My lack of faith never troubled me. In fact, I sort of carried my atheism as a badge of honor during my formative years in the Dominican Republic – this rebellion against the expectations of a society that was overwhelmingly Catholic in name, if perhaps not in practice. I considered myself guided by science and logic and rationality, backed up by Rousseau and Locke and abstract morality. I did my best to be a good citizen because it was the right thing to do – not because some all-powerful ghost was lording threats over me (don’t even get me started on Santa Claus). But as I’ve grown older, a desire for deeper meaning and connection with others has subtly taken hold of me. It’s a quiet voice in the back of my consciousness, but it’s always there, gently asking “What does this all mean? Why do things happen? How can you make the world a better place?”
In times of need, where do we find solace, comfort, strength, and inspiration? For some it’s the belief in the capital-G God – our father who art in heaven. For others, it might be a long hike through a national park, meditation, a heavy dose of psychedelics, or Yo-Yo Ma playing the cello. To each their own. I still don’t know which is the right one for me.
Sarah Hurwitz reconnected with her faith almost on accident. Hurwitz, who served as Head Speechwriter for First Lady Michelle Obama for seven years, was raised “culturally Jewish” but never really felt a deeper connection with the faith of her ancestors.
“I’d go to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but I never connected with the prayers or rituals,” Hurwitz says when I reach her over the phone last week at her home in Washington D.C., a city she’s called home since moving here to intern for Vice President Al Gore’s office in 1998.
At the age of thirty-six, and fresh out of a relationship, Hurwitz decided to make the most of her newfound spare time and take a class at the Jewish Community Center. And that’s when everything changed. The texts and songs of her childhood – which had seemed intimidating and disconnected from her life as a young Jewish woman in modern day America – gained a richer meaning and depth through discourse, analysis, and dialogue. Eventually, after leaving the White House in 2017, Hurwitz found herself steeped in learning about Judaism, and compelled to help others connect as strongly with the faith.
“The books available to me tended to be these intro, “nuts and bolts” books that were pretty basic or these super sophisticated esoteric books,” Hurwitz says, with her trademark enthusiasm. “I kept asking myself “why has no-one written the book that I need?” The book that covers the basics but unearths the deeper insights.”
Honestly, she’s done a great job of it. Despite – or was it because of? – my apathy for religion, I found myself deeply engrossed while reading Hurwitz’s book, excitedly underlining and writing in the margins. It invited me to grapple with it, to chew the text, to question it. In summary, Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life – in Judaism might just have the answers some of us have been looking for.
Sarah Hurwitz is speaking at the Line Hotel on Thursday, January 23rd at 6:30pm ET as part of the Women Write Washington Series. Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life – in Judaism is out now via Penguin Random House.
Brightest Young Things: I think you’ve done such a wonderful job or narrating your journey of discovery of religion, and specifically Judaism. And it’s so relatable.
I grew up in a Catholic family, but my mother’s family claims Sephardic Jewish origins. I don’t really want to do a genetic test for many reasons, but part of it is that I think there’s something romantic to the notion of your family lore being your real family history.
Hurwitz: Yeah! Oh my god – that’s like old school Jewish. That’s amazing.
BYT: The prologue and introduction of the book really struck a chord with me; I remember being maybe five years old when I first told my mom that I didn’t believe in god. She was horrified, and shocked. [Laughs] But over the years we’ve had some deep philosophical conversations back and forth about what it means to be a good Christian, and what it means to be a good citizen of the world. To me you can be both, and you can be one without being the other – in positive and negative ways.
Hurwitz: Oh absolutely – yes.
You talk about the genesis of your spiritual awakening happening after you went to these classes on Judaism at the Jewish Community Center, but what was the moment that the idea of writing this book crystallized in your mind? You could have chosen to do an infinite number of things after leaving the Obama Administration. Why this, and why now?
Hurwitz: It’s so funny – as I was learning about Judaism as an adult, it sounded so hard, right? Everything in Judaism is linked to everything else, and there’s just so much there: history, holidays, lifecycle rituals, language, theology, ethics. And the books available to me tended to be these intro, “nuts and bolts” books that were pretty basic or these super sophisticated esoteric books. I kept asking myself “why has no-one written the book that I need?” The book that covers the basics but unearths the deeper insights.
You know what’s funny? I was like “Oh god, I couldn’t write that. I’m not a rabbi. I’m not a scholar, or an expert, or an authority.” I just felt so unqualified to write this book.
But a friend of mine named Adam Grant, who is an author himself, spent an hour with me on the phone convincing me I could do it. And he said to me “Sarah, when you say I’m not qualified to do this, you’re basically saying that every journalist who becomes interested in a topic, learns about it deeply, and writes a best-selling book – you’re saying that they’re not legitimate.” And I tried to tell him that no, they are legitimate! And he pointed out that we’re not actually doing anything differently. That was the moment where I thought I could maybe do this.
BYT: Tell me a little bit more about the process. Obviously you dove pretty deeply into educating yourself, via the classroom, speaking to religious leaders, and reading. What did you find most useful in this learning process?
