The sex scandal enveloping President Bill Clinton and the nation was a prime topic of discussion at Rosh HaShanah services this week, and many New York-area rabbis used their sermons to draw lessons from the tragedy.
One rabbi chastised congregants for their “sinful” public discussions about it, another used it to discuss marital infidelity, while a third said Clinton’s apology cannot be accepted unless he gets help to “control his self-destructive urges.” Only two of a dozen rabbis called at random last week said they deliberately would not discuss the issue in their sermons.
The messages from the pulpit were delivered even as much of the rest of the nation was riveted to their television screens to watch a videotape of the president’s grand jury testimony in which Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr and his associates engaged in often contentious exchanges with the president.
Rabbi Stephen Berkowitz of the Hebrew Tabernacle, a Reform congregation in Washington Heights, compared Clinton to Biblical heroes. Although some in the Bible, such as Jacob, have character flaws, tradition still regards them as role models. Unfortunately, he said, “for all kinds of reasons, it is very difficult for many people to accept [Clinton] as a role model. It’s a shame that many people have lost confidence and feel very torn about him. If you can’t trust an individual, you can never look up to him.”
Rabbi Alvin Kass, spiritual leader of the East Midwood Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation in Brooklyn, took issue in his sermon with Clinton’s assertion that what he did with White House intern Monica Lewinsky was a “private” matter.
“From the Judaic viewpoint, there needs to be a consistency between the inner and outer man,” he said. “When Jews were traveling in the wilderness, they carried a portable sanctuary. The Torah says it should be covered with pure gold both on the outside and the inside. The rabbis [explained] that you should be concerned about the unseen as well as the seen.
“Obviously what happened here is a lack of sensitivity regarding the supposedly unseen part of his life. Quite apart from the issue of whether he should be impeached or not is his own spiritual and mental well being. That will never be resolved satisfactorily until and unless there is a recognition by him of the inextricable connectedness between these two dimensions of his personality.”
Rabbi Ely Rosenzveig, spiritual leader of Congregation Anshe Sholom, an Orthodox congregation in New Rochelle, said the Clinton episode should cause people to reflect upon the state of marriage.
“What doesn’t get talked about enough is how infidelity destroys not only a marriage but has reverberations that extend to many others,” he said. “Faithfulness in marriage and general morality are inextricably linked, inseparable concepts. You cannot be unfaithful and be deemed a moral person. That certainly is a basic concept in Torah Judaism.”
Rabbi Rosenzveig said also that the president would not be in such political trouble had he not “lied and wagged his finger back in January. … Words have an effect on us. They have the power to inform us and the power to help us, the power to heal us and the power to destroy. I think it’s important we understand that and to put in a religious context how important it is that we choose our words wisely and take care to be truthful and helpful and avoid hurtful gossip.”
Lashon horah, or evil speech, was also the theme of Rabbi Rachel Mikva’s sermon at the Community Synagogue, a Reform congregation in Rye.
“It is forbidden in our tradition to single out any individual for public humiliation,” she said. “It says in Leviticus, ‘You shall reprove your neighbor, but incur no sin on his account.’ Our tradition has laid out specific guidelines for how we are to reprove someone — directly, privately without shaming him, and examine our own souls to make sure our motivations are pure.
“The public discourse of the situation is as sinful as anything the players in Washington have done, and we need to be more circumspect about our words in this regard.”
That view was echoed by Rabbi Howard Buechler of the Dix Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue on Long Island.
“Just because a word is truthful, [doesn’t give one license] to injure or to harm,” he said. “Part of the Starr report is embarrassing and is profane in many ways.”
Rabbi Dennis Math, spiritual leader of The Village Temple, a Reform congregation in Manhattan, said that in the “spirit of the season, I think we should grant” Clinton’s request for forgiveness. But he added that in Judaism, there is more to repentance than simply saying “sorry.”
“It requires a true change of behavior,” he explained. “So if after spending time with his ministers … he is able truly to control his self-destructive urges, then and only then will his apology be full and complete.”
Rabbi Gershon Schwartz of the South Baldwin Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation on Long Island, said that in his Kol Nidre sermon he planned to explore the “national fixation not on Mr. Clinton’s mistakes but on his sex life. … Forget what the [Starr] report says about Bill Clinton, what does it say about us?”
Referring to the illicit sexual liaisons of King David, Rabbi Schwartz noted that the child born of that relationship died. In the Bible, he said, the “morality message was public, the sexual details were private. … The details of Mr. Clinton’s sexual encounters with Ms. Lewinsky should be equally private. That we have a president who apparently can’t keep his pants zipped is disgraceful. That we are preoccupied with his zipper is outrageous….We would do well to see forgiveness for our depravity and insensitivity.”
A Reform rabbi, Shira Milgrom, spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, said she did not mention the scandal “because the overwhelming majority of Americans have had enough.”
And Rabbi Kenneth Auman of the Young Israel of Flatbush said that since High Holy Day sermons “should concentrate on the lofty ideals of what the holidays are all about — repentance and trying to set goals for the coming year — something like this would be more of a downer.”
Rabbi Marc Schneier, spiritual leader of The Hampton Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation on Long Island, suggested that the president should be given another chance.
“The penitential season brings us the reassuring message that we can change, that we can chart a new course, that it is human nature to amend human actions,” he said.