Pointing Politicians To an Adam Gadol

It isn’t every day that the name of Harav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt”l, is invoked on the New York Times Op-Ed page, but last Thursday was such a day. And, to the credit of Howard Schultz, the author of the op-ed, something about a great Torah luminary is now known to millions who had likely never before heard the Mir Yerushalayim Rosh Yeshivah’s name.

Mr. Schultz is the 62-year-old chairman and chief executive of the successful Seattle-based coffeehouse chain Starbucks. A week earlier, columnist Maureen Dowd had written that “Potent friends of America’s lord of latte, Howard Schultz, have been pressing him to join the Democratic primary, thinking the time is right for someone who’s not a political lifer.”

Mr. Schultz’s op-ed dispelled the rumor that he was seeking the Democratic nomination for president. His essay’s main point, though, was about leadership. And the message conveyed was a cogent and important one.

As he surveys the “field of presidential aspirants unable to rise above petty politics,” Mr. Schultz observes that “We cannot afford more false promises, slogans, theatrics and fool’s gold. Our nation has been profoundly damaged by a lack of civility and courage in Washington, where leaders of both parties have abdicated their responsibility to forge reasonable compromises to expand the economy, rebuild our infrastructure, improve schools, transform entitlement programs and so much more.”

“Millennials,” he continued, referring to contemporary young adults, “have never witnessed politics devoid of toxicity. Anxiety, not optimism, rules the day.”

Even though, as he states, he has no personal interest in high public office, Mr. Schultz prescribes to the American body politic an elixir he calls “servant leadership” — “putting others first and leading from the heart.”

Too many political leaders, the op-ed asserts, put “party before country, power before principle and cynicism before civility.”

“How can you be a genuine public servant,” Mr. Schultz asks, alluding to the circuses that have come to pass for political campaigns, “if you belittle your fellow citizens and freeze out people who hold differing views?”

What is needed is a dedication to “the common purpose” that created the United States. And for “Democrats and Republicans to work together.” He goes so far as to suggest that, in a demonstration of American unity, a presidential candidate choose a member of the other party as a running mate. “Our country,” he explains, “deserves a president humble enough to see leadership not as an entitlement but as a privilege.”

And that thought is what reminded Mr. Schultz of Harav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt”l, with whom he visited the Kosel Maaravi a decade ago.

“As we approached one of the holiest sites in Judaism,” he wrote, “the rabbi halted about 10 yards away as a crowd of admirers gathered nearby. I beckoned him further.” When Rav Nosson Tzvi told him he had never been closer to the Wall, Mr. Schultz, “astounded,” asked why.

“You go,” the Rosh Yeshivah said. “I’m not worthy.”

The state of politics in the United States today indeed leaves much to be desired. Not only do the partisanship and cynicism that Mr. Schultz cites take their toll but a campaign system that, through advertising and other means, translates money into votes allows elections to, in effect, be “bought.”

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that corporations and unions cannot constitutionally be prohibited from promoting the election of one candidate over another candidate. A majority of the court found that prohibiting all independent expenditures by corporations and unions violated the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.

In the wake of that ruling, a number of ideas have been put forth for leveling the playing field for political candidates and increasing transparency in elections.  Fixing the broken system that Mr. Schultz laments will require such electoral reform.

Fixing the overly partisan and derisive mindset, however, that permeates politics today will take introspection and force of will on the part of people seeking elected office.

Whether that will, or even can, happen is an open question. But the thought that those in positions of power in our country might be people who truly qualify as “servant leaders,” who truly see themselves as the public servants they are called, and who are willing to rise above malign influences and partisanship is a heartening one.

And the fact that a Torah luminary has been offered as an example of a true leader is an unarguable kiddush Hashem.