Rabbi Shmuley Boteach refuses to leave his unorthodox orthodoxy at home
It had all the makings of a puzzling dream. It was 1 a.m. in Manhattan, but the big-bearded, blue-eyed rabbi on the bike ahead of me was very much real. “You’ve got to come see this park before you go,” he insisted. So I found myself trying to keep up as we peddled along the Hudson River.
When we reached a lamp-lit park overlooking the Upper Bay, the rabbi returned to his favorite topic of conversation during my visit. “You know, you Mormons really seem to have it figured out,” Rabbi Shmuley Boteach told me — noting The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ emphasis on family, its largely lay ministry and its zealous proselytizing efforts. Had it not been at least his 20th reference to my faith during our visit, the comment would’ve seemed more whimsical. But Rabbi Shmuley, who Newsweek once dubbed “the most famous rabbi in America,” unabashedly loves Latter-day Saints.
As we sat at the park, he recounted his many interactions with the faith. There was the time Shmuley — a firm believer that what happens in private ritual should remain private — ran to the defense of Latter-day Saints after church members violated a policy prohibiting posthumous baptisms of Holocaust victims. “Jewish officialdom is up in arms,” Shmuley wrote for the Deseret News at the time, “the Mormon Church is on the defensive, and frankly I don’t give a damn.” Then, when 2012 presidential candidates Jon Huntsman Jr. and Mitt Romney — both Latter-day Saints — became the subjects of public attention for their faith, Shmuley penned an op-ed in HuffPost titled, “Are Mormons Any Weirder Than The Rest Of Us?”
Just earlier this year, while taking a road trip to Yellowstone, Shmuley stopped in the Utah mountains to record a video message for his own 869,000 Facebook followers: “The Mormon Church and the Jewish community are brothers,” he declared, before musing about the Latter-day Saint health code (the Word of Wisdom) and the faith’s practice of family home evening.
And then there was the occasion when Shmuley met with then-church president Gordon B. Hinckley and encouraged him to reopen Brigham Young University’s campus in Jerusalem amid Palestine’s second intifada. “Reopening would be an act of solidarity for the Jewish people,” the rabbi told the prophet at Temple Square. Students were welcomed back to the campus months later, though Shmuley doesn’t flatter himself with any credit.
Two decades later, Shmuley’s memories of President Hinckley and the 2002 Winter Games are as fresh as ever — perhaps because visiting Utah’s outdoors is still a frequent ritual for him and his family. Even so, the last two decades have placed him on a unique trajectory. He ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012, winning the Republican Party nomination but losing the general election. He hosted a TLC-aired reality TV show, “Shalom in the Home,” where he parked an RV in the driveway of troubled families and offered counseling, serving as something of a Jewish Dr. Phil. In 2009, he published “The Michael Jackson Tapes,” some 30 hours of transcribed conversation between the two from Shmuley’s tenure as Jackson’s unofficial spiritual adviser.
But between his political involvement, his media ventures and his 30-plus books, Shmuley refuses to retreat from public life. In fact, he’s on the verge of releasing yet another book next month: “Kosher Hate,” the latest in a long line of “Kosher” titles, this one challenging our common conceptions of forgiveness and evil. And as religiosity declines in some pockets of America, my conversations with the rabbi about his new book and his role in American life reveal a man unapologetic about bringing his full religious self to the public square.
Shmuley — who I call by his first name, per his request, as no one calls him “Rabbi Boteach” — received his first rabbinic designation at 22. The ultra-Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic sect sent the wunderkind to Oxford University, tasked with starting a Jewish society for students on campus.
The product was the L’Chaim Society (named after a Hebrew toast meaning “to life”). Specializing in extravagant parties and Torah readings and weekly Friday-night Shabbat dinners, it became a social hub on campus, and a home to some of the world’s future leaders: U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, Australian parliamentarian Joshua Frydenberg, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman, to name a few.
Friends eventually brought friends, and some friends brought Gentiles — including Booker, a Baptist, and my own father, a Latter-day Saint, who was also a student there. Shmuley, like any good campus minister, welcomed all with open arms, Jew or Gentile. When my father introduced him to Latter-day Saint missionaries, Shmuley told them, “When people disrespect you, know that you will always be respected here.” The elders returned regularly — Oxford was a tough place for missionaries, Shmuley notes.
