Sarah Hurwitz: What Judaism Can Teach Us in Divisive Times

Sarah Hurwitz was a White House speechwriter, first for President Barack Obama, then for First Lady Michelle Obama. Her new focus is a departure from politics, asking instead what Judaism can teach us in these divisive times. She tells Michel about her book “Here All Along” and waking up to the faith she was born into.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Our next guest asks what Judaism can teach us. Sarah Hurwitz was a White House speechwriter for President Barack Obama and then for first lady Michelle Obama. Her book, “Here All Along,” is about waking up to the faith that she was born into, as she told on Michel Martin.


MICHEL MARTIN: Talk a little bit about how you grew up. I mean, you were born into a family that identified as Jewish, right?


MARTIN: And you did all the things.

HURWITZ: Did the things.


MARTIN: Right. But what was your impression of it then?

HURWITZ: Yes. So, we went to services twice a year at the major holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We had a Hanukkah party. I went to Hebrew school. And my impression as a kid was that it was mainly kind of boring, right? The services were long. They were a lot of Hebrew, a lot of sitting down and standing up. And after I had my bat mitzvah, I just thought, I just don’t think there’s much to see here. Right?

MARTIN: When you talked to your parents about what it was for and why you were doing these things, what did they say?

HURWITZ: I don’t know if I actually inquire deeply with them about it, right? I think it was just a sense like, we’re Jewish, and this is what we do. Like, we’re proud of our identity. We want to be part of the Jewish community. And I think it was a sense, we go to the synagogue twice a year, we go to the Hebrew school, we have the Hanukkah party. Like, that’s just what we do as Jews. I don’t know if I ever had a deep conversation with them about what it meant for them.

MARTIN: So after your bat mitzvah. And for those who don’t know, a bat mitzvah is what?

HURWITZ: It is a coming of age ceremony whereby you become — bar or bat mitzvah means son or daughter of the commandments. And that’s when you’re sort of considered to be responsible for trying to observe Jewish law as an adult.

MARTIN: So a bat mitzvah happens when you’re, what, 12 or 13, depending on your tradition.

HURWITZ: Thirteen, yes. Yes.

MARTIN: And then you went — so you go — you do the things. You went to college. You went to law school. You become a big-time speechwriter for Hillary Clinton first and then for Barack Obama, then for Michelle Obama.


MARTIN: During all this time, what was your sort of sense of your spiritual life? Did you — did you ever think about it? Because, I mean, the Obamas talked about those things a lot.

HURWITZ: He did. He did. And it’s really funny. I had a vague sense that something was missing, right? I had a vague sense of like, gosh, it would be really nice. I would talk to people who had a deep faith, and there was just something that they had that I didn’t. I don’t know if I could articulate it clearly, but there was just something going on that I didn’t have access to. And so, for me, I would show up at the major holidays, right? I’d get some friends together. We’d go to a synagogue. I was proud to be Jewish. But that was it. I think, if you had said, well, what do you think about God, I would have said, atheist, or maybe agnostic, who knows. Just didn’t think much about it, because I was — I was so busy. And I had a lot going on that was fulfilling. And when every minute of your life in the White House, you’re rushing to do something, you’re scrambling, you’re thinking, you’re working, there isn’t a lot of space for other stuff.

MARTIN: And so then the day came when you decided to dig deeper. Just describe that. I mean, you didn’t quite get hit with a bolt of lightning.



MARTIN: It wasn’t that. I mean, I’m not trying to be culturally inappropriate.

HURWITZ: No. It was…

MARTIN: But — like, you didn’t get hit with something.

HURWITZ: I know.

MARTIN: What — what happened?

HURWITZ: People want that story, right? They’re like, you had this moment of crisis, and it — the honest-to-God truth, I was dating a guy, I broke up with him, and I was lonely and bored and anxious. I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands. And I happened to get an e-mail from the local Jewish community center about an intro to Judaism class. And I swear I signed up just because I just thought, I need something to do.

MARTIN: Intro to Judaism.

HURWITZ: Intro to Judaism. It could have been an intro to photography, karate.

MARTIN: Intro to ceramics.


HURWITZ: Ceramics. I actually probably would have taken it.

MARTIN: Really?

HURWITZ: I just — I don’t — but, you know, look, if it had been intro to Christianity, would I have taken it? I don’t know. But intro to Judaism, I just thought, you know, I know nothing about Judaism.

MARTIN: You know, some might say that the universe sent you there.

HURWITZ: Some might say that. I — yes. I don’t know if I would say that, but some might say it. And I just thought, you know what? I should — I should learn something about my heritage.

MARTIN: And so what happened?

