘America’s Rabbi ‘ who portrays himself as a national exponent of Jewish values. Whilst I wish Mr. Boteach the best of luck with his newfound political career, I wish he would drop the title rabbi as he pursues it.