Is there anything we can learn from high-profile Jews caught in scandals? If you were going to reference Anthony Weiner who is a prominent Jew, what may be said?
I. The Facts:
Anthony Weiner was a brash New York Congressman who did lewd things on technological tools. He lusted in his heart; he got busted in his career.
Weiner believed in a god; the god in whom Weiner believer he met in his mirror.
Weiner was a knight. On one hand, was, like Lancelot of the Arthur legend and David of the Bible, he saw humself as a crusader for good. On the other hand, he assumed that the perks of his power give him license to lust. What Weiner did was despicable; John Edwards, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, and Arnold the Govornator Schwartzenegger crossed a very different lines, but to differing degrees they all carry the stain of shame on their names.
Why did Weiner do what he did? He had power and could talk his way out of anything. So he thought--and he thought wrong.
II. The Faith:
a. Rashi to Numbers 12:12 tells that we act as Weiner acted when a spirit of foolishness enters us. When this “spirit of foolishness” enters us, we act with folly and we fool “around.” This euphemism is not to be taken literally. If we allow our pants to fall to the ground, like fools, our plans go up in smoke with our dreams. We are responsible for our actions.
b. Abot 1:16 teaches that Rabbi Simon b. Gamaliel taught that there is nothing as fine and good for the body as silence. Weiner talked too much, and he was seduced by his own words, and now he is shamed.
c. Abot 2:1 finds the head of the Jewish polity, Rabbi Judah the Prince, telling us to think and see with the mind’s eye, three things that we cannot feel or see with our senses, that there is a God above us who is a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and what we say and do is recorded by the world’s Ultimate Auditor. Today’s Jews do not like to think this way. We act “as if” God is deaf and dumb; the eternal Keeper of Israel “neither slumbers nor sleeps.” Psalms 121:4. Weiner acted as if there is no one above him, no one seeing, no one to hold him to account. His character became calloused, his risks, more risqué, and he acted as a fool.
d. Abot 2:6 reports that Hillel saw a skull floating and observed that because that skull was a person that drowned others, it was drowned and those who drowned the person whose skull floats in the water will themselves be drowned. There is judge and there is a judgment, [Genesis Rabbah 26:6] Weiner believed that the laws of causality are not his concern; he felt invulnerable and this confidence is a curse as is the pride that came before the fall. Proverbs 16:17-18.
e. Abot 2:11 finds a little man with a great character, Rabbi Joshua, teach that the evil eye, the lustful heart, and hatred of others cause people to leave this world before their time. Did Weiner like people? He wanted to be liked but was not likable; he sought love and was outed by those who did not love him back.
f. Abot 3:8 presents the teaching of R. Hanina b. Dosa, who argued that when one’s piety is greater than one’s wisdom, the wisdom endures; when one’s wisdom is greater than one’s piety, the wisdom does not endure. Weiner was too smart for his own or anyone else’s good. Smart people whose moral compass does not work are fools.
III. The Future: The six lessons we are to learn from Anthony Weiner:
a. We have moments when we snap, when we do foolish things. Foolish people ruin their lives. When we think of Anthony Weiner, we should be smart enough not to be fools.
b. Watch what you say, silence is goiden. People who are silent and do not text do not write or say foolish things.
c. There is a judge and there is a judgment. A good God is watching us hoping we are good. Ask yourself every day, “did I act correctly today?” I suspect Anthony Weiner did not often ask himself that question.
d. No one is above the law. If Moses can get caught for wrongdoing, why not Anthony Weiner? If we set in motion cycles of bad behavior, we become the victims of our own vices.
e. If we care about God, we must also care about others who embody the image of God; if we care about ourselves and our passion without compassion for others, we are beasts who use the brain to satisfy brawn. God has better, wiser, and moral plans for people.
f. Anthony Weiner lived his life to date with the rule “it is good to be smart.” From the fall of smart, handsome and charismatic Jewish “beautiful people, we learn God’s point of view, “it is smart to be good!”
The real issue in the Anthony Weiner tempest in a Twitter is tzni’ut or modesty. The public obsession with scandal was fueled by an additional “uck” factor, but the issue at the heart of it was the decorum with which a public figure should act—or the decorum which is to be expected of any figure in the public space, the reshut harabaim.