HURWITZ: So, I went into this class. And it was a very standard class. The class itself was not unusual. But we started studying these ancient Jewish texts about Jewish ethical wisdom about how to be a good person, different theologies, different Jewish approaches to God, the real thinking behind all these Jewish holidays and rituals, and I was blown away. This was so deep and edgy and wise and radical and countercultural and insightful in a way that secular society just isn’t. And I just thought, where has this been all my life? I was like, where has this been? It’s like, you show up twice a year for these synagogue services, and you do a seder, and you do the Hanukkah party, and it’s fun, it can be meaningful. But Judaism is much more than that. This is 4,000 years of people, crowdsourced wisdom from millions of people about what it means to be human. And, suddenly, it was all there before me. And I just thought, like, I cannot believe this has been here and I didn’t know it.

MARTIN: Do you remember, what is it about that class…


MARTIN: … that so gripped you even then, just that first meeting? Do you remember?

HURWITZ: It was — you know, over the course of various classes, I just thought, wait a second. This — this is extraordinary. Like, I just remember, actually, called — I remember calling my dad after one of the classes. We had studied a text that said, basically, build a fence around the Torah and what — and the Torah is Judaism’s core sacred text, like the Koran or whatever. And the idea of building a fence around it means, you know what, just be extra careful about observing a law. And I called my dad and I said, dad, this is what you always said to us about right and wrong, about when, if something is right, you go a little further than necessary to make sure you’re doing the right thing. And I said, this is a Jewish idea. And I think probably — my dad had probably learned that in Hebrew school or from his parents, and we hadn’t necessarily realized like, oh, this is actually a key Jewish teaching. I just thought, there’s so many moments like that. And I just thought, OK, I need to learn more.

MARTIN: Like what else, for example?


MARTIN: One of the things you also say in the book is that you found that you didn’t need Judaism to be a good person, but you did need Judaism to be a great person.

HURWITZ: Exactly. I mean, look…

MARTIN: Give another example of that.

HURWITZ: You know, look, I — I think I’m a good person. I don’t lie, cheat or steal. I follow the letter of American law. I try to be kind to others. That is a low bar. American law is designed to ensure that I don’t physically assault people or take their property or infringe on their rights. It is not designed to ensure that I am honest, generous, loving, kind, fair, right, that that’s not — and good. I don’t want American law doing that. But studying Jewish law, it’s like there’s all this Jewish thinking about speech, about gossip, about shaming people. And studying it, I just — I felt busted. I thought, like — it was like they were almost saying, like, Sarah, we saw you do this last week, and don’t do it, right? There was just so many little things about how I’m so casually cruel with my speech every day, and I don’t even think about it, and…

MARTIN: Casually cruel, you would say? Really?

HURWITZ: Yes, casually cruel.

MARTIN: Really?

HURWITZ: Yes. There are these moments where — OK, an example. If we’re colleagues, we get into an argument. I’m furious at you. I go out and I just tell a bunch of friends, Michel is the worst. She’s the worst. She’s — she’s not smart. She’s bad at her job. She’s dishonest.


MARTIN: You can stop right there.


MARTIN: OK, I get it.


HURWITZ: OK, I got it. I’m so angry. Come back the next day, we apologize. It was a misunderstanding. I just told a bunch of people some pretty tough things about you, and maybe they tell other people, and maybe a month from now, you’re applying for a job at a company that one of those people owns. And they say, I remember something about that woman, some reputational issues. With this thoughtless speech, I — there’s a real cruelty. Like, I have actually done real harm to your reputation, and I didn’t even think about it. And that was sobering to me, that ethic of being really careful with your words. Ironic that, as a speechwriter, I had not been so thoughtful about the words I personally spoke. So, now I still mess it up 100 times a day, but I used to mess it up 150 times a day. So I’m getting a little better.

MARTIN: But how is that different from ethics? How is that different from ethics or manners, even?


MARTIN: Tell me, what’s the — what is the difference?

HURWITZ: I think what’s different is the specificity of it. When you just say, well, speak kindly, don’t gossip. OK, well what’s gossip? What count — well, what if I say something that’s true, if it’s true, but it’s not hurt — I mean, like, you can really get down into the weeds here. And I — there’s a lot of things I can say, well, that’s not really gossip, or that’s not really shaming. Judaism actually doesn’t let you get away with that, right? The more you study these Jewish laws, you think, oh, well, OK, this isn’t really gossip. And then they say, oh, no, yes, it is, right? I think just don’t gossip, it’s just not memorable to me, whereas you study these Jewish stories, there’s one very famous one about a man who goes around saying nasty things about his rabbi. He then feels badly, goes to the rabbi, admits what he’s done. And the rabbi says, OK, I’ll forgive you, but, first, you have to take a feather pillow and cut it open and scatter the feathers to the winds. The guy thinks, this is very weird, but says, OK, does it, comes back and he says, am I forgiven? And the rabbi says, sure, but, first, you have to gather up all those feathers. I think about that now, right? That is a very sticky…

MARTIN: Because that’s what gossip does. It spreads.

