Evangelicals have all too often been red-faced by sex scandals among those identified as Christians. Now it’s Jewish voters’ turn: Reporter Jodi Kantor wrote in Sunday’s New York Times about the embarrassment many Jews feel concerning former New York congressman Anthony Weiner and Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who after sex scandals are trying for political comebacks in next month’s New York City primary.
The conduct of Weiner and Spitzer, Kantor wrote, is “retiring outdated cultural assumptions—that Jewish men make solid husbands and that sex scandals belong to others.” (Personal admission: As a Jewish atheist I made a terrible husband, and as a Jewish Christian I’ve made a solid one.) Kantor noted that “Erica Jong, whose sexually frank novels make her possibly one of the least prudish voters in New York, said she could not forgive Mr. Spitzer: ‘It’s bad for the Jews, and it makes the anti-Semites say, See, I told you. …’”
Christianity is a religion of the born-again: All of us sin and fall short of God’s glory, and all of us desperately need God’s mercy. Christians point to Christ’s sacrifice, so atonement doesn’t rest on our shoulders. In Judaism, Yom Kippur (coming next month) is the Day of Atonement, and the period leading up to it is Aseret Ymai Tshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance. Ironically, the New York City primary election this year is on Sept. 10, smack in the middle of those 10 days, when voters will issue their judgment on whether Weiner and Spitzer are repentant.
Kantor reported that some “ultra-Orthodox Jews are planning to vote for Spitzer in part because they see his penance as more sincere than Mr. Weiner’s.” Her use of “penance” is more relevant to Roman Catholicism than to Judaism, but never mind: The key practical question is how voters can judge sincerity, particularly among folks whose occupation is oozing sincerity.
The Jewish Week quoted Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America, saying, “The sincerity of anyone’s claim of repentance can be judged only by He who ‘sees into hearts,’ not any of us mortals.” If the ground were to open up beneath Weiner or Spitzer the election would be clearer, but if that doesn’t happen voters will have to make the call: Polls so far show they are skeptical about Weiner, whose weird sexting seems to have continued after his first public humiliation, but more accepting of Spitzer.
Rabbi Shafran is skeptical about the discernment of voters, so he said, “Voters are probably best off just voting for the candidates whose positions they deem best for their communities, cities, states, or countries.” That’s also interesting. Many Orthodox Jews send their children to Yeshivas and Hebrew day schools: They relish Spitzer’s past support of education tax credits for low- and middle-income families. On the other hand, how many children will fill those schools? Spitzer, as attorney general, carried the mail for abortion-promoters who hate pro-life pregnancy resource centers.
Shafran wrote on the torah.org website that the highly secularized Spitzer was “bereft of Jewish religious values,” so he could hardly be expected to react differently to sexual lures. Shafran told a Talmudic story, from Tractate Berachos 32a, about the man who pampered his son, “hung a coin purse on his neck, and stationed him at the entrance of a brothel”: Wouldn’t we expect the son to sin? Shafran added that Spitzer, as “a grown man and a public official,” should have done better, but “the Talmud elsewhere exhorts us not ‘to judge another until one has stood in his place.’”
He’s right about the dangers of judging, but that’s what New York voters will be doing. Some will recognize a lesson from American history: Faithfulness to a wife is no guarantee of faithfulness to a city, state, or country, but faithlessness is a leading indicator of trouble, as one key betrayal paves the way for more. The question for New York City’s many voters, both Jews and others: What’s going on in a candidate’s heart? How do we know?