Shmuley Boteach
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Politicians and repentance

The return of Spitzer and Weiner to the political stage raises the question: What behavior by elected officials is truly unforgivable?

Former New York Governor Elliot Spitzer has announced ambitions to run for New York City comptroller more than five years after resigning from office over a prostitution scandal. With both he and former Congressman Anthony Weiner seeking public redemption, we as a nation are being given a new opportunity to forgive and rebuild. I do not believe that “strike one” means you’re out. Both men are capable and talented political figures who proved their ability to make an impact in their careers, with one important caveat that I’ll get to later.

Maimonides says there are three steps in true repentance: Acknowledgment and cessation of the sin, confession to the party injured, and rebuilding the relationship by redoubling efforts to right the wrong. This is true whether we have injured God or a spouse. “[A person is considered to have] completed his repentance,” he writes, “if they have the ability of committing the same sin but, nevertheless, abstain.”

Press reports say Anthony Wiener took more than a year to focus almost exclusively on his wife and daughter and win them back. Similar things are said of Spitzer. I respect their desire to heal their families of the pain they caused and right the dysfunction they have brought into their loved ones lives.

The Jewish concept of repentance is based on the idea that everyone is born with a dual nature and conflicting inner drives; the animal and angelic, the selfish and altruistic, the romantic and adulterous. This battle between our impulses is a painful but also creative element within the human experience. Unlike Christianity, Judaism has no Jesus figure. All are flawed, from the imperfect parenting of Jacob to the impulsive passions of David. Righteousness is found not in perfection but in struggle, in the human willingness to engage in the battle between our two natures and have good triumph over evil.

I have little time or patience for perfect people, finding them boring, monolithic, and unforgiving. As a counselor I prefer the company of those who have fallen but show sincere regret – becoming deeper, more sensitive people in the process – to those who live on lofty peaks looking condescendingly at lesser mortals, bereft of empathy.

There is more.

I respect Judaism because it values world redemption over personal salvation. Our religion has no monastic tradition because cleansing one’s soul in seclusion is subordinate to improving the world’s open spaces. And because it places the needs of the community before those of the individual, our faith has always encouraged imperfect people to contribute to the world’s perfection.

A few years ago I visited Zimbabwe, one of the poorest countries on earth, with my friend Dennis Prager, on a relief mission with a Christian organization. I bumped into three young Canadian doctors who enlightened me as to the dismal state of the hospitals they worked in and the lack of medicines. There was one exception. Their shelves were stocked full of antiretrovirals, they said, to combat AIDS, all provided by the Clinton Global Initiative. Here, countless lives were being saved by a man whose personal life was scandalous to the point of impeachment.

Should celebrity chef Paula Dean be forgiven for her repeated racial slurs? For goodness sake, yes. But it’s not enough for her to simply stop using the “N-word.” Going from racist to race neutral is not a legitimate form of repentance. Rather, she should go to the opposite extreme and rectify her insensitivity to the equality of all God’s children but investing herself and her resources in programs benefiting the African-American community and others with whom she found no natural kinship.

But here is my caveat about forgiving flawed public figures. An even bigger problem than the personal moral failures of some our elected leaders is the extreme partisanship they exhibit. Anthony Wiener’s Twitter posts were less injurious to the country than the bombastic tone he took as a Democratic partisan. Elliot Spitzer was likewise admonished for using the state police to record the movements of Republican Frank Bruno.

Republican partisanship, where it exists, is equally offensive and our country is suffering, not due to the personal indiscretions of our leaders – public officials will always be caught in public scandals – but because of the growing polarization of our public servants. I have close friends who are Democrats who felt they had to distance themselves from me when I ran for Congress as a Republican. Such behavior is toxic and unforgivable.

This is especially relevant at Tisha B’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar where we commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

In the year 70 Rome besieged Jerusalem but could not conquer it. The walled city had enough food and raw materials to last out a lengthy siege. The city and the Temple fell not because of the sexual peccadilloes of its defenders but because of civil strife and infighting. Rival groups burned each other’s food stores leading to desperate famine. Jerusalemites ate their horses, their saddles, and even their children.

In an age such as ours, with so many pressing national challenges, let’s be more forgiving about the personal indiscretions of public figures who are prepared to acknowledge and change their behavior and less forgiving of those who want their party to win, even as the country loses.

About the Author
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network. He is the author of Judaism for Everyone and 30 other books, including his most recent, Kosher Lust. Follow him on Twitter@RabbiShmuley.