February 18, 1999
What I Have Learned From the Clinton Affair
I have learned from the Clinton affair how unprepared our technologically sophisticated society is to deal with moral issues, and specifically how to transmit moral wisdom to our children.
Parents ask, "What are we to say to our children about the conduct of the most powerful leader of our country and the world?"
I suggest they sit down with their child before an open Bible and ask, "What are we to say about David, the king and psalmist, who was revealed to be a murderer and an adulterer?" Moreover, what are we to say to children about the patriarchs and matriarchs who are revealed as men and women flawed, yet capable of moral heroism and acts of unsurpassed fidelity.
Let them recover the wisdom of Ecclesiastes who observed, "There is no righteous person upon earth who does good and has not sinned."
The principle reality of the Bible will help them understand that it is foolhardy to expect from any single person or leader, whatever his celebrity and power, to be a model to be emulated. They will then understand the Bible's fear of idolatry, the deification of any man or woman.
The Bible does not compartmentalize its figures into saints or sinners, heroes or villains. It knows that the sinner can have dimensions of moral character. And this is as true of King David as it is of Oskar Schindler.
Further, if we cannot deal with the Clinton affair, it is because we have reduced the complexity of moral character into a matter of sex alone. Character is a multifaceted quality that includes not only sexual attitudes but also projects and programs rooted in compassion for the weaker vessels of society, protection of the persecuted pariahs, and defense of the voiceless.
In the face of bitter partisan acrimony, I note the wisdom of the sages who warned that when the kettle boils over, the boiling water spills over all its sides. No one, "managers" or defenders, emerges from this trial by ordeal unscathed. "If a man spits in the air, it will fall on his face." Genuine patriotism calls for a transcendent vision of harmony and purpose beyond the parochialism of partisan politics.
Harold M. Schulweis is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.