Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As election day nears and this historically polarizing campaign comes to an end, many congregants and community members have bemoaned the lack of an ideal choice for president. While saturated cable news coverage has focused on scandals which mostly serve to reinforce caricatures of the candidates, I want to share three snapshots from my personal interactions with Hillary Clinton. These exchanges, all far removed from the media spotlight, provide a perspective on Clinton that has not been sufficiently expressed within the Jewish community.
The Talmud (Yevamot 79a) teaches that the Jewish people aspire to be empathetic (rachmanim), private (bayshanim) and doers of kindness (gomlei hassadim). While policy positions of a candidate must always be critically examined, these three traits should be considered when evaluating an individual’s disposition, and especially when assessing the character of a political leader.
My most memorable moment with Clinton occurred in our home at our private family seder on the first night of Passover in 2002, just hours after the Passover Massacre, the Park Hotel bombing in Netanya that killed 30 Israelis and wounded 130 others. All of us, adults and children alike, were completely preoccupied with welcoming the then-senator and former first lady to our seder. As we anxiously and excitedly sat down to begin, Clinton quietly leaned forward and asked a question. She wondered if it would be appropriate to take a moment before starting the seder to reflect on the lives of those who had been killed, and to pray for all those who had been wounded, in that evening’s terrorist attack. And so we did. That night, Clinton revealed the extent of her own empathy and enlarged our hearts by making us better rahmanim. She reminded us, by word and deed, not to sit down to a festive, ritual meal without first identifying with our brothers and sisters who were suffering.
A second snapshot, this one from when I first met Clinton. In September 1999, I found myself seated right next to her at the White House Prayer Breakfast for Religious Leaders. We spent close to two hours engrossed in conversation discussing a wide range of topics: Israel, Jewish-Christian relations, religious education for children, and the New York Jewish community. Her intelligence and curiosity were astounding. But what most impressed me was the depth of her faith and how it informed her values. I was particularly struck when Clinton described how much her religious beliefs had sustained her and her family during the scandal and impeachment of her husband.
When I asked her why the American people had never seen this side of her, she replied that she did not like to wear religion on her sleeve because some things are too precious to be broadcast in public. I realized that morning that the public perception of Clinton could never fully capture her private persona. Her capacity to cultivate a robust, albeit private, religious life modeled what it means to be a bayshan, to preserve private space for our most meaningful thoughts and relationships. In a cultural moment where the lines between private and public have virtually disappeared, that message should be particularly resonant.
A final vignette from February 2002, at the height of the Second Intifada. Senator Clinton responded positively to an invitation to join a group of Jewish leaders on a solidarity mission to a tourist-starved, isolated and shell-shocked Israel. We assumed this would be a glorified photo opportunity for the senator; a brief stopover for meetings with our group and with prominent Israeli political leaders. But Senator Clinton was not interested in photo ops. She insisted on visiting multiple sites of terrorist attacks, meeting with victims and their family members, personally offering words of comfort and support to as many Israelis as she could touch in a whirlwind 36-hour visit. Her focus was squarely on supporting those in distress, often ignoring the chance to talk with the Israeli and foreign press covering her trip. During that poignant visit, I saw how thoroughly intertwined character and behavior are, especially in political leaders. Empathy (rachmanut) is most manifest in acts of loving-kindness (gemilut hesed), and acts of loving kindness, in turn, help instill greater character.
I have had the privilege of knowing Clinton for close to two decades. I have witnessed firsthand as she demonstrated the three personal qualities that are most prized in Jewish tradition. In all my conversations since these events, her demonstrated values have remained ever present. Our country, and our Jewish community, would be fortunate to have Clinton serve as our next president.The author, honorary president of the Rabbinical Council of America, has served as spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Sholom, Nassau County’s oldest Orthodox synagogue, since 1988. The views expressed in this column are his own and not those of the RCA or his congregation.