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Kosher Republican

Shmuley Boteach wants the government to extend blue laws and subsidize marriage counseling—and he’s running for Congress as a Republican

Dan Klein
March 12, 2012
NBC News' Meredith Vieira interviews Rabbi Shmuley Boteach for Dateline NBC in September 2009.(Virginia Sherwood/NBC NewsWire/Getty Images)
NBC News' Meredith Vieira interviews Rabbi Shmuley Boteach for Dateline NBC in September 2009.(Virginia Sherwood/NBC NewsWire/Getty Images)

Today Shmuley Boteach announced that he’s running as a Republican in New Jersey’s 9th Congressional District.

If Rabbi Shmuley Boteach had his way, businesses would close on Sunday, marriage counseling would be tax deductible, Wall Street would be less greedy, and our conservative politicians would drop their obsession with same-sex marriage and contraception.

That’s the platform—the Republican platform—that Boteach will promote in New Jersey’s 9th district if he decides to run for Congress. He’ll make an official decision on Tuesday, though he’s already filed with the Federal Election Committee.

It’s hard to square Boteach’s support for such initiatives with fundamental GOP principles of small government and free markets. But the rabbi insists there isn’t a discrepancy between his proposals and the ideology of the Republican Party.

“The point of government is to step in when it’s necessary,” he told me in an interview late last week, just before he was set to speak at a Republican candidates’ forum in Hoboken, N.J. “You send in the troops. You do things in an emergency. I think the divorce rate is an emergency.” By thinking about the divorce rate as a national disaster—Boteach himself is from a divorced family, an experience he says left deep scars—he makes the case that it’s the government’s job to intervene, just as it would, say, in a hurricane. “These would be limited measures of a few years,” he explained, “where we would try to rescue the institution of marriage.”

The second plank of his platform takes on what Americans do with their weekends: “My purpose is to recreate an American Sabbath,” he said. Boteach lives in Bergen County, one of the nation’s few jurisdictions that still has blue laws, forcing businesses to close on Sundays. While for years he’s waged a high-profile campaign to encourage “family Fridays,” as a lawmaker he says he’d promote quality family time partly by extending blue laws across the country.

When Boteach talks about values, he’s not just talking about the family. He believes that the economic crisis was exacerbated by a culture that equates money with happiness and confuses greed with entrepreneurship. It’s when values are eroded, he believes, that the government feels the need to step in.

“The more values, the less government interference there will be,” he said. “If Wall Street hadn’t been greedy, we wouldn’t need Dodd-Frank,” Boteach said of the 2010 financial regulation law, although he acknowledged that many Republicans dislike the law and that he shares some reservations. “It’s not a great law,” he added.

Boteach knows he faces an uphill battle. New Jersey’s 9th district is overwhelmingly blue, and even more so after the 2011 redistricting plan that forced Democratic Congressmen Steve Rothman and Bill Pascrell into a competitive primary. Close friends like Newark Mayor Cory Booker and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor have warned Boteach that it might not be worth the struggle.

If elected to Congress, Boteach said that he would seek counsel from Booker and Cantor, in addition to friends like Harvard professor Noah Feldman and Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens. But first he’ll have to convince a Republican base increasingly dominated by social conservatives fixated on same-sex marriage and contraception and Tea Party stalwarts who are staunchly against big government.

There are some issues where Boteach will certainly appeal. He calls the current tax system “insane,” supports school vouchers, and criticizes President Obama for his “mixed record on Israel.”

Other of his views are sure to rankle social conservatives. “The social-sexual obsession is destroying America and the Republican party in particular,” he said. “How are we going to fix marriage by focusing on gay men?”

He continued: “If you look at the social-sexual obsession, it is largely fueled by our patriotic Christian brothers and sisters—good people, but in Christianity sexuality plays an outsized role with its focus on the abstinence of Jesus, the celibacy of Paul, and the virginity of Mary.”

In February, Boteach got a taste of some of the skepticism he might face when he went on Fox Business’ Varney & Co. to discuss his platform. While two years earlier, he got a very warm welcome when he argued against the estate tax, this time the panelists were taken aback.

“If all you’ve got is the creation of an American Sabbath and making marriage counseling tax deductable. I’m not sure I can support your candidacy,” said Stuart Varney.

“I don’t care if people don’t like my specific proposals,” Boteach said. “I want to start the conversation. If you don’t like my proposal, what’s yours?” he said. “Start having the conversation and stop talking about contraception.”

To hear Boteach talk to Noah Feldman and Tablet’s Bari Weiss about whether or not he should run for Congress, click here: