Imperfect people and the presidency

Imperfect people and the presidency

Last week I spent time at the Christian Broadcasting Network headquarters in Virginia with Pat Robertson who, amid some understandable disagreements with the Jewish community on important issues, is not only a friend but, I believe, one of the strongest supporters Israel has in the entire United States. In discussing the presidential race, we focused on the large number of presidential candidates in this race who were divorced. They include John McCain, Rudy Giuliani (divorced twice), Fred Thompson, and Dennis Kucinich (divorced twice). Then there is Hillary Clinton who has had well-publicized marital troubles. The Jewish community has no real problem with candidates whose personal lives are not perfect. The evangelical community is different. Indeed, many Christian readers of my books and viewers of "Shalom in the Home" have written to me that they cannot vote for a candidate who has been divorced because they feel it would undermine their support for family values. They wish for me to concur.

I cannot.

In looking at how the two communities approach a presidential candidate who has significant personal issues, we can discern important differences between Judaism and Christianity.

Judaism believes two things. First, that people are flawed and 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 Jesus 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 to do 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 preclude our taking 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 consistently good. 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? Your own status be damned.

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 righteous in the process.

The other reason that the Jewish community has no real issue with candidates who have had troubled personal lives is the fact that our biblical heroes have no imperfections. Christians venerate Jesus, who is portrayed as perfect in the Christian scriptures. When Christians ask, "What would Jesus do?," they are holding up a model of flawlessness. But in the Hebrew Bible there is not one Jesus-like figure. Our heroes are righteous men rather than perfect gods. They struggle to do the right thing, but being human, they do not always succeed. Abraham is faulted for his parenting with regard to Ishmael. Jacob favors 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 sanctity 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 perfect models. Like us, they struggle to do the right thing amid an inclination to 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 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 the fact 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 one 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.

If we are misguided enough to bar imperfect people from serving the public good, then what we will get in return is a public sector that remains deeply imperfect.

I counsel people who have been divorced every single day. My message to them is that they must try and put their pain behind them and commit themselves to marriage with someone new (or perhaps their former spouse, which is actually a mitzvah in the Torah). The last thing we should do is make them feel like such failures that they have nothing more to contribute.