In 1979 U.S. President Jimmy Carter nominated Philip Klutznick to serve as Secretary of Commerce. At age 72, Klutznick was not only the oldest member of the cabinet, he was also the most experienced. In his announcement of the nomination President Carter cited a litany of successes that Klutznick could claim as a successful real estate developer, noted philanthropist, special ambassador to the U.N. Economic Council, president of B’nai Brith, and president of the World Jewish Congress. After his effusive introduction, Klutznick was asked for his reaction to all the achievements for which he was credited. Klutznick said: “If the president of the United States says they are true, who am I to disagree.”
Klutznick was born to Orthodox Jewish parents in Chicago. Though he was not Orthodox himself, he certainly grew up with more than the rudiments of Judaism, including the premium Jews place on of modesty. He could not deny the wonderful things said about them. That would be dishonest. But he could not claim them either. That would be immodest. So he employed a strategy that worked.
The paradigm of modesty was Moses. As the Torah describes him: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth” (Numbers 12:3). Typically, Maimonides holds that people should follow the “Golden Mean,” a proper balance between values so that, for instance, a person should not be overly miserly or overly generous. A Jew should find the midpoint between the extremes. But when it comes to pride, Maimonides states that: “there is justification for rejecting it entirely.” Likewise, modesty “should be practiced to the limit” (Laws of Opinions 2:3). For Maimonides, the proof text is the declaration that Moses was “very humble,” not simply humble.
Too many people crave recognition and demand credit even for things they did not accomplish. It is refreshing to note that Judaism would find that abhorrent. The example of Moses is a corrective. Modesty, incidentally, is the only virtue for which no award could ever be accepted.