Like the biblical prophets Samuel and Nathan, who admonished their kings for sinning, the spiritual head of the Conservative movement found himself a lone Jewish voice in the nation this week following his daring call for President Clinton to resign.
Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, last week thus became the first national Jewish religious figure to urge Clinton to quit because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He said the president’s moral authority has been “destroyed” and in effect cannot be recovered.
Schorsch’s call, appearing in the Sept. 11 edition of The New York Times, was published the same morning that Clinton confessed his sin and asked for repentance at an emotional interfaith prayer breakfast in the White House. On the same day special prosecutor Kenneth Starr released his report containing salacious details of Clinton’s sexual affair with the young Jewish former White House intern.
Schorsch’s call comes on the eve of the High Holy Days, with repentance dominating not only Jewish conversation but suddenly that of the entire nation as citizens in bars and opera houses debate whether sincere remorse has the power to absolve the sinner from the worst punishment.
Several national Jewish religious leaders interviewed by The Jewish Week disagreed with Schorsch, saying that Clinton can redeem himself if he does teshuvah, the Jewish word for repentance — the religious concept that envelops Jews during the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur period which begins next week.
“I don’t join in his call,” said David Zwiebel, director of government affairs for Agudath Israel of America, which represents the fervently Orthodox community. “It’s a mistake at this point for people in our community to conclude that [Clinton] has forfeited his moral authority and that he cannot continue in his role of president.”
Indeed, some Jewish religious leaders harshly criticized the chancellor for rushing to judgment before the Starr report was officially released, before Clinton’s lawyers had a chance to respond, and before the House of Representatives met to debate how to handle potential impeachment hearings, a process that began this week.
“[Schorsch] shoots from the hip,” said one leader of the Reconstructionist movement who requested anonymity. “I find his lack of judiciousness dangerous, not just to the Conservative movement but to the Jewish people on the whole.”
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, said Schorsch’s comments were “woefully inappropriate.”
Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, said while he finds Clinton’s behavior immoral and demeaning, “If he has sincerely repented, then he is to be accepted as a normal human being who sins and repents.
“Personally, I don’t think his private sin is great enough to cause so much public anguish and the collective agony of a whole country, if there should be resignation or impeachment,” said Lamm, head of the nation’s leading Orthodox institution.
“After all,” said Lamm, “who says leaders are blameless? The Jewish principle is in the Book of Ecclesiastes: There is no righteous man who does good and sins not.’ ”
Reform movement leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie, an ally of Schorsch on other issues such as religious pluralism, also disagreed with the chancellor’s position.
“Should he resign? My answer to that is no,” said Rabbi Yoffie. “My view is the conduct is sinful, but having said that, he was elected by the American people and the results of that process should not be easily overturned.”
But Rabbi Yoffie said it was unclear whether Clinton’s confession at the prayer breakfast constituted full repentance, noting that can only be determined by one’s future behavior.
At the breakfast Clinton said that he had sinned, read a prayer from the Reform Yom Kippur liturgy and alluded to Psalm 51, attributed to King David. The psalm is seen as David’s appeal for forgiveness to God after the king committed adultery with Bathsheba.
Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, who sat at Clinton’s table at the interfaith breakfast, also strongly disagreed with Schorsch.
“I think the president said he sinned, and our concept of repentance from a Jewish perspective is that we have the ability to rehabilitate ourselves with the help of others and the help of God. I don’t believe because he’s made a mistake … that would mean he needs to resign his post,” the Reform movement official said.
Rabbi Menitoff was struck by the humanity of the crisis. “He really came across to me, not so much as the president but as a human being wracked with internal pain, as shown in his body language and complexion,” he said. “His eyes welled up with tears.”
Rabbi David Teutsch, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, defended Clinton.
“I don’t believe hounding Clinton from office or pushing for resignation serves the best interests of the country,” said Rabbi Teutsch, an expert on ethics and leadership.
“I deeply believe in the power of teshuvah and I certainly believe that Clinton is capable of doing teshuvah. Within that context I believe that it is our task to support him.”
But Schorsch defended his position during a brief interview with The Jewish Week.
“I am following my conscience,” said the 62-year-old rabbi, who has been chancellor of the seminary for 12 years and until recently described himself as an admirer of Clinton. He noted that he did not seek to publicize his view, and only spoke out when questioned by a New York Times reporter.
Looking pained and speaking softly, Schorsch said he called for resignation because “I care about the future of the country.”
Later, he added, “I didn’t do it lightly. It’s something I thought about a great deal. I’m not out to topple the president. I thought it was a moment of truth. It was not politically correct, but religiously right.”
Schorsch said Jewish tradition teaches that repentance (which includes prayer and charity) does not annul the decree of punishment but only mitigates its severity. “There’s still negative consequences that are going to have to be endured,” he said.
Schorsch said reaction has been mixed. He said he has received some hate mail from “crazies.” He also said he got some calls of support from people whose opinions he respects. Ultimately, he said he didn’t care about the reactions.
Support for Schorsch within the Conservative movement was mixed.
Professor Susannah Heschel of Dartmouth College, daughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the late Conservative scholar and moral voice, rebuked Schorsch for attacking Clinton without due process. She called the chancellor’s position “horrible and profoundly wrong because it’s a rush to judgment, shows no compassion and shows no effort to comprehend the intricacies of a legal case — which lies at the heart of halacha,” or Jewish law.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said he was surprised at Schorsch’s remarks but called them “an appropriate reaction for some people.
“I believe he did this as an individual, and he has every right to do it,” Rabbi Epstein said. “Whether teshuvah will be enough to save his presidency, I don’t know.”
Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative’s rabbinic arm, said, “I think the dilemma people face is whether [Clinton] can recover his moral authority. Is he repentant enough to have been restored to his moral leadership? I don’t know the answer.”
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