Imperfect People and High Office
by Shmuley Boteach ,
Aug. 26, 2007
Last week I spent time at the Christian Broadcasting Network headquarters in Virginia with Pat Robertson, who, amid some understandable disagreements on important issues, is not only a friend but, I believe, one of the best friends Israel has in the entire United States.
In discussing the US presidential race, we focused on Rudy Giuliani, who is extremely popular in the Jewish community for his stalwart support of Israel and hard line on Islamic fundamentalism—but somewhat less so among Evangelicals, given his two divorces. Indeed, many Christians have written to me that they cannot vote for Rudy for President because of their wish to uphold family values. They wish for me to concur.
In looking at how the two communities approach a candidate like Giuliani, we can discern important differences between Judaism and Christianity.
When Rudy, as mayor of New York, announced his separation from his wife, Donna Hanover, at a hastily summoned press conference without first informing her, I wrote a column stating that, as a child of divorce, I had to protest the way the announcement was handled.
Couples sometimes have to split up. But decisions as to the future of a marriage should be taken between husband and wife in concert, and with the children being informed before anyone else.
And yet, my criticism of Rudy’s actions as a husband had no bearing on my strong endorsement of his leadership as mayor. Here is why.
Judaism believes two things. First, that people are flawed, and that what is important, therefore, is struggle rather than perfection (hence, the name Israel which translates as “he who wrestles with God”).
My Christian brothers and sisters believe that because people are sinful they must therefore accept the grace of Christ for salvation. But Jews believe that because people are imperfect they must therefore define their own righteousness by their willingness to struggle to do the right thing amid a predilection for doing otherwise. Inevitably, we will sometimes come up short. But wrestle we must.
Second, Judaism believes that we flawed people must still devote ourselves to the public good and that the idea that our mistakes should keep us from positions of leadership is not only ludicrous, but deeply sinful.
Should a philanthropist who cheats on his wife not feed the poor? Should a woman who is mean to her cleaning lady not be a doctor who can heal the sick? Yes, it would be wonderful if we were all more consistent. But we must strive to do good in one area even when we fall short in others.
Whereas Christianity focuses on personal salvation, Judaism focuses instead on world redemption. In Judaism, the question of personal righteousness is always subordinate to that of communal improvement. In Judaism our goodness is defined not by faith, meditation and reflection, but by good deeds. The focus is on the community rather than on ourselves.
The contribution one makes to the lives of others is much more important than how perfect one is in one’s own life.
My Christian brothers and sisters, amid their stellar record of charity and social services throughout the world, are still often fixated on the question of whether or not they are going to heaven. In Judaism such questions, rarely, if ever, come up. The real question is: Have you left the world in a better condition than you found it?
The Talmud relates the famous story of how, as Rabbi Yochanan lay on his death bed, he cried out, “I don’t know where I am going (to heaven or hell).” Now, how could such a righteous man not be sure as to whether he had earned a place in eternity? The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that his confusion was due to having never once focused on himself. What he focused on throughout his life was on doing good deeds for others, and not whether he had become personally righteous in the process.
The other reason that the Jewish community has no real issue with Giuliani’s divorces are the biblical heroes to whom we look up. Christians venerate Jesus, who is portrayed as perfect in the New Testament. When Christians ask, “What would Jesus do?” they are holding up a model of flawlessness which they seek to emulate.
But in the Hebrew Bible our heroes are righteous men rather than perfect gods. They struggled to the do the right thing, but being men, they did not always succeed. Abraham is faulted for his parenting with regard to Ishmael. Jacob favored Joseph over his other children. Moses, the greatest of prophets, is punished with not being allowed to enter the promised land because he failed to sanctify God to the Jewish people at a critical moment in their history.
Indeed, the fact that these men were not perfect is what makes them the perfect model for emulation. Like us, they struggled to do the right thing amid an inclination do otherwise. And it was in the context of their herculean efforts to act righteously when it didn’t always come naturally to them that they became role models.
Few in the Jewish community believe that Bill Clinton’s personal failures made him unqualified for the public position of president. His betrayal, with Monica Lewinsky, of his marriage did not mean that he could not do a great deal of good for the country. On the contrary, the principal Jewish criticism of Clinton was that he did nothing to prevent the genocide in Rwanda, when, as the most powerful man in the world, there were many remedies available to him to stop the indiscriminate slaughter of defenseless Africans.
Finally, my Christian brothers and sisters define a hypocrite as someone who says one thing and practices another. But Judaism argues that this is not hypocrisy, but inconsistency. The hypocrite is he who says something and does not believe it even as he says it.
Few of us, thankfully, are in that category. What we are, however, is inconsistent, believing strongly in family values, but not always being strong enough to live in accordance with those values.
The writer is about to launch ‘The Jewish Values Network,’ dedicated to the dissemination of Jewish values in the mainstream media.