No Holds Barred: The spiritual senator-elect from New Jersey

Today, in the Jewish community, no one would fail to recognize NJ Senator Cory Booker; armed with significant knowledge of the Torah, a passion for tikkun olam.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A week ago Thursday, with just six days left till his election, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker reached out to me in the morning with sad news: His father, Cary, whom I had known for more than two decades, had passed away.
Cory was exceptionally close to his father. How he found the strength to go through professional engagements prior to the world discovering the depth of his loss is beyond me.
A few days later, in the last throes of the campaign, Cory traveled late at night with a small group of his oldest friends to the gravesite of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in Queens to light a candle for his father and pray for his memory.
He had become attached to the rebbe’s teachings after the Chabad leader sent me to Oxford University as rabbi. Cory, meeting me almost accidentally on Simhat Torah, the happiest Jewish holiday of the year, in 1992 – one month after arriving as a Rhodes scholar – began studying Torah with me as a Christian, and our weekly study sessions have continued for more than two decades. In the second year of study at Oxford, Cory would become the first non-Jewish president of a major Jewish student organization in the world – the L’Chaim Society we had created in 1989, which had grown to become Oxford’s second-largest organization. Traveling on to Yale Law School, he would help create the Chai Society with my friend Rabbi Shmully Hecht, to whom I had introduced him.
No, these are not the actions of a typical politician.
The key to understanding Cory is his deep spirituality.
Few people I know experience God more intuitively and see the spark of the divine in others as manifestly. One would have to go back to the stories of Abraham Lincoln reading the Bible nightly by candlelight during the darkest moments of the Civil War to find an American leader so attached to the Book of books.
In the depths of his senatorial campaign and under ferocious attack from his opponent, Cory would call with questions on biblical stories he was reading. Did Noah fail in his mission to save the world from destruction, focusing only on saving his skin? What sin could Moses have been so guilty of that he would be deprived of his one wish to enter the promised land? As always, Cory would have a pen and paper in hand to take notes of our discussion.
America is a largely religious country, with polls showing that 90 percent of Americans believe in God and pray regularly. But religious does not necessarily mean spiritual, and the ugly battles we have seen between Right and Left that are ostensibly values-based demonstrate that religion can breed hostility over humility and judgment over empathy.
While Cory is a church-going Christian who loves his faith amid his deep attachment to the Torah and Jewish values – and Jesus, after all, was a Jew – his spirituality has always been most manifest in the dignity he confers on the people he meets.
Once, while he and I were walking from his dorm room at Oxford to our L’Chaim Society Student Center for Shabbat dinner, where he was to speak, a female Jewish student said hello to Cory but ignored me completely, telling him that she did not respect religion. I was offended, and we walked off.
Cory said, “Why didn’t you wish her ‘Shabbat shalom?’” I responded that her words had wounded me. He replied, “You change people by showing them love even when they deny it to you. You’re the rabbi, Shmuley. You should be warm even to your detractors.”
ABOUT A year later, when I took Cory to the rebbe’s grave for the first time, a few hassidim who objected to my outreach to non-Jews gave me the same kind of snub.
Ironically it was Cory’s presidency of my organization back at Oxford that had some in the Orthodox community accusing me of promoting assimilation and intermarriage. What, after all, was an African-American Christian Rhodes scholar doing heading a Jewish organization? And why had we welcomed thousands of non-Jewish members? Not recognizing Cory, one of the young rabbinical students said something nasty to me. I argued with him and told him he lacked values.
In the car, Cory turned to me and said that these were ideological opponents and the best way to win them over was to show them that my actions were different from theirs.
Strangely enough, one of the things I have most taken from Cory is his propensity to speak to people in elevators. As long as I can remember, whenever we would travel in that confined space, he would joke with the perfect strangers around him so that by the time they emerged, everyone was smiling. He did this well before he ran for any office. It taught me that simple acknowledgement of others was the way to confer dignity upon them.
Today, in the Jewish community, no one would fail to recognize Cory. Armed with significant knowledge of the Torah and a passion for tikkun olam – fixing the world’s imperfections – he is invited to speak throughout the length and breadth of religious America and beyond, with the Jewish community especially taking a loving interest in his words.
On paper, I’m his rabbi. But in the field of making others feel like they matter, I have been his student.
The writer, whom Newsweek and The Washington Post call “the most famous Rabbi in America,” served as rabbi at Oxford University for 11 years and won the London Times Preacher of the Year competition just days before the millennium. He has just published The Fed-Up Man of Faith. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.