HURWITZ: You can’t get it back.

MARTIN: And you can’t get it back, right.


And that’s just different than manners or ethics, right? That is — it’s — it’s — it’s deeper. It’s more useful.

MARTIN: But, at the core — at the core of — for some people, particularly people who see themselves as rational…


MARTIN: … the problem that they have, not just with Judaism, with really most faith traditions, is the idea that you are going to go someplace bad if you don’t do what the man says, right?


MARTIN: So how did you confront this whole notion of what it means to be faithful…


MARTIN: … and to be obedient?

HURWITZ: It’s interesting. I — I rejected that as a 12-year-old, and I even more vehemently reject it now, because I just think, once you go down that road of, there is a God that can — who controls everything and rewards and punishes you as you deserve, things get very hard to explain. It’s like, OK, well, what about the Holocaust? Well, but people have free will. So people did the Holocaust, not God. It’s like, OK, so what is God doing all day? Well, it’s complicated. It’s like, I feel like there’s a lot of mental gymnastics necessary to justify something that I just see disproven every hour of every day. So, I actually — I reject the idea that there is a being who rewards and punishes us as we deserve. I mean, that is a — that’s a really tough theology. I just — I can’t buy it. I reject it. And that is not the only — that’s not — the Jewish God is not a man in the sky who rewards and punishes, right? There’s a lot of Jewish concepts of the divine. And once I was aware of that, then things got interesting, right? Then I felt like I could finally develop an adult spirituality.

MARTIN: Now, I could make an argument that you chose, you chose to be Jewish.


MARTIN: Maybe you didn’t choose to be born into Judaism, but you chose to be Jewish, right?

HURWITZ: Absolutely. I chose to be Jewish.


HURWITZ: And I think you hear a sort of old phrase the chosen people, which I have a complicated relationship with. But I think we’re very much the choosing people today. We…

MARTIN: The choosing people.

HURWITZ: The choosing people. I think we choose to be Jewish. And I have chosen actively to be Jewish. And I think the way I relate to these ancient holidays is, I interpret them for modern times, right? You have — they have to be interpreted. We are an interpretive tradition, right? Jews no more live by the original version of the Torah, which is 2,500 years old, than Americans live by the original version of the Constitution, thank God. Both those documents allowed slavery. I’m sorry. Like, the epitome of evil, right? Treating people as property is the epitome of evil. Yet we have reinterpreted them, we have reimagined them to get rid of something that was clearly evil. So I think about a holiday like Hanukkah, and I think about, well, OK, what does — what does this holiday mean, right? It has — I think it has lessons about being thoughtful about assimilation and not assimilation. I think it also has lessons about having enough, right? It’s like, they thought they had enough oil for one night of the temple, but it was actually for eight nights. And I think, sometimes, when you feel like you don’t have enough in your life, it’s too little, you actually realize that you do. And I think there’s a real lesson about gratitude there that is very important. So I — you have to interpret these for modern times.

MARTIN: And how — and speak — you mentioned slavery. So, how do you relate to what some would argue are the — I don’t know what word to use respectfully — the scars of…

HURWITZ: The difficult parts of the Torah, yes.

MARTIN: The difficult parts, I mean, the genocides.

HURWITZ: Yes. Oh, totally.

MARTIN: I mean, the fact of the matter is, the — Daniel blowing the trumpet and bringing the walls down, that’s a genocide. I mean, how do you relate to these aspects of the texts that seem to warrant the wiping out of people because they’re in your way?

HURWITZ: We — like the Constitution, you have to reinterpret them, right? I mean, the Torah clearly says an eye for an eye. That’s — that’s the clear meaning. However, 2,000 years ago, ancient rabbis said, no, no, no, no, this actually means that, if you put out someone’s eye, you have to monetarily compensate them. That’s not what the text says. They reinterpreted it, right? We don’t — it says to stone people for working on Shabbat. We got — we don’t do that, right? You have to reinterpret these texts. And that — just like with our Constitution. We have reinterpreted it to outlaw slavery, to allow women to vote. We continue to do this. Now I’m right here getting to a real problem. These are human systems. It took us a long time to outlaw slavery. That evil went on for a really, really long time. So, if you’re going to try to make me say, well, this is a perfect system and it’s foolproof, and it’s — no, it’s not, right? These rely on us using our human hearts and minds to interpret these documents in a kind and loving and decent way. But, to me, I think that the core ideals of America have a lot to do with equality, with liberty, with freedom, things like that. And if the — if our laws aren’t being interpreted with those — in light of those core ideals, we are failing, and we need to reinterpret our documents. Same thing with Judaism.