Hurwitz: I read thousands of pages of books – that was my primary source of research. What I think was most meaningful to me was hearing the voices of hundreds of Jews from every possible angle. And I mean it: secular-atheist Jews, ultra-orthodox Jews, queer Jews, feminist Jews, traditional Jews, radical Jews. My book quotes Jews of every background, and by the way, people who are not Jewish. I love Anne Lamott; she’s a great Christian writer, so I quote her. I think just learning from all these different people was super exciting, because even if we practice Judaism differently, they often had some piece of wisdom or some piece of advice that really moved me.
BYT: That breadth of perspectives and opinion really shines through and helps make it an accessible text. It’s funny to even use that language, because it’s like talking about the Torah.
Hurwitz: [Laughs] I know! I know. At the same time, being a speechwriter I think was one of my most helpful skills in writing this book. The job of a speechwriter is to translate material that is complicated, esoteric, controversial, and weave it into a powerful moving story. As a speechwriter, my writing is always very conversational because I always want people to feel like somebody’s talking to them, like a friend is talking to them, walking them through whatever the topic is. So, I don’t write in an academic style or a legal style; I really write like a speechwriter. A lot of my friends have said that the book feels like I’m talking to them – they say they can hear my voice in the book. [Laughs] That was deliberate.
BYT: That through line really comes across, no matter the complexity or the breadth of the subject matter. I particularly enjoyed your breakdown of the Torah’s “plot.” That was a solid four-thousand years of history summed up in four pages.
Hurwitz: Right? I know – It was so crazy. But it was hard! So hard. Boil down the entire Torah into this summary. But many readers won’t be familiar with the plot of the Torah, and I needed them to be for the rest of the book so I could refer back to Moses or Abraham and they would know who I’m talking about.
BYT: I remember reading the Old Testament and the New Testament as a child and really not getting it. Why was god angry all the time? And then, why is he so chill afterwards? That couldn’t be the same guy; that made no sense.
Hurwitz: Well, it’s so funny because many, many Jews who aren’t familiar with Judaism say “I find the Torah really problematic. I find it a troubling document. How can I be Jewish?” Guys – it’s twenty-five hundred years old. We’ve spent that entire time re-imagining it.
Two thousand years ago rabbis looked at the phrase “an eye for an eye” and they said “No, no, no, no. What that means is that if you take someone’s eye out, you have to compensate them with money.” They re-interpreted it. It’s like – we don’t live by an original draft of the Constitution, thank god! We’ve been re-interpreting it for two hundred and fifty years, almost.
BYT: Someone tell that to the Federalist Society, but sure.
Hurwitz: [Laughs] Exactly. I mean – most of us don’t. But these are old documents and we continue to re-interpret them to bring them into line with our moral sensibility because our moral sensibility evolves. We become more inclusive. We have science that forms our understanding of the world around us. Of course we have to re-imagine these documents; of course we don’t live by some surface reading of them from hundreds of years ago.
BYT: I was touched in a deep way by the statement and assertion that man and woman are created in god’s image. By doing that you are establishing fundamental human rights. I mean – that is such a powerful building block for creating societies.
Hurwitz: Yes! And you don’t need to believe in god to see the power of that; it’s not meant to be taken so literally. But in saying that every single human being is infinitely worthy? That is the basis of democracy and human rights law, you’re right. That’s why we know that buying and selling human beings is evil. We know it’s evil to treat people like property because they’re infinitely worthy, and I find that insight to be so profound and so important.
BYT: I was having a conversation with my dad a few months ago and he brought up that same point – if you haven’t picked this up by now, my parents are still concerned that I’m a godless heathen. But we had a whole back and forth about the basic tenet that every single human is inherently valuable, no matter what judgments we make based on externalities like race, gender, social status, physical attributes, etcetera. The core principle that humans are worth the same, whether you’re the pauper or the prince, is wrapped in Abrahamic religions.
Hurwitz: In the ancient world that was a really radical idea. The Hammurabi Code has different punishments for crimes based on the perpetrator’s social status. To have a document that says that everybody is to be treated the same way? That’s radical. And frankly, it’s still a radical idea now.
An example I always give when I speak is how many of us will walk by a homeless person on the street and will apologize and turn them down if they ask us for help. If that person had been Barack Obama, or a celebrity, or a CEO? You would have stopped. If there had been a laptop on the street, you would have stopped and asked “whose laptop is this?” We actually don’t in our hearts truly internalize this core truth that we’re all equal. It’s something we have to work to remember and to embody and to live out. Which I think is what Judaism and other many religions are working to remind us.
BYT: Even the most pious of us has to internalize that. And Judaism was even more radical because it demanded that we extend that generosity and that care to anyone, whether Jewish or not.
Hurwitz: The concern in the Torah for the stranger. And the stranger meant the non-Israelite, the non-Jew. And thirty-six times in this document it says “love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Over and over again. This is not subtle; it’s not a typo. It’s one of the animating ideas of Judaism – the real concern for the other. And I think it’s something a lot of Jews instinctively feel as a result of our tradition.
