Politicians and repentance

Politicians and repentance

Former New York Governor Elliot Spitzer has announced ambitions to run for New York City comptroller, more than five years after resigning from office over a prostitution scandal.

With both Spitzer and former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner seeking public redemption, we as a nation are being given a new opportunity to forgive and rebuild. I do not believe that one strike means you’re out. Both men are capable and talented politicians, who have proven their ability to make an impact in the world – with one important caveat that I’ll get to later.

Maimonides says there are three steps in true repentance: Acknowledgement and cessation of the sin, confession to the injured party, and rebuilding the relationship by redoubling efforts to right the wrong. This is true whether we have injured God or a spouse. A person is considered to have “completed his repentance,” he writes, “if he has the ability to commit the same sin but nevertheless abstains.”

Press reports say Anthony Wiener took more than a year to focus almost exclusively on his wife and son and win them back. Similar things are said of Spitzer. I respect their desire to heal their families of the pain they caused.

The Jewish concept of repentance is based on the idea that everyone is born with a dual nature and conflicting inner drives – animal and angelic, selfish and altruistic, romantic and adulterous. The battle between our impulses is a painful but also creative element of the human experience. Unlike Christianity, Judaism has no Jesus figure. All are flawed – think of Jacob’s imperfect parenting or David’s impulsive passions. Everyone makes mistakes. Righteousness is found not in perfection but in struggle, in the human willingness to engage in the battle between our two natures and have good triumph over evil.

I have little time or patience for perfect people, finding them boring, monolithic, and unforgiving. As a counselor I prefer the company of those who have fallen but show sincere regret – becoming deeper, more sensitive people in the process – to those who live on lofty peaks looking condescendingly at lesser mortals, bereft of empathy.

There is more.

I respect Judaism because it values world redemption over personal salvation. Our religion has no monastic tradition, because cleansing your soul in seclusion is subordinate to improving the world’s open spaces. And because it places the needs of the community before those of the individual, our faith always has encouraged imperfect people to contribute to the world’s perfection.

A few years ago my friend Dennis Prager and I visited Zimbabwe, one of the poorest countries on earth, on a relief mission with a Christian organization. I bumped into three young Canadian doctors who enlightened me as to the dismal state of the hospitals they worked in and the lack of medicines. There was no medicine – with one exception. Their shelves were stocked full of antiretrovirals to combat AIDS, all provided by the Clinton Global Initiative. Here, countless lives were being saved by a man whose personal life was scandalous to the point of impeachment.

Should Paula Dean be forgiven? For goodness sake, yes. But it’s not enough for her to simply stop using the “N-word.” Going from racist to race neutral is not a legitimate form of repentance. Rather, she should go to the opposite extreme and rectify her insensitivity to the equality of all God’s children but investing herself and her resources in programs benefiting the African-American community and others with whom she found no natural kinship.

But here is my caveat about forgiving flawed public figures. An even bigger problem than the personal moral failures of some of our elected leaders is the extreme partisanship they exhibit. Anthony Wiener’s Twitter posts were less injurious to the country than the bombastic tone he took as a Democratic partisan. Elliot Spitzer likewise was admonished for using the state police to record the movements of Republican Frank Bruno.

Republican partisanship is equally offensive and our country is suffering not due to the personal indiscretions of our leaders – public officials always will be caught in public scandals – but because of the growing polarization of our public servants. I have close friends who are Democrats who felt they had to distance themselves from me when I ran for Congress as a Republican. Such behavior is toxic and unforgivable.

This is especially relevant in the week before Tisha B’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, when we commemorate the destruction of the Temple.

In the year 70 Rome besieged Jerusalem but could not conquer it. The walled city had enough food and raw materials to last out a lengthy siege. The city and the Temple fell not because of the sexual peccadilloes of its defenders but because of civil strife and infighting. Rival groups burned each other’s food stores, leading to desperate famine. Jerusalemites ate their horses, their saddles, and even their children.

In an age such as ours, with so many pressing national challenges, let’s be more forgiving about the personal indiscretions of public figures who are prepared to acknowledge and change their behavior and be less forgiving of those who want their party to win, even as the country loses.