December 8, 2019

Former Obamas’ Speechwriter Discovers Judaism Was There All Along

Sarah Hurwitz

There’s that scene in every romantic comedy where the protagonist suddenly realizes they’re in love with someone who was there all along. This is that story, except it’s renowned political speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz who has fallen in love — with Jewish history, life, tradition and practice. She’s written about it in her new book, “Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life — in Judaism.”

Hurwitz documents her Jewish journey beginning in her childhood, when after a bad Hebrew school experience she writes she was “just kind of done with Judaism. I was unable to own my Judaism, but unable to disown it either. So I mainly ignored it. … After all, I was busy.” 

Busy working as a speechwriter for the Obamas: first for candidate Barack, then for first lady Michelle.

After attending an Introduction to Judaism class at the Washington D.C., Jewish Community Center, Hurwitz writes in her book that she discovered a Judaism that “wasn’t the stale, rote Judaism of my childhood. It was something relevant, endlessly fascinating and alive.” She began to study in earnest. 

Some of what she learned was “counterintuitive at first,” she told the Journal in a phone interview. For instance, Shabbat “seemed like a lot of rules and very in the weeds, so legalistic,” but after spending time with people observing, she was “blown away. It was profoundly moving, wise and beautiful and I hadn’t known. All those rules created something extraordinary.” 

Now Hurwitz identifies as “a fan of Shabbat. It really helps to have all of those rules to plug up the many nooks and crannies through which the modern world is always looking to seep,” she said. “Keep out screens and electronics and noisy appliances and work, create a beautiful container, be present with the people you love and reflect and be refreshed. That doesn’t just happen, you have to do some work to create that.”

Hurwitz’s book is a crash course in Jewish literacy, the book she says she wished she had when she started learning five years ago, that provides the “basics but also uncovering the deeper insights.” 

Although she calls synagogues “amazing spaces for community,” Hurwitz is not a synagogue member, instead finding community in her Shabbat group and speaking about the Jewish meditation world’s retreats, classes and teachers as “spiritual companions.”

She also noted that the “unit of engagement” in synagogues is often built on the assumption of family. And although she never felt unwelcome, “being a single person without children … what’s being offered [in a synagogue] isn’t the right fit for what’s going on in my life.” 

She does, however, appreciate Jewish holidays that “tie us to ethics, history and spirituality,” and lifecycle rituals that honor big life transitions like marriage and having children. 

So what are the challenges standing in the way of connecting to Jewish tradition? For Hurwitz, it boils down to basic [Jewish] literacy. “It is so vitally important,” she said. “It gives you a foundation to dive in and learn deeply. Attaining [Jewish] literacy as an adult isn’t easy [but] the rewards are so vast. What you get out of it corresponds to what you put into it.”

Hurwitz has done that work and is reaping the rewards. She cites New York’s Hadar Institute CEO Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, who taught her that many prayers quote from the Tanakh. 

“Understanding where those verses come from adds an entire new meaning to it,” Hurwitz said. “And there’s an importance of saying the same prayers that your grandmother said and that Jews around the world have said.”

She also spoke about the classic liturgical cornerstone of the High Holy Days: Unetaneh Tokef. “I thought it was a simple reward-and-punishment theology,” she said. “But learning that it frequently quotes from the Book of Job changed my mind. A book where God punishes a righteous man due to a challenge from Satan is not clear-cut reward and punishment at all. It is complex and embraces the complexity of what happens to us.” 

One complexity that she opted out of addressing at length in her book is Israel.

“It’s painful for me to see this diverse country with millions of people from different backgrounds, complex and diverse, reduced to a political conflict,” she said, adding that she didn’t have the depth of expertise to address it properly. “Israel is very important and because it’s so charged and divisive, it becomes loud and pushes out everything else. It’s a 4,000-year tradition with culture and language; it’s important to make room for the rest of Judaism.” 

Hurwitz cites many influences in the book including writers Anne Lamott and Anita Diamant. And although her approach is through a lens of love, she doesn’t shy away from criticizing certain tenets. The book has a sub-section called “Let’s all calm down about chosenness.“ The idea of being chosen means that “we have our own way of relating to the divine and other people, based around our core texts, as do the other faith traditions,” Hurwitz said. 

She also advocates for embracing the moral truths of the Torah instead of the historical ones. Just like we have “interpreted away” stoning people for working on Shabbat or for being rebellious children, Hurwitz said, we can deal with problematic biblical statements “as we have done for 2,500 years” by adapting them for today. 

“People say gender-egalitarian Judaism or Judaism that embraces queer people is radical and I deeply disagree,” Hurwitz said. “The process of reinterpreting the Torah and Talmud is the most traditional kind of Judaism. As our moral horizons develop, we reinterpret our laws to catch up. Focusing on difficult parts of the Torah is like saying the Constitution doesn’t give women the right to vote … but we changed that. Frankly, the reality is that for most of Jewish history, men have been the ones doing the interpreting. It is crucial to have all backgrounds and all genders at the table.” 

Hurwitz’s book is a crash course in Jewish literacy, the book she says she wished she had when she started learning five years ago, that provides the “basics but also uncovering the deeper insights.” Asked what else she would include in a Jewish starter kit, she said,  “All of Judaism is hyperlinked to all of Judaism, so ‘where do you start?’ is a very stressful question. There isn’t a natural place to start. You have to explore; figure out what strikes your passion.”