BYT: I want to pivot a bit because there was one passage early on in the book that caught my attention.
You’ve been explicit about your reservations with what I’ll call the smorgasbord approach to spirituality:
“Where, instead of picking one religion and putting in the time and effort to engage deeply with it, we learn just a little bit about many traditions and then decide to do this thing from one tradition, and that thing from another, because each of these things speak to us in some way – because each feels like it’s “so me” – and we don’t have to deal with the other parts of those belief systems that are “so not me.””
I think this is reasonable pushback, but couldn’t there be an argument that Americans could benefit from learning making the effort and learning more about faiths outside their own?
Hurwitz: I completely agree with that. I’m the biggest believer that you absolutely have to learn about traditions outside your own, and I’ve been doing a little bit but not enough. I just bought a textbook of world religions so I can really dive in. It’s so important. You realize that each of them has moral wisdom; each of them has something to offer and they’re part of the world’s moral knowledge and imagination, and you should learn about all of the religions.
My hesitation is that when you decide to make yourself the highest authority and just pick and choose and decide what you want to do from one tradition or the other, that may not be the best idea. These religions have been crowdsourced from millions of people over thousands of years, right? They’ve been tested, and vetted, and they might have wisdom to offer that’s better than your own personal sense of ethics.
Danya Ruttenberg – who’s a rabbi and wrote some great books that I love – she wrote that each of these religions are complete systems designed to inculcate ethics, to make you a better, kinder, more honest and more loving person. When you engage deeply with it, it can do its work on you. That said, we absolutely have to engage with mind and body, right? You have to push back on the parts that you think are immoral. These are very old systems, and like any human system they can be distorted. They have to be practiced with great care and through a lens of love, and unfortunately that doesn’t always happen. That is really upsetting to me.
BYT: That’s the individual human element to it – we can lose sight of the kernel of insight that has stood the test of time.
Hurwitz: It’s like the notions of liberty and equality that are at the core of this country’s founding documents – the founders didn’t honor those values in certain ways. Slavery was a total desecration of those values. Women not being able to vote was a desecration of those values. It is our job to continually update those documents to ensure they’re in line with those values.
It’s the same thing with religions. The beating heart of Judaism is about love, it’s about treating those who are struggling with dignity; there are all these beating heart values and we have to continually re-interpret our documents to ensure they’re in line with those values.
And I want to be very clear: everyone, in every religious tradition is picking and choosing to an extent. You can always find someone who is more religious than someone else. I don’t want to overstate this; even within these traditions, we’re picking and choosing. Let’s be clear – there are plenty of things I don’t do in Judaism which more observant people do, but I do appreciate the wisdom of this complete system. I’m learning a lot from it, and that involves pushing back at times. Some of it I reject, but much of it I accept. And Judaism demands that of us – it’s a tradition that demands questioning and has always preserved dissenting voices. It’s a tradition that’s based on arguing and really trying to reach deeper truths, and I so appreciate that about Judaism.
I also think that the religion has this wonderful theological humility, where there’s no universally accepted definition of “god”. You won’t find anything in Judaism where someone is saying “god is this.” If you look at all the commentaries from ancient rabbis all the way through today, there are all these different names for god and all these different ideas for god. There’s a real humility in saying we don’t know. We just don’t know – this so much bigger than our tiny little human hearts and minds. And we have the humility to say we don’t know, but this is something we’re in awe of and care deeply about. This is something we’re all trying to figure out.
BYT: At the beginning of the book you describe yourself as someone who maybe went to synagogue twice a year for the High Holidays. How has your relationship with Judaism as an everyday practice in your life evolved since that transformational experience – or enlightenment – a few years ago?
Hurwitz: It’s amazing, because it really does affect my life in many ways. Having studied ethics I think I’m more conscious of my daily interactions if the world. I’m more conscious about how I use my speech, because there’s a lot of thinking in Judaism around speech: around gossip, shaming people. How you speak to and about others.
And look – I still mess up one hundred times a day. But I used to mess up one hundred and fifty times a day. I now am more likely to stop before I speak and question if I really want to say this, or delete the email instead of sending it. I also think Judaism puts an incredible premium on presence for those who are suffering – it demands chesed, which translates to “love and kindness” – and basically what they’re saying is that when someone is struggling you don’t just send a text. If they’re sick or mourning the loss of a loved one, you don’t just send flowers; go physically show up for them and engage in a ministry of presence. So I think about that as well.
I also now have fairly regular Shabbat dinners with friends, that are very important to me. I attend silent Jewish meditation retreats about twice a year and that’s become a key part of my spirituality. I developed this community of rabbis and Jewish leaders from around the country and the world – some of whom I’ve studied with – who’ve become mentors and spiritual leaders and friends. It’s an expansive community that I didn’t have before. I’m still probably in the synagogue about the same amount of time – I go for the High Holidays, and occasionally on Shabbat. [Laughs] But I think have a better understanding of what I’m doing there, so it’s more meaningful. Having developed an adult spirituality through Judaism, I have a greater sense of awe, and gratitude and wonder in my daily life.