Answering For the President

letter-447577_1280

Not a question every rov has to answer….

As an Orthodox Jew, Jack Lew, President Obama’s choice to Director of the Office of Management and Budget, observes the religious restrictions on the Jewish Sabbath, which runs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. He leaves the office Friday afternoons in time to get home before sundown, and does not use electric or electronic devices, including the telephone.

Once, while working in President Clinton’s director, Lew’s home phone rang one Saturday. He didn’t answer and a familiar voice could be heard from the answering machine, urging him to pick up the phone. Mr. Clinton said he understood the sanctity of the Sabbath, but that it was important that he talk to Lew. He even said, it was later reported, that “God would understand.”

Lew later consulted with his rabbi, who said that taking an important phone call from the President of the United States would be permissible on the Sabbath under the Talmudic teaching that work on the Sabbath is allowed in order to save a life.

I imagine that the answer to the question would also turn on the likelihood that the Jew’s area of expertise could impact upon the lives of people, as well as some sense that the President knew enough about Shabbos and respected it sufficiently, that his request to pick up the phone indicated a real crisis. Bill Clinton, for all his other faults, had a deep love and respect for Scripture. Rabbi Menachem Genack, the head of OU Kashrus, sent Clinton a “parshah sheet” every week. If it came late, he would hear from the White House. Sometimes, the sheets were faxed back to Rabbi Genack with comments or questions scribbled in the margins.

[Thanks to Dr Barry Simon for the tip.]

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12 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    “Once, while working in (as?) President Clinton’s director, Lew’s home phone rang one Saturday. He didn’t answer and (President Clinton) could be heard from the answering machine, urging him to pick up the phone.

    Lew later consulted with his rabbi, who said that taking an important phone call from the President of the United States would be permissible on the Sabbath …”

    Why do I have a suspicion that this story wasn’t reported accurately by MSNBC? Surely, Lew would have consulted with a rabbi on such a shayla before he got this job.

  2. L. Oberstein says:

    I have always wondered if an orthodox Jew were elected President and the secret service insisted on ferrying him in a car on Shabbos because of danger, would he be allowed to ride in the car? Would some rabbis let him sit in the car as he wouldn’t even be opening the door or would they insist that he stay inside all Shabbos? In case I ever become President, I would appreciate knowing.

  3. Barzilai says:

    You’re certainly right that this is a question only the greatest Rabbis can confidently answer. Similar reasoning underlies Rabbi Lopatin’s teshuva to Mr. Emanuel about participating via cell phone on Rosh Hashanna in a meeting about the incipient recession, as widely reported at the time and confirmed by Rabbi Lopatin in several interviews.

    It’s a tough question; I don’t mean to minimize or denigrate the lenient opinions. My thinking tends to limit the dispensation to cases of specific danger to specific individuals. I also recall that Reb Shlomo Kluger said that anyone that allows the transgression of the Sabbath in order to contact a Rabbinic miracle worker, so that he should pray for a sick person, is outside the pale of Orthodox Judaism. And once you expand the concept of pikuach nefesh to include governmental policy decision making that is likely to effect human life, you slide along to opening the store on Shabbos, because if I have to close my business I’ll have less or no income, and I might have to move to a cheaper and more dangerous neighborhood, and maybe I’ll have to skimp on medical care and food and that will result in a shorter life span.

    But the logic is certainly strong; even lesser dangers to a community as a whole sometimes are considered on par with threat to life. While Rabbis in the field often are under the gun and don’t have the time to dither or consult, I would love to see a serious discussion on this topic by poskim of international stature.

  4. rachel w says:

    What makes you so certain of Kagan’s great ability? She has no experience to speak of, so it’s hard to know one way or another if she has those great capabilities that a Supreme Court Judge needs. BHO also had great academic ability, but theoretical, high-falutin’ academic, experience doesn’t usually help when it comes to real life experiences.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    The most important criticism of Elena Kagan is her total commitment to a socialist agenda, which would bias her actions as an Associate Justice. She has made herself political before and during her public life, notwithstanding her obfuscation before the Senate committee, so calling attention to her leanings is anything but blameworthy.

  6. Miriam says:

    Court confirmations, you will see that in a former time many judges were confirmed in a non biased way by both parties

    I’m not knowledgeable enough to actually know this, but I wonder whether it might be that in that yearned-for former time, the appointees themselves had a more apolitical quality?

  7. L. Oberstein says:

    Jacob Lew is an example of how observant Jews are becoming mainstreamed into American life . This is a wonderful country.
    I wish some of my fellow Jews would not buy into the political rhetoric that is ripping this country apart. It is one thing to differ in political philosophy, it is quite another to descend to the depths of hatred and prejudice that is a scar on the American body politic. To give one example, the fact that some Republicans are going to vote against Elana Kagan is so different from only a few years ago when someone with her ability would have been unanimously confirmed. If you look at the history of Supeme Court confirmations, you will see that in a former time many judges were confirmed in a non biased way by both parties. Today, everything is political and it is makingit hard to make American all that it needs to be to compete in the 21st century.

  8. Uri Gordon says:

    BHO may have had several reasons to appoint Jack Lew, but two things are certain; Jack Lew’s reputation and record of excellence are both stellar, and he is no-one’s fool. There are remarkable people of great integrity in positions of (potential and real) leadership in both the Democratic and Republican parties; we should be grateful when one with such attributes is indeed appointed. Such was the case for Judge Mukasey as well.

  9. aron feldman says:

    I wish him the best of luck!

    Does this appointment bolster BHO’s pro Israel chops in any way ;-)?

  10. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    The presence of Jews in high positions, including religious ones (also Attorney-General Mukasey in the previous administration) is somewhat scary for those of us who are aware that we are still in golus. Making a Jew responsible for what can be wrong with a money trail is a golus classic. I hope I am wrong. We should see Moshiach soon.

  11. Bob Miller says:

    It warms my heart a little to know that the corrupt serial liar and adulterer Bill Clinton had respect for religion on some level. But how exactly did it affect his own life?

  12. Kenneth Levy says:

    He even said, it was later reported, that “God would understand.”

    I suspect he’s used that line before…