A Jewish Perspective on the Clinton affair (Editor)

At this stage we will continue the Sunflower discussion in a different format. We will post articles related to the issue of forgiveness or the Sunflower. You are welcome to respond with your own comments.

We present here an article by Prof. Susannah Heschel, the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies of the Department of Religion at Dartmouth College. This article presents an interesting perspective on Jewish values and forgiveness on a very contemporary issue. We post them with the kind permission of the author. We would also like to take this opportunity to wish Professor Heschel a Mazal Tov on the very recent birth of a daughter!

" He who publicly shames his neighbor is as though he shed blood," Baba Mezia 58b [September, 1999] (Prof. Susannah Heschel)

Americans are facing an attempted coup d'etat by the Christian Right. While most of our attention is focused on the alleged crimes of President Clinton, we are ignoring the highly troubling, perhaps illegal, and certainly immoral acts of Kenneth W. Starr. Particularly disturbing is the collusion of some American Jews with Starr's right-wing Christianity, ignoring the very different values and teachings of our own Judaism.

First and most important, the Talmud teaches us that humiliating a human being in public is tantamount to murder. That teaching is part of a much broader Jewish warning to guard the tongue from speaking evil words. Seen in Talmudic perspective, the Starr Report, with its salacious and often irrelevant summary of Monica Lewinsky's testimony, constitutes assassination. For the members of the U.S. Congress to make public a Report that humiliates the President, his wife, and his daughter makes them partners in this assassination.

Malicious innuendo has circulated about President Clinton for years, by Starr's office and by his cohorts on the Christian Right. We have all heard of Whitewater and assumed it was a scandal involving financial fraud, just as we heard about Travelgate, rumors that Vincent Foster was murdered, and a host of other alleged crimes — not one of which was ever found to have enough substance to be brought to trial or even mentioned in the Starr Report.

But through the years, President Clinton's reputation has been sullied, so that his relationship with Monica Lewinsky is now perceived as a culminating scandal piled high onto so many others, rather than as the very first scandal ever to have substance. To put this in perspective, think of the reaction to the news of Senator Edward Kennedy's actions off Chappaquidick — the woman in his car died, without any effort on his part to save her, yet he remains to this day in the Senate. The Kennedy reputation was too highly esteemed in this country to force him from office or even put him on trial, whereas Clinton's reputation has been deliberately eroded through years of slander.

This is precisely what Judaism forbids. As curious and sometimes titillated onlookers, we bear responsibility, too, for this sinful gossip. Second, Starr and many members of Congress have condemned President Clinton's efforts at self-defense as legal hair-splitting, as if that were beneath contempt. Yet unlike Starr's Christianity, our religion, Judaism, rests on a system of law that demands and exalts hair-splitting, juridical due process, and minute precision in its judicial decision-making. I am not ashamed of hair-splitting, despite the mockery and contempt in which it has been held for centuries by some Christian theologians. Exactitude is the most important feature of Jewish law, and without it there can be no justice, and without justice, there can be no society. Even non-Jews are required to have a proper legal system.

Third, I am shocked by Jewish leaders, such as Senate Joseph Lieberman and Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, rushing to condemn President Clinton, since not a peep was heard from those same Jewish leaders concerning Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's admitted confession to adultery. When was Netanyahu ever condemned as unfit to hold office because of his affairs? President Clinton has been one of the best friends Israel and the Jewish people have had in the presidency; what kind of integrity do we have, if we abandon our friend when powerful people are trying to assassinate him?

Finally, how can we as Jews jump on a moral high horse and condemn President Clinton's behavior as immoral, when we exalt King David? Clearly, David's affair with Batsheva was far more insidious — David had Batsheva's husband, Uriah, murdered. While David was condemned, punished, and repented, he was never thrown off the throne of Israel. On the contrary, he is exalted in our Jewish memory as the unifier of Israel, the builder of Jerusalem, the author of our psalms, the ancestor of the messiah. His wicked deed of murder was placed in perspective and the entirety of his life was judged, without condemning him on the basis of one sin, as outrageous as it was.

This country's population contains a majority of Christians, but the often very different values and principles of other citizens — among them, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, as well as Christians who define themselves very differently from Starr's brand of Christianity — must also be heard. Right-wing Christianity is but one of many systems of religious values, not the only one. We as Jews have to beware that we are not seduced by those values, but remain loyal to our very different, but entirely legitimate, Jewish principles.





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