Like Blood for Words
“He who publicly shames his neighbor is as though he shed blood.”
— Talmud Baba Mezia 58b
Americans have been discussing the moral issues of the Starr Report in terms of Christian values. From the perspective of Judaism, however, the terms of the discussion change. Unfortunately, even few Jews are aware that Judaism teaches a different set of moral principles.
According to classical Jewish law, President Clinton did not commit adultery; adultery is defined as a married man having intercourse with a married woman, and Monica Lewinsky is single. At worst, President Clinton is guilty of the common sin of onanism, a sin that probably afflicts the consciences of most Jewish men at one time or another.
While most of our moral debate focuses on the actions of President Clinton, the worst sin, from the perspective of Jewish law, is the public humiliation of the president undertaken by Kenneth W. Starr with the cooperation of the House Judiciary Committee. According to the Talmud, humiliating a human being in public is tantamount to murder, and, like murder, is a sin that can never be forgiven. Repentance is not possible for Starr, because it must be preceded by reparation. Neither murder nor the destruction of a person’s reputation can ever be restored, so the sinner can never receive forgiveness.
Seen in Talmudic perspective, the Starr Report, with its salacious and often irrelevant sexual details from 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.
From the perspective of Jewish history, we have to ask how Jews can 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 and punished, 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. If Clinton should be asked to resign his office, then King David ought to be wiped from our memory.
Also troubling is the rush by some Jewish leaders, such as Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, to condemn the president, when they uttered not a peep concerning Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s admitted confession to adultery. When was Netanyahu ever condemned as unfit to hold office because of his affairs?
Jews like to say that 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, certain members of Congress, including Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., have condemned Clinton’s efforts at self-defense as legal “hair-splitting,” as if that were beneath contempt. The term itself derives from age-old Christian polemics that Judaism is a legalistic system that fails to understand religious values of love and charity. Yet, unlike Christianity, Judaism rests on a system of law that demands and exalts hair-splitting, due process and minute precision in its judicial decision-making.
Just as we expect minute precision from our physicians and scientists, why not expect it from our religions? There is no shame in hair-splitting, despite the mockery and contempt in which it has been held for centuries by Christians. Exactitude is the most important feature of Jewish law. Without it, there can be no justice, and, without justice, there can be no viable society.
This country’s population contains a majority of Christians, but the often very different values and principles of other citizens — among them, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists — must also be heard. Christianity is but one of many systems of religious values, not the only one.
Susannah Heschel is a professor of religion at Dartmouth College.