The issue of tzni’ut/modesty has gotten a bad rap over the years since those who are focussed on enforcing models of modest behavior have generally been caught in the loop of women’s body parts—knees, elbows, arms, etc. There is, of course, a place for this discussion. However, rather than seeing the discourse of tzni’ut be relegated to a topography of forbidden anatomy, it should be a broader conversation about how one presents oneself in public. A synonym for tzni’ut is humility as in Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly (hatzne’a lekhet) with your God.” Walking humbly is deeply connected with doing justice, since one who walks humbly is able to see beyond themselves. One who walks humbly can hear the suffering of others and respond to it. On who walks humbly is able to love goodness and to do justice.
It seems to me then that while Congressman Weiner definitely betrayed his mission of public service in that narcissism is one method of blocking out the cries of the needy, he is not alone. The eighty four million, five hundred thousand dollar salary paid this year to Viacom's Philippe Dauman, is far more immodest, in my eyes, than Weiner’s crotch shots.
During a time when the median household income is around fifty thousand dollars nationally, and when the unemployment rate is 9.1%, even the median pay for top executives—ten million, eight hundred thousand dollars—is brazen. It is, to my mind, a desecration of the public square that executives are being paid (“earning” is too gracious a word) this much money in a time when others are wondering where their next meal is coming from. One cannot be both outrageoulsy immodest and do justice and love goodness. That these executive payments is not a scandal worthy of prime-time news obsession is also an indicator of how far as a society we have strayed from walking humbly with our God.
Is there anything we can learn from high-profile Jews caught in scandals? If you were going to reference Anthony Weiner (for example) in a weekly sermon, what would you say?
In response to your more general question, is there anything we can learn from high-profile Jews caught in scandals, the answer is always yes.What we learn, of course, varies with the circumstances.Except for one lesson, which remains fairly consistent no matter what the scandal or who the high-profile Jew: one’s behavior reflects on one’s community.
I’m a little surprised to be the one to bring this up, because I usually lag behind other rabbis in raising an alarm about antisemitism.While its history and impact is undeniable, I feel the charge or concern of antisemitism is often overblown, and sometimes an excuse for the Jewish community not tending to real failings or transgressions that we have committed, whether communally or individually.Furthermore, I would always argue against anyone who tries to make negative generalizations about gay men, or Catholics, based on the behavior of a pedophilic gay priest, for example, or about Muslims based on the actions of a few terrorists.People are complicated, and no one’s behavior or life choices can be reduced or attributed to a single aspect of her or his identity, whether religion, skin color, sexual orientation, or political allegiance.
Perhaps it’s because of the time I’ve spent in the South, in places where Jews are few and far between, in communities where children are raised by their parents to carry the reputation of the entire Jewish community on their shoulders, knowing that they are often the only Jewish person most of their associates will ever know.Perhaps it is that, knowing how human nature tends toward the very prejudices and generalizations I eschew, I work all the harder to protect myself and those I care about from such unjust associations.I hesitate to say what I’m about to say, because I shrink from the kind of reductive thinking that leads to statements like this, but: It’s bad for the Jews.
I did not hear a single mention of Senator Weiner’s religious affiliation in all the mainstream media coverage of his political and personal fall from grace; I do not believe that there is a widespread danger of an antisemitic backlash.However, we can be sure that somewhere, someone who has never knowingly met a Jew thinks just a little bit less of the Jewish people for Weiner’s performance.
Kol Yisrael aravim zeh bazeh, we read in the Talmud, “all Israel is responsible for one another.”During Yamim Nora’im, the High Holy Days, we make public confessions of sins, not because every one of us has committed every sin, but because as a community we accept some responsibility for upholding communal standards, for supporting one another in learning to live by our values.Spiritually, if in no other way, we all suffer when one of us stumbles.
What do we learn from someone like Anthony Weiner?To look carefully after our own actions, to teach our children and our students well, to speak often about what we expect of ourselves and each other, to support one another in resisting temptation, and sometimes—we have yet to see in Weiner’s case—we learn how to make teshuvah, to make reparations for our missteps, to return to a path of uprightness.
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