Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett became an Internet sensation for a moment, when his Tuesday night question to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton at the CNN town hall event, turned out to produce a rare candid and reflective moment from the former secretary of state.
On social media, supporters, and even critics, praised Clinton’s response and Spira-Savett’s question, while some also threw friendly jabs at the rabbi, the allegory he quoted, and even his tie, described as “an affront the Lord.”
Spira-Savett, leader of the Conservative Beth Abraham in Nashua, posed what could only be viewed as an unusual question to the leading candidate. He quoted a Hassidic tale from the 18th century sage Rabbi Simcha Bunim about the balancing ego and humility. “Every person has to have two pockets and in each pocket they have to carry a different note. And the note in one pocket says the universe was created for me. And in the other pocket the note says I am just dust and ashes.”
The question Spira-Savett posed to Clinton was: “How do you cultivate the ego, the ego that we all know you must have, a person must have to be the leader of the free world, and also the humility to recognize that we know that you can’t be expected to be wise about all the things that the president has to be responsible for?”
Clinton, visibly intrigued by the question, talked about her daily struggle to maintain the right balance between humility and ego and said she seeks advice through daily scripture study and discussions as well as from notes she receives from rabbis. “I don’t know that there is any ever absolute answer, like, ‘OK, universe, here I am, watch me roar,’ or, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t do it, it’s just overwhelming, I have to retreat,’” Clinton said.
In an interview with the Forward the next day, Spira-Savett said the question was part of an effort by an interfaith group of clergy from Nashua, New Hampshire, to engage presidential candidates in a discussion about moral and spirituality.
Nathan Guttman: Are you pleased with all the attention to your question?
Jonathan Spira-Savett: this is a campaign for president and the attention is important if it helps people vote and if it helps people ask questions and explore about the candidate.
NG: Does it?
JS-S: People who were there told me that it’s the kind of question, a dimension of the candidate, that isn’t getting talked about a lot and the candidates aren’t going out of their way to reveal always, so I think it adds something. It’s one part of the decision for people.
NG: How did you get to this question and to the way you formulated it?
JS-S: Last spring I convened a group of clergy in Nashua — because we’re in New Hampshire and we’re a moral voice in the community — to discuss what’s important for us to do in the campaign.
One of the models which I had in mind was the event in 2008 that Pastor Rick Warren had in California when he interviewed Senator McCain and Senator Obama about the moral and spiritual person they are, about leadership, and about philosophy and we had in mind that as a group we’d invite candidates to come to a forum and ask them those kinds of questions. We began to be in contact with many of the campaigns and in the end we developed a list of questions on ethical and spiritual issues and anyway, none of the campaigns took us up on it.
So I wrote this piece in the Union Leader a couple of weeks ago saying here’s who we are, what we want, and you can still come and we’ll put this together. And a producer at CNN called me and said they were putting this together and if I’ll be interested and what will I ask, and I described the questions.
I asked a few people how should I do it, because I had written kind of a clunky question. Knowing how Christian the environment is, especially in New Hampshire, I didn’t want [a candidate] to just hear it and then retreat and say, ‘I’m just a humble servant of God,’ so I wanted it to be kind of a Jewish question.
You know Jews acknowledge yetzer hatov and yetzer hara (good inclination and evil inclination) and so my congregant suggested I introduce it with some kind of rabbinic saying and I thought of this particular saying and that the person hearing this question will remember it. You can’t forget it, and if [Clinton] becomes president she’ll hopefully remember that.
NG: You get to ask only one question – why did you choose to ask about ego and humility?
JS-S: It was one of a type of a question that our group wanted to ask and if I had to boil it down to one, it was the type of the question I thought they would answer.
Another question that I had, for instance, is what, of all the important issues in the campaign, what’s the one you know the least about…but that sounded like a question someone would ignore, or say, ‘I have great advisers, blah, blah, blah.’
NG: What did you think of Clinton’s response to your question?
JS-S: I didn’t know if she would engage the question and she did, and it was possibly the longest response to a question either of them had all evening. It seemed she really wanted to say something about and that she was really willing to take a chance of not saying it perfect and of saying something about herself. It seemed genuine.
NG: Why direct the question at Clinton and not at Bernie Sanders?
JS-S: The extent that she’s been an ambitious person who has sometimes been thought to think, ‘well, this is something I deserve,’ so I wanted to see kind of how she reflects on this dimension and I thought that it’s amazing she did and what she said in her answer about what it meant to be in this role, and it seemed to strike a chord, so I think I got that right.
NG: Some may have expected a rabbi to ask about Israel or about Jewish values, social justice. Did these options go through your mind?
JS-S: I definitely thought about that. I asked myself if I should ask a question about Israel, but I thought that this was the kind of question that was missing and there are lots of opportunities to find out what she thinks about Israel and foreign policy and this kind of question wasn’t available.
NG: Did she convince you enough to get your vote?
JS-S: I don’t think it’s a good idea for clergy to endorse candidates. Our goal is to elicit and draw out. It’s all between the candidate’s response and the voter. People can think about whether they believe her and what I think about doesn’t carry any weight beyond that.
NG: Will you try and get to the other candidates before Tuesday’s primary?
JS-S: I do hope this is not only about Secretary Clinton and about the Democratic debate, but an important discussion for both parties and I’ll be delighted if we have the opportunity to ask the others. It’s now time for the people … to take the baton and run with it.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.