One missionary, in particular, bonded with the rabbi. The young man’s father served as commander of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe during his son’s mission years. When Shmuley discovered this missionary’s heritage, he was baffled. “You mean all along, when these people spit on you and kicked you and abused you, you could have ordered an airstrike?”
No airstrikes were ordered. But when Shmuley’s higher-ups ordered him to remove all non-Jews from the L’Chaim Society, the young rabbi refused.
After a decade at Oxford — and after ruffling more than a few feathers — Shmuley returned to the U.S. with a souvenir: The Times in London’s “Preacher of the Year” award. Back home, he leaned more fully into a new identity as “America’s Rabbi,” carving out a public ministry: Instead of leading congregations, he wrote bestselling books and appeared on radio shows. He was hired as a spokesperson for a Jewish dating website and appeared on TV as a guest for Oprah, Dr. Phil and Larry King. Once, Jay Leno gave a copy of Shmuley’s book “Kosher Sex,” a guide to relationships and intimacy, to Dennis Rodman.
Today, Shmuley doesn’t shy from his “celebrity rabbi” role. His aim isn’t to change orthodox Judaism or its tenets, he tells me, but to make it more widely accessible. “He was the first Orthodox rabbi to be a full participant in celebrity culture — with a reality TV show, celebrity friendships, and an unwinnable political campaign,” Noah Feldman, the Harvard law professor who knew Shmuley at Oxford, once told Tablet.
But not all in the orthodox Jewish community or those adjacent to it are fans. One story in Vice dubbed him “The World’s Most Controversial Jew.” Some prominent American rabbis called his book “Kosher Jesus” heretical and forbade Jews from buying it. When “Kosher Lust” was released — a sequel to ”Kosher Sex” — a column in Israeli newspaper Haaretz begged to “get this guy out of our beds.”
In an interview with Vice, Shmuley mused about the discomfort his work has sometimes caused. “Religion has its way of doing things,” he said, “and when you veer from that, you rattle the cage and people feel uncomfortable.”
If Judaism really is for everyone, as one of Shmuley’s bestselling books postulates, the back patio of Shmuley’s seven-story condo on Manhattan’s Upper West Side makes that claim literal. Instead of an intimate family Shabbat dinner, I could have been attending a block party. Between the singing and laughter and conversation pullulating from below, the upstairs neighbors aren’t always fond of these Friday-night gatherings. “People throw eggs down at us sometimes,” Shmuley jokes.
But like Shmuley’s forays into the public square, approval and privacy are of no concern. This Shabbat celebration — the Jewish “family night,” as the rabbi described it to this Latter-day Saint journalist — boasted an eclectic roster of guests: there was Shmuley, his wife Debbie, two sons, four daughters, two sons-in-law and three grandchildren, all practicing Jews. Shmuley and Debbie have nine children in total. Across the table, two chairs down from me, sat a family friend, the daughter of a woman who Shmuley helped to escape from Afghanistan several years ago. She now studies at a local university. Throughout the dinner, a handful of other guests, friends and family shuffle in and out.
When the rabbi offers kiddush, the blessing over wine to sanctify the Sabbath, he generously offers to drink extra wine for the Latter-day Saints. Others at the table ask, dumbstruck: You can’t drink wine? The rabbi answers for me, offering the gathering an impromptu lesson on the Latter-day Saint health code — no alcohol, no tobacco, no coffee or tea. He then launches into a comparative analysis, drawing parallels between our two faiths: the shared focus on community, family, the Sabbath and religious dietary restrictions, among other things. He concludes with a smile: “Yeah, being a Jew sucks worse.”
Everyone at the table laughs.
This rabbinic ecumenicism and humor was once a daily fixture in many Utah homes; in 2005, Shmuley debuted his own talk radio show on KUTR in Salt Lake City, then owned by Bonneville International (a subsidiary of Deseret Management Corporation, which is this publication’s parent company). Every weekday, he spent three hours as host — from his home in Englewood, New Jersey — taking calls from dozens of Latter-day Saint women in Utah about relationships and families and marriage. “He’s like a cheerleader for the American housewife,” one listener from Orem told the Daily Herald.
