Privacy vs. the right to know

Privacy vs. the right to know

Looking at privacy, politicians, and power in Franklin Lakes

What was Anthony Weiner thinking?

How many women did JKF sleep with?

Who really wanted to see LBJ’s scar?

What did Newt Gingrich really say to his soon-to-be-ex-wife as she recovered from surgery?

Why did Eliot Spitzer keep his socks on?

What does the Appalachian Trail really mean?

What happened to Mitt Romney’s dog when the poor thing finally was taken down from the roof?

And is any of this our business?

That last question is among the ones that panelists will explore in “The Private Lives of Public Figures: How Much Should We Know? How Much Should We Care?” It’s the next in the ongoing series on moral literacy that Rabbi Joseph Prouser has been holding at his shul, Temple Emanuel of North Jersey.

It is not an accident that the panel will meet just before Election Day, which is November 4 this year. “The idea is to give some serious thought to what it means to vote for a leader,” Rabbi Prouser said. “There is a lot that we want from our leaders. We want them to be competent in their roles and effective in their jobs, but they also have a tremendous impact on society – and on children in particular – through their personal example, so it is important for us to be fully aware of what we’re doing as we select our leaders.”

The importance of the example they set is true not only of politicians but of community and religious leaders as well, he added; it is true even of sports heroes, whom we do not select but who are revered in many circles.

Therefore, “we are bringing together a group of people – both academic and religious leaders as well as those who have been taking a personally active role in the political process and in government – to try to help us come to terms with the balance we have to strike, as citizens and as members of communities.”

After all, he added, “what we want and need and are looking for in our leaders says a good deal about what we value and what our priorities are.”

Rabbi Jonathan Rosenbaum, who is both president emeritus and professor of Jewish studies emeritus at Gratz College, and who has been the rabbi of a Reform, a Conservative, and an Orthodox synagogue (“I don’t know if it’s unique, but it’s pretty rare,” he understated), is among the panelists. “People in congregations tend to seek advice on these issues from rabbis” – questions of how a candidate’s private behavior should be considered when a voter is deciding which lever to pull – he said. “It’s a confusing phenomenon.”

Illustrating it through the example of adultery, he said “there are many instances of public figures engaging in adultery, including many U.S. presidents. The question is the degree to which it affects them as leaders. What seems to be at stake is the public perception that people in positions of power often engage in sexual adventures, perhaps more often than others do. That may or may not be true, so the real question is whether, when people are involved in certain types of ethically unacceptable activities on a private level, it affects their public roles.

“Rabbis also are expected to live by a precise definition of what we consider to be morality,” he continued. “If a rabbi is unfaithful to his or her spouse, does that disqualify him or her? I would think that most congregations would say yes, it does.

“My interest is on an academic level, relating to Jewish law and practice,” he continued. “Jewish law does not say that you can do something privately, as long as you don’t do it in public. One is supposed to be consistent in one’s behavior.”

Adultery involves betraying trust, and even if that betrayal is strictly private, it might have important implications in the outside world, he said. If a leader is not trustworthy in private, “then it implies to many, and I think with some good reason, that the leader might not be trustworthy on a public level.”

Leadership also can lead to abuse of power, he continued, talking specifically about sexual relationships. “If someone uses his power to abuse others, it’s not a fair relationship. If a person has authority over another, then it is by definition an unethical act.

“There is a general phrase that sounds quaint today,” Rabbi Rosenbaum continued. “General turpitude. It is a nebulous phrase, but there are precise definitions. It is interesting because people who are otherwise protected can lose their positions on the basis of moral turpitude – a tenured professor, say, could lose his or her position if engaged in moral turpitude.

“We’ve been seeing other kinds of issues as well, particularly with sports stars – people who have abused children or spouses. In theory, these are private people, but on the other hand, I think the larger society expects these people to play a role other than just being athletes. And that’s a legitimate thing to consider, because in our world an athlete is not just a person who plays a game, but a role model.

“If you’re a football or baseball fan, you’ll know that people get to know the primary players, and even others, who aren’t primary. If you go to a game, you’ll see people wearing the uniforms or jerseys of their favorite players. The players are people we think we know, and we trust, and who are paid enormous amounts of money – it’s mind-boggling how they are remunerated – and I would argue that people identify with them. So if they abuse a child, beat up a spouse, or use illicit drugs, it is a violation of the public trust.”

