What do you do when you are president of the most powerful nation on earth and you get caught red-handed having an affair?
You turn to the Talmud, of course.
At least that's what former President Bill Clinton did, according to recently released documents from the Clinton Library, in the aftermath of his scandalous dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, who was then a young, impressionable White House intern.
According to reports, the White House consulted Jewish Studies scholar Susannah Heschel, a professor at Dartmouth and the daughter of renowned rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who cited Jewish law — known as halacha — to exonerate the libertine president, just as it exonerated promiscuous Jewish men for centuries.
“According to classical Jewish law,” a senior aide for Hillary Clinton wrote to political fixer Sidney Blumenthal in January 1999, “President [Bill] Clinton did not commit adultery; adultery is defined as a married man having intercourse with a married woman, and Monica Lewinsky is single.”
O, the benefits of being unwed!
According to the New York Post, which first reported the story, the aide went on to insightfully suggest that, “At worst, President Clinton is guilty of the common sin of onanism [masturbation], a sin that probably afflicts the consciences of most Jewish men at one time or another.”
Heschel was apparently the brains behind this Talmudic mind-bender, reiterating an ancient Jewish law that defines adultery as when a man, married or otherwise, has sexual relations with a married woman. In those days, men were permitted to have multiple wives and multiple relations, while women were expected to remain chaste. In other words, a man could have Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, while Libertine Bill gets to be a one-and-holy.
And there’s a biblical hero as precedent:
“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?” Susannah Heschel reportedly wrote. “King 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.”
I asked Rabbi Aaron Alexander, Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University if he would have offered the same dispensation as Heschel.
“As someone who considers himself a male feminist, I think [what Clinton did] is absolutely adultery — without a doubt,” Rabbi Alexander said.
“Whether it falls into the strict category of halacha is neither here nor there, because what he did was go outside the context of his own marriage with another person, whether she was married or not.”
Alexander allowed that Heschel was correct in understanding the law, even though he finds it disturbing. “Technically,” Alexander said, “according to a strict definition of halacha, a man can take on multiple wives; but if she [Lewinsky] had been married [in biblical times], she would have been the one stoned to death.”
“When it comes to adultery, it’s so complicated,” he added. “And it shows the extend to which misogynistic traditions develop over time, that they never lose their roots and can still be problematic” — even in the 21st century.
“And it’s dangerous for Judaism and dangerous for religion; but mostly, it’s dangerous for women — this idea that biblical religious law has a double standard that is so apparent, that when it comes to two people who did the exact same thing, one is patur — exempt — and one is hayevet — obligated.”
As both an observant Jew and a teacher of Jewish law to rabbinical students, Rabbi Alexander said it is laws like these that make religion in general, and Judaism, in particular, a hard sell to enlightened modern minds — even if they have worked wonders for President Clinton.
“Anybody who might have thought religion can be used as tool to elevate dignity will see this [verse] and say, ‘Look what we can do! Look how we can maneuver religion so that people with power can stay there.’”