The fragility of trust
by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 28, 1998
The Palestinian Authority can be forgiven for thinking that Monica Lewinsky was a Mossad plant (though I personally doubt they would have chosen anyone with such an obviously Jewish name). Something truly weird is going on in Washington, and even I can't help entertaining conspiracy theories.
A wildly popular president finds himself politically comatose as the result of a scandal that began with behavior hardly unknown to previous inhabitants of the White House. True, he lied about it, but according to social convention even gentlemen are expected to lie in such situations, not to mention politicians. Okay, he lied under oath, but in a civil suit later found to be without legal basis and in response to questions seeking evidence of doubtful admissibility at trial.
But it gets even weirder. The first hero has now emerged from this scandal.
And in place of avuncular, Constitution-toting Sam Ervin of Watergate fame, we have Torah-studying Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D.-Conn.), the first Orthodox Jew ever to serve in the US Senate.
In a widely reported speech two weeks ago, Lieberman recast the entire debate over Clinton's actions from legalistic discussions of what constitutes perjury and 'high crimes and misdemeanors' to the underlying morality of Clinton's behavior - to the deterioration of 'our common moral code' and the 'coarsening' of public life. He called Clinton to task for the impact of his actions on 'on our culture, on our character and on our children.'
Reports of the speech widely noted that Lieberman, a friend of Clinton's since the latter worked in his state senate campaign nearly 30 years ago, had more credibility on the issue than perhaps anyone in public life today - precisely because he is an Orthodox Jew. Even the spin doctors at the White House gave it a rest, recognizing that Lieberman is immune to the sword often brandished at other critics of the president: 'Let's see what skeletons are rattling around in your closet.'
Lieberman is neither the only senator who is faithful to his wife nor the only one with deep-seated religious beliefs. But because his religion demands from him daily sacrifices - or at least what appear as such to outsiders - and not just protestations of faith, there is no suspicion that he might be an Elmer Gantry or Jimmy Swaggart.
In the aftermath of his speech, the national media was filled with admiring stories about his daily Torah study and prayer, of how he walks seven kilometers from Capitol Hill to his Georgetown home on Shabbat when he must be present in the Senate on Friday night, and of how, when they served together in the Senate, Vice President Al Gore offered him his nearby apartment on Friday night and served as his Shabbes goy.
ONCE Jews exemplified dedication to God, and won the grudging admiration even of their most rabid enemies. Of late, however, American Jews have come to perceive themselves, and to be perceived by others, as a largely godless people. Sen. Lieberman - like the Yale Five and last year's Siyum HaShas - has once again reminded Americans that Judaism is a religion, not an adjunct of Americans for Democratic Action or
In the process, Lieberman, who is being touted as a possible vice presidential candidate or Supreme Court justice, has exploded some old myths. The first is that it is impossible to be an observant Jew in the modern world.
He has also demonstrated how genuinely respectful Christian America is of Jews who adhere to their religion with consistency and without embarrassment. The year before Joe Lieberman arrived in the Senate, eight Jewish senators were on the Senate floor on Kol Nidre night. Since his arrival, the Senate no longer conducts business on the High Holy Days.
When he arrived, then majority leader George Mitchell, an American of Arab descent, asked Lieberman for a list of Jewish festivals and assured him that the Senate would conduct no roll call votes on those days. That promise has been followed by every majority leader since.
The US Senate does not vote on Jewish festivals, even though most American Jews work on those days. One of Lieberman's Jewish colleagues, a former national president of a major Jewish organization, admitted that he had never heard of Shmini Atzeret before, but was nevertheless glad to take the day off. Orthodox visitors to the Senate dining room will find the waitresses proudly showing greater knowledge of the available hechsherim on the ice cream served than most American Jews possess.
There is even more to the conspiracy theory, however, than just the increased prominence of America's leading Orthodox public official. Consider the timing.
Today, President Clinton stands on the brink of impeachment for acts conducted, he assumed, in complete privacy. Now those acts are bandied about before the world.
And three days from now, Jews all over the world will stand alone before God, before Whom every thought and action is known. 'In the end,' says King Solomon, 'all is heard,' and we will be humiliated by the thoughts and actions we thought were hidden from view, just like the president.
Today, at last, President Clinton begs for forgiveness; he has no choice.
And in less than two weeks, we too will stand before God begging for forgiveness, as the Book of Life is sealed.
The president now realizes that his pleas would have been far more compelling had contrition not been forced upon him. And we too might reflect on how more powerful our case would be on Yom Kippur had we not waited to the last minute, or, better yet, had we contemplated the consequences of our actions before forgiveness was required.
Come to think of it, the Mossad doesn't seem to be the source of this plot.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics
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