President Barack Obama’s nomination of Jack Lew for Secretary of the Treasury was met with promises of a confirmation fight by some Republicans who are not exactly enamored of his Obama-like fiscal orientation. Though Senate confirmation hearings are likely to be less brutal than what’s in store for Defense nominee Chuck Hagel, they may also be pretty rough.
The source of the displeasure with Lew is well known: his record as an advocate of banking deregulation, a stint as a financial derivatives-wielding executive at Citigroup, staunch defender of Medicaid, and a fierce point man for the president in budgetary negotiations.
We would like to call attention, however, to what is not being held against Jack Lew by even his most vociferous opponents: the fact that he is an Orthodox Jew.
In that sense, opposition to Lew parallels the antagonism to Obama, which is political and even personal, but it is not racist. Not that we doubt that there are public players who harbor racist feelings, but voicing them is taboo. It is permissible to vilify Obama as an elitist, a liberal, a socialist, an enemy of the unborn and even a non-citizen, but slurs against his race are considered out of bounds.
Similarly, with Jack Lew the opposition is political and even personal, but it is not anti-Semitic. It is a sign of how far America has come that an Orthodox Jew may soon serve as Secretary of the Treasury under an African-American president. (Lew would not be the first Jewish Secretary of the Treasury; Henry Morgenthau served there under Franklin Roosevelt. But he would be the first Orthodox Jew to hold the office.)
The personal antagonism to Lew stems not only from his determined defense of Obama’s most contentious economic policies, but a formidable mastery of budgetary minutiae that at times flummoxed the Republicans on the other side of the negotiating table. As one commentator put it, they chafed at “his insistence on explaining in detail the impact of the cuts Republicans were proposing.” Indeed, it has been suggested that they are against his nomination because they dread the mental punishment of having to go up against his brains.
His religious observance has, by various accounts, been no hindrance to the performance of official duties as Director of Office of Management and Budget for President Clinton (1998–2001), then for Mr. Obama (2010–2012), and since then as White House Chief of Staff. On the contrary, it has earned him the respect of two presidents and many others in Washington.
He has not had to betray or conceal his faith. Senator Joe Lieberman was able to quip recently that he’d always been envious that Lew managed to “be Jewish and convince people by his name that he’s actually Asian-American.”
Nor has he felt bound to eschew Jewish causes for fear of being accused of ethnic loyalties. He worked vigorously for the release of Jews from the Soviet Union, and has long been a help to the American Jewish community, for which he earned the warm endorsement of Agudath Israel.
Lew has his own strategy for keeping Shabbos, despite the never-ending demands on his time. “I just tell people: ‘If I wanted to work on Saturday, I have this 24/7 job. I come to shul to pray.’”
The best-known story about Lew turned out to be somewhat apocryphal, though no less reflective of the respect his observance has been accorded. It was reported that he once refused to pick up a phone call from President Clinton on Shabbos, even when the latter entreated on the answering machine that “G-d would understand.”
Lew himself corrected the tale during a campaign stop in Ohio last November. “The true story is I came home one [Shabbos] morning from shul, and the phone machine was going off, saying, ‘Please disregard the previous message from President Clinton. He just remembered that it’s Saturday and he’s going to call someone else.’ He was out of the country and forgot what day it was,” Lew explained. Clinton called back to tell Lew to ignore his initial message. Rather than being an example of a conflict between Lew’s religious and political obligations, the real story “illustrates tolerance and understanding.”
Lew’s career offers convincing evidence — if any is needed — that it is possible to be shomer Shabbos and shomer mitzvos and also be a dedicated public servant. It is not true, as was often claimed during our sometimes difficult sojourn in America, that the only path to success is through assimilation.
As the Chofetz Chaim explained in parashas Beshalach, when Hashem sent the Jews out of Mitzrayim, He could have sent them through Eretz Plishtim or through the wilderness. The advantage of the former was the availability of food, but traveling through populated areas carried the risk of assimilation; the wilderness, by contrast, lacked food but there was no comparable risk of assimilation. For that reason, He chose the wilderness. As for food, they were given mann. If Hashem can send bread from the skies to feed 60 myriads and more for 40 years, He can also provide us with our needs, without compromising our Judaism. (Chofetz Chaim al HaTorah)
If Lew is confirmed, he will face tremendous challenges, perhaps the greatest of his life. He will also face criticism and attack, regardless of what policies he pursues. It comes with the territory. But when those attacks come, we have reason to be hopeful that they won’t be because of his religion.