Clinton crisis offers lessons for Holy Days

The Clinton scandal may be ripping the nation apart and making America the butt of jokes around the globe. But the debacle also embodies many lessons applicable to High Holy Day reflection, some area Jews say.

Whatever one feels about the national fiasco and its now infamous cast of characters, the president "is certainly serving as a very good example of the anatomy of wrongdoing," says Rabbi Yisrael Rice of Chabad of Marin.

"What we can see is how obstinate we are of not being wrong until we are totally backed against a corner. To really come clean means to do so before we are pushed against the wall, before we are discovered."

Yet that can be a tremendous challenge. "Not being honest with yourself is the biggest obstacle," Rice says.

Following the release of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's report last week, President Clinton could face censure or impeachment hearings for charges including committing perjury and obstructing justice to hide his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

In addition to raising a laundry list of legal and political questions, Clinton's travails, one could argue, evoke a host of issues central to religion. "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," a phrase from the Christian Bible, has been invoked numerous times in recent days.

Jews, likewise, are framing the national crisis in religious terms.

"It has been a very important and good reminder of being cognizant of how our actions have effects," says Rabbi Zari Weiss, who recently left Berkeley's Renewal Kehilla Community Synagogue to become a community rabbi for the East Bay.

Like Rice, Weiss believes Clinton's troubles have much to teach about tshuvah, the process of repentance that peaks during the High Holy Days, which begin this year with Rosh Hashanah at sundown Sunday.

Weiss explains that tshuvah, which literally means "return," entails expressing genuine remorse for hurtful actions, asking forgiveness from those who have been hurt and from God, and making a commitment not to repeat damaging actions in the future.

But she knows such commitments are often easier made than kept.

"Sometimes we can't necessarily overcome our inclinations, our temptations," she acknowledges. Tshuvah, she adds, includes praying that God "will give us the strength and the encouragement and the guidance we need in order to do that."

Jews on the other side of the pulpit are also making the connection between the public spectacle and the private path.

San Francisco resident Joel Schipper calls the lessons of Clinton's follies a "silver lining" in a very dark cloud.

"Even the president, if he gets caught doing something wrong, has to own up to it, pay for it, say he's sorry," says the 48-year-old software marketing consultant. "It's a big, giant civics lesson."

But Schipper believes the lesson will amount to little if Jews marking the Holy Days fail to simultaneously examine their own wrongdoings.

"I would say `look to yourself, look inside what you are doing that you've been not owning up to and sweeping under the rug and blaming other people for."

Rabbi Richard Block agrees. To keep congregants focused on themselves rather than goings-on in the capitol, he has decided not to speak of Clinton from the pulpit.

"Focusing on someone else's misdeeds and the sincerity of their contrition invites us to avoid the real contrition that's needed — our own," says the leader of Reform Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

Rice will avoid a Clinton-related sermon for the same reason.

"I think it's too easy for people to lose their focus and think `oh, him' instead of `oh, me,'" he says. "It's a lot easier to point a finger at someone else."

Still, he hopes people will pay attention to the lessons the president's actions have to impart.

He points out that thousands of years ago, far, far away from a place called Hope, God sent the prophet Nathan to rebuke King David for commiting adultery with Bathsheba and sending Bathsheba's husband to be killed in battle.

"The Talmud tells us the whole reason [the king] was in that position was to show mankind the path of tshuvah," Rice says. "He spent the rest of his life fasting and repenting."

Comparisons can be drawn, Rice believes, between the ancient monarch's repentance and Clinton's very public quest for redemption.

"I don't think the president is a weak human being," Rice says. "I think he is showing us how difficult this process of change really is. It's hard to really change. I know from personal experience. We all know."

Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Berkeley's Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom also has found his view of repentance influenced by the Clinton crisis.

"It focuses me not on doing tshuvah, but on how do you know it's been done?" he says. "What kind of evidence is there that any sort of repentance has been done?"

Schipper's wife, Laine Barbanell Schipper, is also asking questions about the nature of repentance.

Listening by radio to the president's apology at a prayer breakfast for clergy Friday of last week, Schipper found herself feeling cynical, moved and self-reflective.

"It puts me in touch with this whole idea of return as something that goes below the surface of superficial apologies," says the 38-year-old tallis weaver.

Gloria Levin, a retired teacher living in Santa Cruz, also has given the Clinton matter plenty of thought in recent days.

"Perhaps Clinton personifies what Jews have always known, which is you must take advantage of God's gift that allows us to differentiate between right and wrong and exercise free will and control our basic instincts," she says.

The 73-year-old Levin does not know, however, to what extent the scandal will enter into her personal Holy Day considerations. "I won't know until I get into shul and start to daven and reflect and be taken into the mood."

Because so many Americans are grappling with the Clinton matter, Weiss sees value in religious leaders addressing the subject.

"I think it's something people are expecting to be addressed on some level," she says. "It's really such a bleak chapter in our nation's history, people are looking for some guidance."

But Rabbi Yosef Langer is steering clear of the story, a notable feat given the glut of news coverage on the subject.

"I never get into the schmutz [dirt]," says the leader of Chabad of San Francisco. "You just add to the problem. It's not a real solution."

"There's a Chassidic expression that says a little light pushes away a lot of darkness," Langer adds. "We try to accentuate the positive and minimize the negative."

The Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis, on the other hand, views the Clinton affair as potentially illuminating.

The conference this week urged Americans of all faiths to join a National Ten Days of Atonement starting Monday.

Clinton's troubles may yet prove redemptive, reads a CCAR statement, "if they prompt Americans to confront the ways in which we have given in to our baser urges, been unfaithful to our families and others who count on us, and diverted us from the mission each of us has been called to fulfill."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.