Also, he added, public figures often are responsible for the livelihoods of the many other people who work for them, either directly or indirectly. If their reputations are ruined, so too are the lives of these dependents.

“These are sophisticated issues in the context of issues,” he said.

“The question is whether a private person has the right to engage in certain kinds of behavior, as long as it is not illegal and is consensual, and not be called out on it. I think that’s not our business. But if it is a public person, and the power that person has is affected by moral inconsistency, then it become pertinent.

“You can argue that every public person is an exemplar, but it has to do with power and authority. If you have power and you abuse it, then we really have to respond, and then the private lives of public figures are important.

“People who are less influential ironically may have more power to act, and not to be condemned for it,” Rabbi Rosenbaum concluded.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman lives in Glen Cove, on Long Island’s north shore, where he is rabbi of Congregation Tifereth Israel. He is Canadian by birth, however, and spent many years as a journalist in Alberta, and then as a communications director for hospitals and then for cabinet ministers, before he came south for rabbinical school and then his pulpit.

“Public figures need to be held to a higher level of accountability than the person on the street,” he said. “Leaders need not only to perform with the highest level of integrity, but to be perceived to perform at that level.”

The need for both the truth and the perception of the incorruptibility of leaders appears in the Torah, he said; the cohanim – the priests – were not allowed pockets in their tunics, lest anyone think that any of the coins they took might end up lining them. Transparency was the rule. And “whenever the prophets seem to be expressing their frustration with the Jewish people – including Isaiah, Amos, and Micah – most of the time they’re talking about the nation’s leadership, and how those leaders are not upholding the standards of kindness and compassion and care for the poor and the disadvantaged,” Rabbi Huberman said.

He has noticed politicians’ tendency to begin to feel entitled once they’ve spent some time in office (although, he hastened to add, he was not talking about the two for whom he worked). That entitlement extends to first-class plane seats, not having to wait on line in restaurants, box seats at sporting events. “There are a lot of things that leaders just start to assume they’re entitled to – and lots of time that’s the beginning of a slide in other areas,” he said.

The most difficult balance that politicians must maintain is between their unassailable political correctness and their humanity. “The public sends mixed messages to politicians,” he said. “On the one hand, they are tired of politically correct politicians. They don’t feel human. But when they show the transparency people are asking for, then people say that they’re not leaders.

“We have to hold our political leaders to a very high standard, but we also have to give them room to be human beings – mothers and fathers and citizens of this world. We must not feel that they have let us down if they are human – and we increasingly are looking for a spark of humanity.”

Linda Schwager of Oakland is a member of Rabbi Prouser’s shul. She is also the mayor of Oakland and the president of the Bergen County Bar Association. For her, the question of how public and how constantly on guard a politician must be is not theoretical.

“I am very conscious of what I do, because no matter where I go as mayor, I am seen as the representative of all the mayors in Bergen County,” she said. “When I go to a function, or have to talk in front of a group, they look at me. I am constantly under glass; I am being seen in everything I do.

“I am very conscious of the ethics of perception, because I have always thought that in politics, perception is more important than reality.”

Ms. Schwager was elected to her first four-year term three years ago and will run for re-election next year. “And believe me, I am unique in Oakland,” she said. “I am a woman. I am a Jew. I am in the minority political party – Oakland is a Republican town, and I am a Democrat.”

Oakland’s town council meetings are held twice a month and they are televised live. “You don’t realize what it’s like if you haven’t seen yourself on television or speaking live,” Ms. Schwager said.

“When you speak to a group, there is no privacy. Everything you say is open. There is no more privacy, unless you are whispering to someone in your own home.”

That scrutiny is intensified because she is a woman, Ms. Schwager said; her choice in clothing and accessories apparently is up for discussion and debate. She has become aware of such issues as how earrings move when their wearer speaks; now she watches television news with a keen eye out for jewelry victories and faux pas. And she now knows which colors she is well advised to wear.

The last panelist, Dr. Charles Flynn, is the president of the College of Mount Saint Vincent in Riverdale, N.Y., and a historian.

Who: Rabbi Joseph Prouser moderates a four-person panel

What: On “The Private Lives of Public Figures: How Much Should We Know? How Much Should We Care?”

When: Tuesday, October 21, 7:30 to 9 p.m.

Where: Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, 558 High Mountain Road, Franklin Lakes

Why: To investigate the question of public morality as it applies to the upcoming elections

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