The Lewinsky/Lieberman Equation

One day we may look back at the 1998 High Holidays as a bizarre version of “Rosencranz and Gildenstern are Dead”; American history seen through the perspective of minor Jewish characters helping to determine the national fate. Monica Lewinsky! Sen. Joseph Lieberman! As the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal is causing Americans to question matters of private and public morality, Jews are caught up in the tide. Here are two observations from our perilous time:

The perils of seeking role models.
Joseph Aaron, editor of the Chicago Jewish News, writes that because he feels pride in the recent prophetic proclamations of Connecticut’s Lieberman, he must also feel guilt in the behavior of Beverly Hills’ Lewinsky.

“I was glad Lieberman [told the president his actions were immoral], because Lieberman is a Jew,” Aaron writes. “And… I continue to assert that we, as a Jewish community, must feel yes, guilty, that a Jew has acted as she has, for what she has done reflects on all of us and on Judaism.

“That’s what it means to be one people,” Aaron continues, “each responsible for the other.” But is it the wise course by which to view events today? Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his new book “Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say about the Jews,” warns that both chutzpah and self-hatred are flip sides of the same misery-laden coin, the penchant of Jewish people to see threat around every corner. This insecurity is on display today.

Certainly, Monica Lewinsky is not the career role model I’d seek for my daughter. But let’s not torture her actions out of context. Extramarital sex in the White House is tawdry, but it was private and consensual. Ken Starr and Linda Tripp dragged her secrets into the firestorm. Where is the danger? Where is the collective guilt? And what has this got to do with the Jews?>Had Lewinsky used her White House access to sell state secrets that implicated Israel, or run a harem out of the Oval Office, maybe then I might feel a collective guilt deriving from her corrupting influence on either the Jewish state or today’s youth.

I won’t join the mob crying to make Lewinsky bad because it denies the real pathos of a young insecure women facing demons only she can know. Who am I to judge the social and sexual forces at work, especially since she hasn’t spoken at all? How am I to know what drew them to each other, and what “wrong” was committed?

Faced with such pathos in high places (most of it none of my business), I don’t feel guilt, I feel rachmones, empathy.

As for Sen. Lieberman, I’m not much more comfortable painting him as a latter-day Isaiah. In this charged political atmosphere, every good act may backfire, as the nation tires of politically inspired sanctimonious behavior, whether from a preacher’s son or an Orthodox Jew.

Re-reading Lieberman’s courageous speech, I can only wonder what is next for him, should the Senate be forced into an impeachment vote. Lieberman boxed himself into a morally righteous position, but are his hands tied? I fear that in our search for a “moral man” in Washington, we’re mixing apples and oranges, holding politicians up to standards that few theologians let alone ordinary citizens could meet.

The perils of self-infatuation.
Joseph Lieberman’s situation points to a larger problem of bringing Jewish values into the mainstream. It’s been a very flattering few weeks, this recent month of Elul. While Congress was considering impeachment, the president walked around ashen-faced with shame, quoting Rabbi Jack Reimer’s poetry about the difficulty of “turning.” The nation got a crash-course in Torah and editorial pages were filled with guidelines for “repentance” and the moral lessons to be learned from the errant life of King David. It’s unprecedented to find Americans leaning on the sturdy ballast of Jewish tradition to fill the moral void, as if our faith really does offer a guide for the politically perplexed.

But don’t be fooled. The United States is in a political crisis. Spiritual values can be easily abused through calculation and desperation.

“What a shame if teshuvah — repentance and healing — just becomes another buzz word on the political campaign road,” my rabbi said during Rosh Hashanah. But we are asking for it. Jews and non-Jews crave the facile last-minute conversion so we can be done with this tragedy and move on. But, once again, whether or not Clinton has a turning of his character, is it really for us to judge? Are we passing judgment on Clinton’s soul or determining if he, despite his flaws, is still the man for the job?

Teshuvah is a private matter and let’s keep it that way. If Clinton endures in office I’ll feel safer knowing it is because he cut a deal based on polls than if he quotes Adin Steinsaltz’s “Thirteen Petalled Rose.”

This American trial by fire can only last so long. I predict that by Simchat Torah, two weeks before election day, Americans, including American Jews, will stop their infatuation with wisdom literature and return to business as usual. That’s as it should be, for the Talmud warns us that rather than putting stock in public spirituality, the key to a sane community is to “love work, hate lordship and seek no intimacy with the ruling powers.”

Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is