New Jersey Senate Candidate Cory Booker Knows His Torah. So What?
How the Newark mayor’s adopted Jewish identity—shaped by his Orthodox mentors—reflects his unique brand of politics
A Baptist, Booker became the unlikely co-president of Boteach’s L’Chaim Society in 1992, recruiting students into the organization and delivering the weekly d’var Torah. Booker then co-founded a Jewish society at Yale with another Hasidic rabbi, Shmully Hecht. After moving to Newark and entering politics, Booker kept up regular chavrutot with his rabbinic mentors, expanding his Torah knowledge to the point that he now comfortably drops religious references without notes. As Jeffrey Goldberg recently wrote, “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.”
These contrasting origin stories are evident in how Obama and Booker relate to the Jewish community. When Obama addresses Jewish audiences, he comes across as a liberal rabbi. He presents Jewish values as synonymous with progressive politics and draws heavily upon American Jewish history, name-dropping noted civil rights rabbinic activists like Abraham Joshua Heschel and Joachim Prinz. The American story, he seems to say, is the Jewish story—an ever-advancing universalistic ethic.
Booker, on the other hand, though committed to similarly liberal ends, presents more like his Orthodox mentors. He leans on traditional texts, from the weekly Torah portion to the Pirkei Avot, and is more likely to reference Hillel than Heschel. He keeps a stack of religious books on his desk, including an Artscroll Tanakh—the imprint of Orthodoxy’s most prolific publisher. When speaking Hebrew, his pronunciation sometimes slips into Ashkenazic, rather than the Sephardic-inflected tones of Modern Hebrew favored by non-Orthodox Jewry. And like his Chabad companions, Booker does not conflate Judaism with one particular political platform but rather plays up its spiritual uniqueness.
It would be tempting to dismiss these affectations as accidents of proximity, the incidental result of Obama and Booker being introduced to Judaism by different teachers. But they are not. They reflect deep-rooted divergences in both men’s political outlooks. There’s a reason, in other words, why each was drawn to different quarters of the Jewish world.
Barack Obama has built his political career on downplaying difference. “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America,” he famously told the 2004 Democratic National Convention. “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” His rhetoric is relentless in its quest for common ground. Like the Judaism of his Chicago mentors, it is universal in its essence.
But where Obama conflates, Booker differentiates. He celebrates the sharp edges of identity that Obama works to soften—even when they are in tension with his own ideals. “He doesn’t try to weed out the particularities in favor of some general commonality,” said Richard Primus, a fellow Rhodes Scholar, now a professor of law at the University of Michigan. “One of his rare gifts is he wants to push people to be more of their own authentic selves, even if that makes them different from other people or from him.” Or, as Booker’s friend and confidant Rabbi Shmully Hecht puts it, “Cory’s a guy who can go into any room with any group of people and say: ‘Be more of who you are.’ ” He respects the dignity of difference, and the integrity of identity, which endears him even to those—like many in the Orthodox community—who do not share his progressive political views.
One of the first things Boteach said he studied with Booker when they met two decades ago at Oxford was the rabbinic explanation for why Moses—a simple shepherd—was selected to lead the Jewish people. “The Talmud asks, ‘Why was he chosen?’ ” Boteach recounted. It answers: “Because he once took out the flock to graze, and he came back and there was a little straggler that was missing. And he left the entire flock and went to get the straggler.” Why did this act qualify Moses to lead a nation? “I told Cory,” Boteach said, “the lesson is that he didn’t go back for the straggler—he went back for the entire flock. The flock was incomplete without every constituent member.”
For Booker, then, what makes America strong is not its homogeneity, but its diversity. He not only is unafraid of the country’s many religious, racial, and ethnic identities, he collects them. His immersion in Judaism is but one example. He is a churchgoing Baptist who teaches Torah like an amateur rabbi. He abstains from alcohol like Muslims and Mormons. He is a vegetarian who meditates and quotes Eastern religious texts. On his desk, he keeps the New Testament, the Tanakh, the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita, each book another identity he can inhabit. In other words, like Moses’ flock in the Talmudic understanding, Booker’s world is enriched and strengthened by each expression of individuality. As one of his favorite proverbs says, “Sticks in a bundle can’t be broken.” In Cory Booker’s imagination, America is that bundle, and he is its living embodiment.
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