IN A WIDELY CIRCULATED OP-ED PIECE, Prof. Susannah
Heschel, daughter of Jewish Theological Seminary luminary Rabbi A.J. Heschel, brings
better news to Bill Clinton than the Senate that acquitted him. Reaching to higher
sources, she assures him a Divine pardon.
While many had hoped that America's two oldest religious traditions could bring some
healing to a morally traumatized America, she neutralizes their effect by pitting one
against the other. Tugging at the diversity chord, she reminds us that "Christianity
is but one of many systems of religious values." While its value system roundly
condemns the President's conduct, it is not the only system. Too bad, she says that
"very few Jews are aware that Judaism teaches a different set of moral
Very few for good reason. The principles Heschel speaks of are newly manufactured. A
by-word of the heterodox Judaism to which Heschel subscribes is that "tradition gets
a vote, not a veto." Unfortunately, Heschels piece denies even the right of
suffrage to a few millennia of rabbinic tradition.
Dr. Heschel contends that Starrs crime is far more serious than Mr.
Clintons. Mr. Clinton, she says, transgressed a minor sexual infraction at most.
Adultery doesnt enter the discussion, since Jewish tradition defines it as a sexual
act committed with a married woman, while Monica Lewinsky was single. Mr. Starr, she
claims, is a murderer, since publicly shaming someone is the equivalent of taking his
life. Moreover, worse sinners have been forgiven by history (Jews never threw King David
out of the Bible, did they?), while murder "is a sin that can never be
Dr. Heschel is entitled to hawk her own ideas, but tradition is a matter of record.
While it seems somewhat parochial to apply Jewish legal standards to two non-Jewish
gentlemen, we will list, arguendo, a few points of irreconcilable difference
between tradition and Heschel's view.
Adultery is hardly the only sexual offense known to Judaism. Traditional Judaism
subscribes to demands, actually a code of behavior that strives for holiness
in all things. It eschews any form of premarital sex, not only extramarital. It forbids
two unrelated members of opposite gender from spending time in seclusion with each other,
meaning away from the scrutiny of others. It extends the penumbra of sexual misconduct,
legislating against situations and activities that lead to erotic speech and even thought.
It prescribes norms of sexual conduct even between husband and wife, in order to elevate
it beyond the pleasure principle.
After Balaam's failure to curse the Israelites of the desert, tradition has it that he
offered one bit of parting advice. "The Patron of the Jews detests sexual
license." If you wish to weaken them, sever the special relationship between them and
G-d by luring them into what G-d detests the most. And so the Moabites sent out several
thousand young interns, presumably unmarried, to seduce Jewish males into a single
one-night stand. G-d's displeasure cost the Israelites twenty-four thousand casualties.
Perhaps He should have first consulted Dr. Heschel's law books.
Ken Starr may very well have acted with too much zeal, but Heschel throws the wrong
book at him. Courts of law are never enjoined from discovering disagreeable facts for fear
of embarrassing the accused. Kenneth Starr was given a mandate - directly by Federal
legislation - to act as an agent of the judiciary. The law may have been flawed and in
need of change, but Starr did not act without legal justification.
It is simply untrue that there is no repentance for murder. Maimonides (Laws of
Repentance 4:1) lists 24 transgressions that make repentance difficult - but not
impossible. Murder is not on that list. He explicitly writes (Laws of Murder 4:9) that
there are transgressions worse than murder.
We dont need the stringencies of Jewish law, however, to be sorely disappointed
with our President. The seven Noachide laws bind all human beings, according to tradition.
These do not include a prohibition against lying. Yet, Abraham seals covenants, verbal
pledges of trust, with the non-Jewish Abimelech. Of what legal value was this?
Human trust, argue rabbinic commentators, precedes the law itself. It is a value
hard-wired into the human condition.
