I have taken many leaders to meet Elie Wiesel. Senator Cory Booker was probably the first, but that stretches back 25 years to when Cory was president of my student organization, The Oxford L’Chaim Society. When she was nominated as American Ambassador to the United Nations, I took Samantha Power there. Three months ago I took Senator Ted Cruz to meet the world’s most famous Holocaust survivor.
And just this week, my own governor, Chris Christie of New Jersey, joined me in meeting the great Nobel Peace laureate.
Political leaders are surrounded by advisers and pollsters.
They are instructed to do what’s politically expedient. But leaders must likewise meet the great sages of our time, people who can offer a historical context to policy.
When I suggested to Governor Christie that he should meet Professor Wiesel he agreed immediately. He arrived alone. No advisers. No security, all of whom remained outside. Immediately, Professor Wiesel began to impart the hallmark wisdom that has made him one of the most respected human beings alive.See the latest opinion pieces on our Opinion & Blogs Facebook page
Governor Christie asked him what ennobles a leader. How could he learn to be effective in the long term? Professor Wiesel responded, “When you discuss policy always ask the question: “What about morality? What is the correct moral dimension in all of these discussions?” Governor Christie asked about Iran and America’s nuclear deal. Professor Wiesel responded that as he had said in several newspaper advertisements it made America appear weak, a supplicant prepared to capitulate to Iranian demands and allow them a nuclear infrastructure.
The governor said he agreed and cited a speech he had recently given that emphasized that point. Governor Christie then offered an around-the-world tour of troubled hotspots including Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iran, Nigeria and Yemen that was thorough and erudite. I was impressed enough to clap. He said an American withdrawal from the world stage had left a vacuum of leadership.
I said to Professor Wiesel that the governor was known for his strength. People admired him because of his no-nonsense approach, his candor.
But, I added, the media sometimes portrayed it as a liability.
How does one project strength while also respecting its limits? Professor Wiesel said, and Governor Christie concurred, that strength must be projected to establish order, but must be held in reserve at other times.
Professor Wiesel asked Governor Christie if he wished to be president. The governor became very introspective.
He spoke of his wife and his children. He spoke of the journey he had been on the past few years. He said that when he ran for the New Jersey governorship against an opponent who outspent him few had given him a chance at victory. Yet six months after he won people were already speaking of him as a potential president. He said it was difficult to process such high expectations. He said he chose not to run in 2012 because he did not feel ready.
“I looked in the mirror and I did not see it, I did not feel it.
Now, I feel a greater maturity that has come with challenging circumstance,” he said.
The governor explained that he did not so much wish to be president as believe that perhaps he had qualities that could prove useful at this juncture in history.
Professor Wiesel told him he should create a circle of intellectuals, wise and learned men and women, people with whom he could be completely candid.
“Meet with them regularly. Let them bring the benefit of scholarship to your endeavors.”
The governor nodded in agreement.
We discussed the issue of repentance and how public leaders should generally take responsibility for errors. Professor Wiesel said the issue was so important to him that he would join Governor Christie on a public stage to discuss the issue. I asked Prof.
Wiesel if he was serious. He said he was very serious. It was an important issue, central to leadership, he said, that ought to be addressed. It was left to me to organize.
Finally, we discussed Israel. Governor Christie spoke of the challenges facing the Jewish state amid Middle East chaos and rising global anti-Semitism. He told Professor Wiesel that should he choose to run for office and win he would be the best friend Israel ever had in the White House.
More than an hour had passed. The governor got up to leave.
He seemed deeply moved to have engaged in a spiritual and philosophical discussion with the living face of the martyred six million and a great conscience of mankind.
We left the office together. A considerable security presence and a small convoy of black SUVs awaited the governor’s emergence. On Madison Avenue several people came over to greet the governor.
“I’m from Jersey,” one man said. “You’re doing a great job.”
Governor Christie thanked him. He then turned to me, put both his hands on my shoulders, looked me square in the eye, as he is wont to do, and said, “Thank you my friend, for giving me one of the great privileges of my life.”The author, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is founder of The World Values Network and is the international best-selling author of 30 books, including The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.