Cory Booker's favorite rabbi is still hung up on Michael Jackson

Why does Shmuley Boteach always manage to bring everything back to Shmuley Boteach?

By Daniel D'Addario

Published November 21, 2013 4:00PM (EST)

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach      (Reuters/Mike Segar)
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (Reuters/Mike Segar)

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is angry at one of his fellow media personalities.

The rabbi, known for splashy public pronouncements and a knack for finding the limelight, has struck at MSNBC host Martin Bashir. In a column in the New York Observer (a newspaper for which, full disclosure, I once worked), Boteach writes that Bashir's recent implication that someone ought to defecate in Palin's mouth, for which Bashir apologized, is of a piece with Bashir's deceptive nature. Is Boteach a fan of Palin? No -- somewhat bizarrely, he makes this all about Michael Jackson.

After all, before Bashir's engagement with the cable news network, he was famous for an incendiary interview special with Jackson, Boteach's close friend. As the rabbi writes:

Martin Bashir has never been held accountable for pretending to care for Michael in order to persuade him to open up, while all along, it seems his intention was to enhance his own reputation by burying Michael’s. A weird Michael Jackson was going to be a lot more saleable than a mostly normal yet highly eccentric performer. And let’s not forget that Michael faced trial over the boy who appeared in the documentary but was acquitted on all 10 felony and 4 misdemeanor charges.

Boteach's image is closely associated with the late pop singer's; exactly three months after Jackson died in 2009, Boteach released a book constructed from transcripts of taped conversations with Jackson that took place during the two-year period Boteach was Jackson's rabbi. (The book was criticized for using Jackson simply as a mouthpiece for Boteach's own ideas about chastity and spirituality.) On the topic of what, specifically, Bashir said about Palin, Boteach is not particularly concerned. He notes in his column that "I am someone who believes in granting forgiveness. I trust that Mrs. Palin will do so and move on." It's Bashir's apparent misdeeds in earning Jackson's trust in the early 2000s -- despite what Boteach frames as his warnings to Jackson that the interview was a bad idea -- that so aggrieve Boteach, who alleges "a pattern of unethical behavior that is deeply troubling."

That unethical behavior will be familiar to anyone who's read Janet Malcolm's journalistic-ethics opus "The Journalist and the Murderer" -- Bashir expressed sympathy for Jackson, then put forward an extremely unflattering document once the reporting was done. But doing reporting the subject didn't like after a lengthy process of gaining access through flattery is entirely a different animal than making a crude comment about an individual one will presumably never interview. Both the interview and the Palin remark can, perhaps, be read as evidence of misbehavior on Bashir's part, but they're as much a "pattern" as any two unrelated incidents can be.

Though the two ultimately fell out, Jackson wasn't Boteach's only celebrity pal. Indeed, the rabbi -- whose other claims to fame include the book "Kosher Sex" and the TLC reality series "Shalom in the Home" -- is a longtime friend of and adviser to Sen. Cory Booker, an association that Boteach even wrote about in "The Michael Jackson Tapes."

Boteach has recently come to Booker's defense, too, writing in the Huffington Post during Booker's Senate campaign: "Those who now falsely attack Cory as more interested in his celebrity than people don't know the Oxford student who, at his graduation, was lovingly greeted by the middle-aged, mature students of Oxford whom the younger students ignored but Cory always befriended." The fact that critics of Booker's tenure as mayor of Newark don't know what he was like as an Oxford student seems only to serve Boteach's implicit argument that he's well-connected, an arbiter.

Now that Booker, for many years a rising star, has risen, Boteach (who ran for Congress in New Jersey) can presumably rise along with him. When it comes to Booker, who was cruising to victory anyway, Boteach took multiple opportunities to speak out during the race; he and Booker were so closely associated that at one point Boteach took to the Huffington Post to ask if he'd made Booker "too Jewish." (Answer: no.) His allegations against Bashir -- years after the fact, at the first moment Bashir has seemed vulnerable -- feel opportunistic in the same way. Talk about a pattern.

Daniel D'Addario

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Cory Booker Michael Jackson Shmuley Boteach