Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Mayor Cory Booker captivate audience PDF Print E-mail
By Nancy Kirsch
Friday, 17 February 2012 15:56
Moving from the ‘floor of tolerance’ to the ‘ceiling of love’


Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach /Nancy KirschNewark Mayor Cory Booker and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach /Nancy KirschIf you weren’t at Brown University’s Metcalf Auditorium on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 9 to hear Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (pronounced “Boe-tay-ahkh”) – sometimes called “America’s rabbi,” and Newark Mayor Cory Booker – a rising star in national Democratic circles – this reporter extends her sympathies: You missed a charismatic and engaging duo!

Crackling with dynamic energy and sparring over their profoundly different perspectives, Mayor Booker and Rabbi Boteach – an odd couple, indeed – captivated the appreciative audience. These friends are also competitors. Throughout the evening, each asserted his superiority over the other in handsomeness, brainpower, ability to keep to the time limits for speaking, etc. (Given their competitive natures, this reporter wanted to see Google results. A Google search on the morning of Sunday, Feb. 12 shows that the search for “Mayor Booker” garnered, according to Google’s language, “about 3,280,000 results in 0.20 seconds.” The search for “Rabbi Boteach” brought “about 460,000 results in 0.11 seconds,” according to Google.)

Demonstrating mutual affection for one another and trading humor-laced insults, all borne from an enduring friendship that began some 20 years ago at Oxford, the men shared their respective stories before a brief “point/counterpoint” and questions, all in rapid-fire succession.

A black man and a Jew

The woman who had invited Booker to a Shabbat dinner at Oxford’s Chabad House never showed, but he was invited to stay nonetheless. There, he sat with Rabbi Boteach, then Oxford’s Chabad rabbi and now a prolific author who is regularly listed as one of Newsweek’s annual “Top 50 Rabbis in America,” and host of a former reality television show, “Shalom in the Home.”

Their connection, said Booker, was “magical and beshert” both before and after his friends – Jewish and gentile – told him, “Chabad Jews are ‘right-wing wackos.’”

The two men shared a deep desire to move from the “floor of tolerance,” which Booker called “a cynical state of mind,” to the “ceiling of love.” Recognizing that they didn’t know one another well enough to love one another, they began exchanging books – a tradition that continues to this day. Booker’s first offering to Rabbi Boteach was “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” the rabbi’s book for Booker was Elie Wiesel’s “Night.”

This generation of college students is “the Joshua generation” who will bring us to the “Promised Land,” Booker told the audience of Brown RISD Hillel trustees, Brown students and faculty and members of the Jewish community – 200-plus people in all. He described falling “in love with Judaism and its core values.”

That the patriarchs were “all about creating a just world” reinforces his belief system today: “I believe there’s nothing we can’t do,” said Booker. “If we have a collective will, there’s not a problem that we can’t solve.”

Abraham’s kindness to strangers and Moses’ audacity to argue – rather than blindly comply – with God, both struck a chord for Booker, who said, “I’m hope unhinged.”

Boteach is frustrated

Acknowledging that the United States is both the most religious country in the world – with high rates of church attendance and religious affiliation – and among the most decadent, Rabbi Boteach is frustrated that faith has become a polarizing influence and politics “a blood sport.” When people focus only on issues of gay marriage and abortion, he said, they are “battling issues that don’t get to foundational values. Television today is corrosive, and reality television is mostly exploitative.” The functional, rather than the dysfunctional, must be interesting, the rabbi said.

Refuting Booker’s optimistic nature – and laughingly saying, “Cory has the right to be wrong” – the rabbi said that dualism and war seem endemic. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s application of Old Testament’s ideals to Negro spirituals – just as mid-20th century Jews were jettisoning their Jewish heritage – was “extraordinary. He invoked the spirit of Moses and the Book of Deuteronomy [in his last speech in Memphis, before he was assassinated].” King, like President Abraham Lincoln, did the right thing, even when there was no payoff.

While Booker wishes politicians could be less divisive and less partisan – “No side of the political spectrum has a monopoly on good ideas,” he said – Rabbi Boteach wants more honest politicians.

“Let’s leave perfection aside,” he said. Noting King’s extramarital relationships, he said, “I respected him more. With his failings, he had to work on his character. Overcoming human failings is the greatest strength [and] conveys warmth and humanity.”

Asked if they are concerned that so many college students today are choosing careers in finance and money management rather than, say, public policy, law or medicine, their answers revealed their inherent differences.

“Live in accord with [your] values,” said Booker, “and don’t judge. Be true to your calling.” After describing a poignant conversation with his grandfather shortly before his death, Booker offered some final wisdom, “My hope for all of us is that we make choices to be brilliant, to live audaciously and boldly with higher values… we will live divine lives.”

Rabbi Boteach, in contrast, expressed concern with the mass migration into finance that he’d witnessed at Oxford nearly two decades ago. There was “a brain drain away from law, medicine, academia. I was very concerned. Noble professions, including teaching, need to be compensated so people will go into these fields.”

Thunderous applause – and many “photo ops,” especially with the charismatic Booker – followed their 90-minute presentation.

The evening’s program was sponsored by Brown RISD Hillel, and co-sponsored by Brown’s Swearer Center for Public Service and Third World Center.

During the weekend of Feb. 10-12, Rabbi Boteach participated in several Brown RISD Hillel programs for trustees and students. An anonymous donor helped underwrite the expenses associated with the Feb. 9 speaking engagement, explained Marshall Einhorn, executive director of Brown RISD Hillel.

For more about Brown RISD Hillel, contact 863-2805 or


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