I wonder what it is like to believe that basic social and religious values like fidelity, integrity and commitment apply to other people but not to oneself. That another major, powerful American male has been exposed in a sex scandal doesn't shock me anymore . . . but it does disappoint me and it is cause for bewilderment.
Could not an intelligent, capable man like General Petraeus look at President Clinton, Senator Edwards, Governor Sanford, Governor Schwarzenegger, Governor Spitzer, Justice Thomas and Representative Weiner and think to himself, "Hmm. I'm a public figure and I'm living in a fishbowl. Even if my marriage is flawed, maybe I shouldn't get involved in an extra-marital affair....." If not a commitment to basic moral standards, how about self-preservation?
If not a commitment to basic moral standards in one's personal life, how about a commitment to using one's intelligence, experience, training and talent for the public good? The public that put you in that position in the first place?
There is an important conversation to be had about the public's right to know about the personal conduct of public figures.
Former Governor, Eliot Spitzer, appeared on a New York program last night, Inside City Hall, during which he stated:
“As I understand the facts as we’ve seen in the papers so far, there was no criminal violation here,” Mr. Spitzer argued. “There was no violation, I’ve been told, of even C.I.A. rules or regulations although there may be some questions there. It does strike me that perhaps the president could have looked him in the eye and said, ‘You have violated a bevy of ethical and moral rules that you understand. You will have to deal with that. You and your family will deal with that. But you will go back and continue to serve your nation. You will be straightforward with the public with what you’ve done. But I’m telling you as the commander-in-chief, serve the nation. That’s what we expect of you; deal with the personal issues in your own way.’”
Mr. Spitzer resigned from his position of Governor of the State of New York in March of 2008 due to his regular use of the services of an escort agency called, tellingly, Emperor's Club VIP. Mr. Spitzer's post-facto advice to General Petraeus and President Obama provides us with a glimpse of how a man in power, or at least how this formerly powerful man, thinks: In the absence of a criminal violation, there is no compelling reason for resignation. The rest, the "bevy of ethical and moral rules" violated by General Petraeus, are a matter of private concern to be dealt with within the four walls of the Petraeus family.
That's not how Judaism sees it.
Our Jewish tradition, from our deepest roots in the Torah, acknowledges that human beings are not perfect. There is no room for self-righteousness here. For anyone (including, especially including, rabbis) to condemn others for falling short of the highest standards of moral behavior. Judaism teaches us that God crafted the human character with free will, with the capacity to make good choices and the capacity to make bad choices. The rest--the standards of human behavior outlined in the Torah; the brit/covenant between God and Israel; the framework of halachah/Jewish law . . . all of these provide the spiritual and societal and cognitive tools to help us avoid the pitfalls of being human.
As a community guided by the principles of our tradition, we are charged with maintaining the integrity of our community. As a nation, guided by values of integrity and fidelty, we are similarly charged with protecting the integrity of our society. It is at that moment the the conversation turns from "deal with your moral transgressions in the privacy of your own home" to "if you are capable of rationalizing this behavior in violation of your most personal commitments, what other actions are you capable of rationalizing on our behalf, the public that has put you in a position of power and influence?"
Yes, our states, our courts, our legislative bodies, our country have been deprived of the service of brilliant people whose experience and training and intelligence could have benefitted our society. But their personal behavior has demonstrated to us that there are not people whose judgment we can trust. Their ability to betray the trust of those closest to them must raise the specter of more far-ranging betrayals of our trust.
Presidents and Senators and Representatives and Judges . . . and yes, rabbis, too . . . consider themselves to be beyond the scope of the values of integrity and fidelity and commitment to their own detriment, to the detriment of their families and to the detriment of the communities who have trusted them.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.