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Clinton Two, Religion Zero
Yitzchok Adlerstein

Clinton Two, Religion Zero
Yitzchok Adlerstein

Director, Jewish Studies Institute at Yeshiva of Los Angeles,  
Sydney M Irmas Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School.

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 principles."

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, Heschel’s piece denies even the right of suffrage to a few millennia of rabbinic tradition.

Dr. Heschel contends that Starr’s crime is far more serious than Mr. Clinton’s. Mr. Clinton, she says, transgressed a minor sexual infraction at most. Adultery doesn’t 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 forgiven."

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 don’t 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 Heschel’s 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 morally condemning.

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 President.

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 Clintonesque.

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