President invokes Reform prayer at emotional meeting

From the machzor, the president read a passage about the challenges of penitence and changing one's ways.

Clinton invoked the Jewish concept of atonement as part of an unprecedented baring of his soul and his most extensive confessional to date regarding the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

His voice thick with emotion, Clinton said he had sinned and focused his remarks on what one rabbi described as the Jewish steps for repentance — acknowledging wrongdoing, apologizing to those you have wronged and taking steps to make sure you do not repeat the transgression.

"It was a magnificently crafted speech. He had written it by hand and had not shown it to his aides. His whole demeanor gave all of us a sense of genuine sincerity," said Weiner of Congregation Sherith Israel. "But did he really mean it? I don't know."

He added, "We were mindful of the fact that while we were gathered in a room drinking orange juice with a string quartet playing, that Congress was prepared to release the Starr report."

Weiner was among some 15 rabbis who had been invited to the annual prayer breakfast.

And, as he indicated, just hours after the event, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to make public the report of independent counsel Kenneth Starr. The report provides vivid details of Clinton's affair with Lewinsky, a former White House intern, and alleges impeachable offenses. The White House issued a rebuttal of the Starr report over the weekend.

Clinton, a Southern Baptist, is known to be deeply religious and has frequently turned to scripture throughout his political career.

"It takes an act of will for us to make a turn," Clinton told the clergy as he read from the Gates of Repentance.

The prayerbook, he said, was given to him by a friend, Miami attorney Ira Leesfield, whose home Clinton visited after a recent Democratic fund-raiser.

The passage, coupled with other words of contrition, struck most of the rabbis in the room as appropriately poignant, particularly with Yom Kippur approaching at the end of the month.

"The power of the Jewish concept of repentance and the liturgical expressions of Yom Kippur do have a universal resonance," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center. "It was very touching at a moment of crisis to hear the president of the United States turn to the Jewish prayerbook for inspiration."

Saperstein was seated at the annual breakfast next to Hillary Clinton, who was visibly affected by her husband's words, her eyes welling up with tears.

Added Weiner, "There was almost a surreal quality to the morning. [I was thinking,] `How can we be sitting here discussing sin and adultery with his wife sitting there?'"

The president's 10-minute speech came amid signs that his support among clergy members is beginning to erode.

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary and a leading figure within the Conservative movement, last week urged Clinton to resign.

Other prominent religious leaders, including Paige Patterson, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Bishop Richard Grein of the New York Episcopal Diocese, have also called for Clinton's resignation.

In an interview with the New York Times, Schorsch said Clinton's moral authority has been "destroyed" as a result of the scandal. He was unavailable for further comment.

Schorsch, regarded throughout the Jewish community and by senior Jewish Democrats as a great moral voice, traveled with Clinton to Israel for the Israeli-Jordanian peace signing and for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's funeral, both events in 1994.

His call for Clinton's resignation, which came before the prayer breakfast, caught many off guard and did not appear to reflect a widely held sentiment among other rabbinical leaders as Starr's report made its way into public view and lawmakers determined how to proceed.

Rabbi Menachem Genack of the Orthodox Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Englewood, N.J., said he thought Schorsch would have been "wise to wait for that judgment." Genack, a longtime Democratic supporter who attended the breakfast as a representative of the Orthodox Union, said he was airing his personal views.

"I only agree in the sense that [Clinton's] moral authority has been compromised," he said. "But that's what repentance is all about — it's retrieving that again."

In watching Clinton speak at the prayer breakfast, Genack said he saw a recognition that repentance is a process.

"He's beginning to internalize some of those values and transforming anger into contrition."

Indeed, many of the religious leaders gathered at the White House said they had been won over by Clinton's apology, in which he spoke of reaching "rock bottom" and having a "broken spirit." Some of the rabbis in attendance said they intended to construct Yom Kippur sermons with the president's story as a modern parable.

But in the political realm, it remained unclear what impact Clinton's confession would have on rapidly unfolding events. Shortly after he spoke, his words quickly became lost amid the lurid details of Starr's report.

"After we read the Starr report, we had a deep feeling of revulsion for what he had done," said Weiner. "He has dishonored the presidency, both religiously and otherwise."

But while Weiner calls Clinton's behavior "terrible, foolish, arrogant and reprehensible," he does not want him to leave office.

"I am terribly concerned about the vacuum of leadership in our world," he said. "I have a feeling, not necessarily for the sake of the president but for all of humanity, we probably ought to put this behind us and allow the present leadership to continue."