No, Cory Booker isn't "too Jewish" for the Senate

The Newark mayor and senatorial candidate sure knows his Torah, though

By Alex Halperin

Published June 25, 2013 4:49PM (EDT)

Writing at Bloomberg View, Jeffrey Goldberg asks if Cory Booker, the Christian mayor of Newark, N.J., and senatorial candidate, is "too Jewish" to be a senator. It seems like a strange question to ask: What would a too-Jewish senator even be? It's clear, though, that Booker knows more about the Torah than most high-achieving American Jews.

Goldberg tells this story about when he and his daughter met Booker while she was studying for her bat mitzvah:

Booker turned his attention to her. “What’s your parasha?” he asked, using the Hebrew word for portion, a reference to the section of the Torah she would soon be reading. I could see, across my daughter’s then almost-13-year-old-face, a bit of confusion and a trace of panic, but she answered: “Vayera,” which is the action-packed chapter in the Book of Genesis that includes, among other things, 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.

The writer suggests that the depth of his knowledge might just be a "parlor trick" for impressing Jewish donors. He then mentions Booker's ties to Shmuley Boteach and Shmully Hecht, two rabbis who "have been affiliated with the Chabad Lubavitcher" movement that the writer Peter Beinart said "emphasizes the fundamental difference between Jewish and non-Jewish souls":

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 a book called “Kosher Sex,” and had served as 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.

Goldberg calls Booker and figures that Booker's views on Israel appear to be party-line Democrat, i.e., in favor of a two-state solution but not in any rush to implement it. He'll fit right in in Washington.

Alex Halperin

Alex Halperin is news editor at Salon. You can follow him on Twitter @alexhalperin.

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Cory Booker Israel Jeffrey Goldberg Judaism President Obama Senate Washington