The question before the voters of New Jersey is a simple one: Is Newark Mayor Cory Booker too Jewish to be a U.S. senator?
I bet you didn’t know that this was even a question.
Before I provide the answer, here’s a story about Booker, who is the favorite to win the Democratic nomination — and therefore the general election in Democrat-heavy New Jersey — to replace the late Frank Lautenberg.
A couple of years ago, at a friend’s house, I fell into conversation with Booker about the Middle East. Talking with Booker can be exhausting; he makes President Bill Clinton seem like a study in introversion. One of my daughters was with me, and I introduced her to the mayor, noting that she was about to become a Bat Mitzvah.
“What’s your parasha?” Booker asked her, using the Hebrew word for portion, a reference to the section of the Torah she would soon be reading. I could see, across her almost-13-year-old-face, a bit of confusion and a trace of panic, but she answered, “Vayera,” the action-packed chapter in the Book of Genesis that includes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
“Amazing parasha!” Booker said. He then quoted — in Hebrew — one of its more famous lines. And he shared his expert exegesis on the portion’s broader meaning — notably, the lessons that any troublemaker worth her salt could derive from Abraham’s audacious decision to negotiate with God about the future of these two sinful towns.
My daughter didn’t know quite what to make of Booker’s erudite and enthusiastic performance. “Is he Jewish?” she asked later. No, I said. He’s a Protestant. “He knows a lot about my parasha,” she said.
Yes, he did. He also knows a lot about Jews, so much so that his remarkable philo-Semitism has raised eyebrows, not among anti-Semites but among some suspicious Semites.
Booker’s close relations with Jews and Judaism have prompted two skeptical observations. The first is whether the sort of performance my daughter and I saw is a kind of elaborate parlor trick designed to draw Jewish voters and Jewish fundraising dollars. Booker is a politician, and so is burdened by the assumption of insincerity.
The second question has to do with the sort of Jew he’s consorting with, in particular, two of his closest Jewish friends and advisers, the rabbis Shmuley Boteach and Shmully Hecht.
The writer Peter Beinart suggested last week that these two rabbis, both of whom have been affiliated with the Chabad Lubavitcher movement, share a theology that is antithetical to the way Booker — and, not incidentally, most Jews — understands the world.
“Chabad emphasizes the fundamental difference between Jewish and non-Jewish souls,” Beinart wrote. “And while difference does not necessarily imply superiority and inferiority, the late Rabbi David Hartman, one of the most revered Jewish thinkers of recent times, in 2009 called Chabad’s theology ‘deeply primitively racist.’ ”
Beinart does suggest that, on the spectrum of Hasidic intolerance, Boteach and Hecht are almost Unitarian-Universalists. Boteach, whom I know slightly, is the author of Kosher Sex and was a “spiritual adviser” to Michael Jackson (whatever that means). He has always seemed more interested in publicity than the advancement of fundamentalist ideas; if self-promotion were a Jewish value, he’d be Maimonides. But Beinart’s implication is clear: The presence of these men in Booker’s orbit, and the influence they might have on him in matters of Middle East peacemaking, should trouble liberal Jews.