The Republicans' Rabbi-in-Arms
Saturday, June 25, 2005
Every few weeks or so Rabbi Daniel Lapin finds a reason to fly east from his home in Mercer Island, Wash., near Seattle, and spend a few days here. He might be leading a Bible study on the Hill, having dinner with his "close friend" House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, breakfast with Karl Rove. Last year he came for a private Shabbat dinner with President Bush. "The president recognizes my enthusiasm for his faith," says the rabbi.
Usually on these trips Lapin stays with Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist who is an old friend of the Lapin family and one of a small elite who share Lapin's very particular niche in Washington: a practicing Orthodox Jew who is a renegade among the city's Jewish establishment but moves comfortably among conservative Christians.
Abramoff is under investigation for allegedly defrauding his Indian casino-owning clients and for allegedly breaking lobbying laws. In a stack of e-mails released this week by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, several scandal sidekicks made unexpected cameos. Among them were Daniel Lapin and his younger brother David, rabbis from South Africa who are heirs to a 200-year-old rabbinical dynasty and very updated ambitions.
Washington has a long history of pastors to the powerful, fallen and otherwise: Billy Graham, Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton's J. Philip Wogaman. With a city increasingly dominated by the religious conservatives who appreciate Lapin, he can now be described as Republican Washington's Official Rabbi, and to some it's an improvement.
"When you're talking to a pastor he could be inspired by God, etc., but he may not have the scholarship," says Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.), one of several Republicans who refer to Lapin affectionately as "my rabbi." "When you're talking to Rabbi Lapin you know you're getting an expert, someone who's the equivalent of a PhD at a major university."
Lapin is in many ways an evangelical Christian's stereotype of a rabbi: He wears a rabbi's beard, from ear to ear, but trims it to a dignified length. He speaks in a posh South African accent, which adds to his authority. In his speeches and on his radio show he takes the Torah at its word and quotes extensively from it.
For evangelicals who are used to reading about Jews as God's chosen people, he solves an essential mystery: "A lot of people are surprised when they leave church and encounter essentially Dershowitz Judaism, Jews who are liberal . . . ," says conservative activist Grover Norquist, who is also a friend. "Lapin is the opposite of that."
For conservatives searching for biblical foundations for their political positions, Lapin is validation from the original source. His specialty is finding support in the Torah for what turns out to be the current Republican platform: lower taxes, decreased regulation, pro-traditional family policies.
"The principles of the Republican Party and the convictions of our president more closely parallel the moral vision of the God of Abraham than those of anyone else," Lapin said at the dinner with Bush, hosted by Ralph Reed.
Lately he's joined the crusade against what conservatives call "activist judges": "It's like the verse in Jeremiah where God says, I will be your king and I will be your lawgiver and I will be your judge. Therein lies the core. The founders enshrined three branches of government . . . and I find unusual this seizure of power by judges that rightly belongs to the people."
Daniel Lapin is standing over by the drinks table in an upstairs room of the Manhattan Jewish Center on the Upper West Side. This is a Jewish singles event ("Cool Crowd, Great Food"), and all around him bankers, lawyers and doctors in their thirties are sitting at little round tables, chatting and drinking Miller Lite and Canada Dry. One of Lapin's seven children, 22-year-old Rena, organized the event, and she is buzzing around, too, smiling, greeting her friends, bringing out trays of fresh sushi.
Lapin is known as a fluid, captivating speaker -- he's coached members of Congress in speaking -- and right now he looks like he's in a trance, summoning energy to address the crowd of about 50. He wears a navy suit instead of the black suit and black felt hat favored by some Orthodox rabbis because "you don't have to watch a lot of John Wayne movies to know the good guys don't wear black hats."