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Did Obama Cause Jack Lew to Break Jewish Holiday for IRS Scandal?

8:03 PM, May 15, 2013 • By DANIEL HALPER
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President Obama says he discussed the IRS scandal with Treasury secretary Jack Lew. The thing is, it's a Jewish holiday, Shavout, and Lew is an observant Jew. 

As Obama said this evening in his statement about the IRS scandal:

THE PRESIDENT:  Good afternoon, everybody.  I just finished speaking with Secretary Lew and senior officials at the Treasury Department to discuss the investigation into IRS personnel who improperly screened conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.  And I look forward to taking some questions at tomorrow’s press conference, but today, I wanted to make sure to get out to all of you some information about what we’re doing about this, and where we go from here. ...

So here’s what we’re going to do.

First, we’re going to hold the responsible parties accountable.  Yesterday, I directed Secretary Lew to follow up on the IG audit to see how this happened and who is responsible, and to make sure that we understand all the facts.  Today, Secretary Lew took the first step by requesting and accepting the resignation of the acting commissioner of the IRS, because given the controversy surrounding this audit, it’s important to institute new leadership that can help restore confidence going forward. 

Second, we’re going to put in place new safeguards to make sure this kind of behavior cannot happen again.  And I’ve directed Secretary Lew to ensure the IRS begins implementing the IG’s recommendations right away.

But today is the Jewish holiday Shavout. As Chabad.org explains, "During the course of the holiday we don’t go to work, drive, write, or switch on or off electric devices. We are permitted to cook, to kindle a stove with a flame that existed before the holiday (or which was lit from such a flame), and to carry outdoors."

A phone is an electronic device, of course, so it's something observant Jews don't use on this holiday. And as the Jewish online magazine Tablet has explained, Lew is pretty observant:

Jack Lew, President Obama’s current chief of staff and his pick for Treasury secretary, is the highest-ranking Orthodox Jew in the history of the U.S. government. It’s a distinction that imposes some unusual burdens—like having to dodge opinionated congregants who try to accost him about politics in synagogue. The 57-year-old New York native recently told me that he has developed a strategy for such situations. “Your friends protect you—they sit around you and make it a little harder for strangers to come and give you a hard time,” he explained. “I just tell people, ‘If I wanted to work on Saturday, I have this 24/7 job. I come to shul to pray.’ ” ...

Ironically, though, Lew is perhaps most famous among American Jews for a story that never actually happened—at least as it was reported. When Lew was tapped by President Obama to direct the Office of Management and Budget in 2010, NBC claimed that he had once refused to pick up a phone call from President Clinton on Shabbat, even when the latter entreated on the answering machine that “God would understand.” It’s a fun anecdote, Lew told me, with one flaw: “It’s kind of fabricated.”

“The true story is I came home one [Shabbat] morning from shul, and the phone machine was going off saying ‘please disregard the previous message from President Clinton. He just remembered that it’s Saturday and he’s going to call someone else,’ ” Lew recalled in November, when I spoke to him while he was on the campaign trail in Ohio. “He was out of the country and forgot what day it was.” Clinton, he said, was always careful never to trouble Lew on Shabbat unless the matter was urgent, and Lew, knowing this, would never have ignored his call. “He knew that I’d take this call on a Saturday if he needed me; he knew I’d get in a car and come in if he needed me,” Lew explained. That’s why Clinton called back to tell Lew to ignore his initial message. Rather than being an example of a conflict between Lew’s religious and political obligations, the real story “illustrates tolerance and understanding.”

So by calling Lew on Shavout to talk about the IRS scandal, did President Obama make his Treasury secretary break the Jewish holiday?

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