But the show lasted only five months before Shmuley was dismissed. Shmuley says he was fired because he unexpectedly turned a KUTR-organized speaking event in Salt Lake City into a meet-and-greet for Hurricane Katrina evacuees, welcoming them to Utah and connecting them with local resources; Rod Arquette, however, then vice president of Salt Lake Radio Group, told me that Shmuley “just didn’t seem to fit” the station’s overall programing plans.
Things worked out nicely for the rabbi, though. Shmuley got another stab at radio when Oprah offered him his own show on her XM station, “Oprah and Friends,” in 2008. But Shmuley’s relationship with Utah hasn’t soured; just months after his radio show’s cancellation, Shmuley brought writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel to lecture at Snow College.
When I asked about his KUTR stint, Shmuley was careful. “I’m not here to unearth old scabs,” he said.
Shmuley is, despite his many hats, first and foremost a deeply devoted rabbi. He holds his religious beliefs and practices central to his identity. “You have to remember, I’m paid to be a Jew,” he told me with deadpan humor. “So unless you Mormons can make me a better offer …”
But rather than seeing faith as a barrier to the outside world, for Shmuley it’s a passport to engage it. Had Shmuley won his 2012 bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, he would’ve become the first Jewish rabbi in Congress. His campaign to represent New Jersey’s 9th District was built on the same things he preached as a spiritual leader: an emphasis on stronger families, economic self-reliance, and, as he puts it, “traditional values.” The son of divorced parents, Shmuley saw the country’s divorce rate as “an American tragedy that no one talks about.” One of his campaign promises was tax-deductible marriage counseling for all Americans until the U.S. divorce rate was cut in half.
“It’s time for the Shmul-ification of the 9th District!” Shmuley proclaimed at the end of one debate. But his purpose for running, he says, was not egotistic or self-aggrandizing. Instead, he wanted to “translate values to policy,” and his approach to politics wasn’t all too different from his religious mantra. “Rabbis have to push communities also to think differently.” He continued, “America needs new ideas. Religions need new ideas without compromising core principles.”
To Shmuley, a religious leader dabbling in the political realm was simply an extension of his calling to fight for values, an opportunity to complete the trifecta in influencing three of America’s principal institutions of religion, media and politics. Others questioned his chances. “Might he finally be selling out?” one Washington Post article posited. A prominent pollster called his electoral hopes “extremely unlikely.” The Wall Street Journal labeled his social views “provocative.”
But perhaps the most comical criticism, now with nine years of hindsight, was the concern that Shmuley wasn’t really a conservative, and perhaps he didn’t really fit on a GOP ballot. After all, some of his closest friends in 2012 were Democrats — Cory Booker, Joe Lieberman, Jon Corzine — and although he declined the offer, he was invited to be co-chair of Rabbis for Obama in 2008. And, on some social issues (like same-sex unions), he seemed to be far too progressive for the Romney-era GOP — after all, the rabbi himself said the 2012 GOP’s “obsession with social and sexual values” was “ruining this country.”
But now, anyone confusing the rabbi as a liberal has had one too many sips of Manischewitz. He was Trump’s de-facto liaison within the Orthodox Jewish community in 2020, and he counts former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo among his friends. In his kitchen, he has a bottle of limited-edition Psagot “Pompeo” wine, signed by the namesake himself, a leftover from an invite-only event; plastered around the rest of his Manhattan apartment are framed prints from The Washington Post and The New York Times criticizing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Barack Obama, Susan Rice and Nancy Pelosi of being anti-Israel. Today’s White House gets no higher marks — “Biden will be a one-term president,” he told me multiple times.
Therein lies one of his rare quibbles with Latter-day Saints — not their doctrine, but rather the politics of some adherents. “What problem do Mormons have with Trump?” he asks me, in a tone that suggests there is no justifiable reason not to love the former president. Trump admittedly performed better in Utah in 2020 than in 2016, when he won with just 46% of the vote, the lowest of any red state.
I explained two general concerns that some Latter-day Saints seem to harbor — Trump’s personal morals and his approach to immigration — but I didn’t mention a report that Trump had mocked Latter-day Saint undergarments, nor did I detail Trump’s attempts at outreach, such as visiting the Church’s welfare operations in Salt Lake City. On immigration, the rabbi agreed — he was repulsed by the Muslim bans — but on the man’s morals, he was still confused. “He’s a politician, not a prophet,” he quipped. “You shouldn’t be looking to Washington for moral guidance.”