MARTIN: How has your life changed since you have been kind of on this path?

HURWITZ: Yes. Gosh, having developed an adult spirituality with — through Judaism, I am so much more open and grateful and joyful and filled with kind of wonder and awe in my daily life. I know this sounds sort of cheesy or weird, but, like, I just — I’m just more — I’m just more grateful for small things. I know this is silly. Like, I — I was in a hotel room the other night, and I just thought, this is such a lovely hotel room. It is quiet. It is so clean and beautiful. And I just felt such a sense of delight and, like, gratitude for the incredible privilege, which, you know…

MARTIN: And how is that Jewish?

HURWITZ: So, you know, how is it uniquely and specifically Jewish? It isn’t.

MARTIN: No. No, it isn’t.

HURWITZ: Every traditional urges — but I think…

MARTIN: How is that connected to your faith?

HURWITZ: Yes, how is that connected to my faith? Judaism places a huge premium on gratitude, which, you know, now it’s like, everyone’s got the gratitude journal, and we’re all into gratitude. OK, for centuries, traditionally observant Jews, the first words they say when they wake up in the morning are modeh ani, or modah ani, depending on your gender, which means, I’m thankful. That’s literally the first words out of your mouth when you wake up in the morning. The first words of the morning prayers are, I’m thankful. And you’re basically saying a prayer of gratitude for your life, of gratitude for your existence, which I just think understanding that emphasis, to me, I try to feel a lot more gratitude for my daily existence.

MARTIN: You have talked about the fact that you always identified as Jewish, even when you were not practicing or observing in the way that you — you do now. What do you make of President Trump’s executive order on anti-Semitism?


MARTIN: I mean, it’s caused a huge reaction.

HURWITZ: Yes, it has.

MARTIN: Some favorable, much of it not. What is your take on it, as a person who worked at that level?


HURWITZ: Yes. To be honest, my first reaction at seeing this gets so much news and attention was just a sense of dismay, because I think, so often, what I’m seeing in the news is this narrative that, when Judaism — the sort of narrative in the news about Judaism is, Israel plus anti-Semitism equals Judaism. And this executive order dealt with both, right? It dealt with anti- Semitism and with kind of anti-Zionism, and is that anti-Semitism? So I just felt a sense of like, oh, here we go again, another — you know, this is another kind of mark in which — another moment in which that equation is kind of playing out in the media. So, I just — I felt a little bit of just dismay, like, oh, we’re doing this again. I mean, I think the order is actually really complicated, to be honest. Like, I think it’s — I think why it’s complicated — and this is something that I haven’t really heard a lot of people talking about — is, Judaism, we’re not a race. We’re not a nationality. We’re not an ethnicity. Jews are of every race, ethnicity and nationality. That is just a fact. Nor is Judaism just a religion, right? I can reject every tenet of Jewish religion, and I’m still Jewish. So, OK, what is it? It’s a peoplehood which you are either born into or you choose to become part of through conversion. There’s no legal category for peoplehood. And so I think we kind of have this — this clumsy thing where we’re trying to kind of find the right category for Judaism, and it’s just — it’s not there. So, I think — and I just — I’m a little frustrated with the divisiveness of the debates around these things. But, at the same time, I also understand that, when this is coming from an administration with a president who has been repeating anti-Semitic sentiments, people are understandably suspicious. And I can understand the kind of vehemence of the response, though it’s complicated.

MARTIN: Have you shared your book with the Obamas?

HURWITZ: I have. I did send it to the…

MARTIN: What did they say?

HURWITZ: When — so, I haven’t talked to them about the book yet. But when my book came out, Mrs. Obama sent the most beautiful tweet. Like, every time I read it, I start crying. I mean, it was just so kind and loving. And back when I first told her at the end of the administration that I wanted to write this book, she was just so excited, right? She was so proud. And I just think she saw my passion about it. And she was like, go. Do it. This is great.

MARTIN: Sarah Hurwitz, thank you so much for talking to us.

HURWITZ: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

About This Episode EXPAND

Experts Evelyn Farkas and Dimitri Simes analyze the impact of President Trump’s impeachment trial on U.S. relations with Russia, Steve Inskeep tells the story of America’s first political power couple and former White House speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz explains what Judaism can teach us in these divisive times.