Surely, marriage means more than the mutual avoidance of certain narrowly-defined
sexual liaisons. It is a pledge of mutual fidelity, a sacred trust that both partners will
find exclusive fulfillment in each other. (One wonders if Dr. Heschel is prepared to tell
Jewish husbands that they may visit prostitutes according to Jewish law, as long as the
paramours are not married.) Clinton violated one of the most sacred trusts known to man
the pledge to his spouse that she could depend upon his faithfulness. In the
process, he endangered the sanctity of the family, an institution not of trivial
importance in Jewish thought, and that may have been one of the most important
contributions that Judaism made to Western society.
Look for the irrevocable damage that Dr. Heschel writes about, and you will find it,
although not to the good name of William Jefferson Clinton, which seems to have survived
quite well in the popularity polls. The long-lasting harm comes from the way he rode
roughshod over our sense of truth and honesty. For the better part of a year, he subjected
us to a torrent of legal obfuscation, claiming that perjury somehow is not so pernicious
when one's back is against the wall - when one really has no choice. When teachers plead
with their students, arguing that cheating demeans them, and robs them of a personal
integrity worth more than any exam mark, or college acceptance, or employment secured -
how many will consciously or otherwise fall back on the position of the much-esteemed
President of the United States?
But by far, the most egregious fallacy of Heschels piece is equating what is
legal with what is right and just. If what the President did was not adultery, she tells
us, we ought not to get so exercised about it.
Dr. Martin Luther King, a friend of Heschel's father, once said: "It may be true
that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think
that's pretty important."
Wisely, he understood both the value of naked law, and the necessity of moral
development beyond it. While love cannot be legislated, we expect that paragons of virtue
possess goodly quantities of it. A misanthrope can mind the law meticulously, but that
does not make him a good person. Overindulgence in even the entirely permissible can make
one a "sordid person within the realm of the permissible", violating the great
Torah principle of "You shall be holy!" (Nachmanides to Leviticus 19:2)
The greatest moral beauty resides in the margins of the legal codes, in what the law
neither prohibits nor demands. Not every legal license is meant to become typical
practice. The law can sometimes allow, without approving. It can even allow, while still
The Bible permits polygamy. Almost without exception (and special circumstances attach
to the exceptions), the sages of the Talmud never married more than one wife, while
writing reams of law concerning the right of polygamy. The record of the Talmud is clear:
a man should build a relationship with one wife. The law may permit him more, but the law
does not necessarily describe the way things should be.
Greater people, or those to whom others look for guidance, are held in Jewish tradition
to a higher standard. What might be legal, understandable, and even morally defensible for
a lesser person, is objectionable in a more important one.
Heschel's invoking David is unfortunate. Talmudic tradition maintains that David
committed neither murder nor adultery (Talmud Shabbat 56A), but lesser offenses that were
still morally reprehensible. While the rabbinic exegesis might seem forced to some, it is
clear that Jewish tradition in fact could not and did not accept the notion that David's
transgression should be " placed in perspective [of] the entirety of his life
without condemning him on the basis of one sin." And if one chooses to bypass this
tradition, one could still not ignore the heartfelt pain of contrition that suffuses the
Psalms he wrote, and the next decades of his life, something we have not seen in the
A better parallel, according to Jewish tradition, would be the biblical Judah,
progenitor of all Jewish kings. He merited the role, say the rabbis, because when he was
confronted with his own shortcoming, he instantly owned up. When Tamar quietly showed him
evidence of his guilt, he made no attempt to cover up. He didn't think of his reputation,
or that of his office. He uttered a simple and elegant, "She is more righteous than
I," and with that taught the world that the single most important moral possession of
a leader is devotion to truth.
Long after the dust settles on the events of the last year, America will still need the
distinction between law and morality. There will be no more dependable place to find it
than in the religious traditions upon which America was founded. To deny Americans the
strength of those traditions, as Dr. Heschel does, is indeed a high crime and misdemeanor.
To make Jewish tradition an accessory to this crime is - how shall we say? - a bit