To Shmuley, policy trumps all — and, most importantly, policy toward Israel. To him it’s a divine responsibility, a command. He often quotes Psalm 137:5 — “If I forget thee, O Israel, may I cut off my right hand” — and that’s largely where Shmuley’s admiration for Trump began, and where his respect for Obama faltered.
Trump was “the greatest friend of Israel ever to occupy the Oval Office,” he says; Obama was “weak.”
Israel, too, was the proverbial site of Shmuley’s fallout with his longtime friend, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. The two bonded at Oxford, over Friday-night Shabbat dinners and Simchat Torah celebrations. When Booker began running for public office, Shmuley studied Torah with the politico and helped him memorize Hebrew lines. They traveled the country together and gave speeches in synagogues. In the 2014 election cycle, Booker received more pro-Israel donations than any other Democrat. To Shmuley, it was a dream team — a Black Christian and a Jewish rabbi, an unorthodox combination with Orthodox ambition.
“I helped open the doors of the Jewish community (to Booker),” Shmuley said. “The Jewish community fell in love with Cory.”
But Booker’s support for the Iran nuclear deal opened the floodgates. Booker viewed it as a flawed political compromise, but the best option available; Shmuley saw it as support for those who would perpetrate genocide, putting Israel in grave danger. To Shmuley, Booker’s vote was then more than a political move; it was a massive betrayal.
“The Iran Nuclear Agreement was one of the great policy abominations in modern American history,” the rabbi claims, one so abominable that it could sink even the strongest of relationships.
When I asked if anything had changed in his relationship with Booker since 2019, when The Washington Post reported it “crashed in a fireball,” the rabbi didn’t bear good news. They still exchange pleasantries, at times. But as a leader who’s spent his life preaching fear for God and forgiveness, he hinted that reconciliation could come — whenever Booker formally repudiates his decision.
By the time we returned from our moonlight bike ride, it was approaching 2 a.m. in The City That Never Sleeps, and it seems Rabbi Shmuley doesn’t either. I accompanied him to a local corner market to pick up a handful of items for his wife, Debbie. She’s a saintly woman, and far more reserved of the two; Shmuley once wrote that before the publication of one of his more provocative books, Debbie told him, “If you publish that book, I will be so embarrassed, I’ll run away and become a Sherpa!” (“She’s still running,” Shmuley told me.)
He perused the meats on display, then grunted. “You really should get some Kosher meat here,” he said, and the man behind the counter offered a half-asleep nod.
This neighborhood is full of Jewish families, Shmuley told me as we left the store, and the least a local grocer could do is recognize that reality. But Kosher meat or not, the Jewish sense of community is strong here, he says. In the face of an uptick in anti-Semitic acts in the United States, Shmuley believes his work is fundamentally about building community, even amid a pandemic.
That means sometimes live-streaming in spandex biking shorts, sparring publicly with famous singers over Israel and debating the world’s leading atheists over the existence of God. None of that makes life easy, and there are constant reminders that supporting Israel — supporting his people and community, Shmuley says — is not always politically popular. Even among Jews, which make up just 2 percent of the American populace, Shmuley is in the minority — a pro-Israel conservative while most American Jews are Democrats.
As we turned the corner toward his apartment, the Israeli and American flags — which hung side-by-side from the front facade — glowed in the light of an idling police car. “We get pretty frequent death threats,” Shmuley muttered to me as we approached, as casually as a comment about the weather. “They come to check on us.” Shmuley marched up to the window and waved at the officers in front. “Thanks for keeping us safe,” he said.
Shmuley had one last thing on the agenda. “Let’s take a picture,” he said, and we posed next to the bikes. We smiled as the camera flashed. “Let’s take another,” he said, “but this time, let’s do the Mormon smile.” What’s that? I ask, and the rabbi proceeds to do a cheesy, all-teeth-showing grin. “You Mormons are always happy,” he says. “Us Jews are still suffering.”
Come morning, the police car was gone, and Shmuley was undeterred — still flying his Israeli flag out front, prepping for his book launch, riding around the world’s cultural capital in his kippah.
Original posted at www.deseret.com