GODSTUFF: Advice for the Gentleman from New York

GODSTUFF: Advice for the Gentleman from New York June 8, 2011

New York Rep. Anthony Weiner’s cybersex scandal is an opportunity for schadenfreude born in late-night-talk-show-monologue heaven.

Oh, Anthony. What a spectacular shande, he of the unfortunately appropriate surname. So many jokes, so little time …

The congressman has been caught with his pants down (literally), the protagonist of a modern-day morality tale of lust and hubris, set in tragic motion when he exchanged sexually explicit and thoroughly naughty messages with a number of young women who are not his wife.

When his misdeeds first began to emerge, Weiner lied in an attempt to cover them up. He said his Twitter account had been hacked. When evidence mounted against him, however, Weiner finally confessed.

“I have not been honest with myself, my family, my constituents, my friends and supporters, and the media,” the tearful congressman admitted. “To be clear, the pictures were of me and I sent them.”

Weiner, 46, was a rising star in the Democratic Party, considered by some to be a future mayor of New York. The Jewish congressman is married to a Muslim, Huma Abedin, a longtime aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Alas, Weiner’s political star is no longer in ascension. It has, by most accounts, crashed and burned. Spectacularly so.

Weiner is an easy target for ridicule. His actions were inexplicable and foolish. His very public fall from grace is an opportunity to judge and gloat with abandon.

Yet rather than heap coals on the fires of the Weiner roast fueled by our collective indignation, perhaps it’s more edifying to look at this scandal as a teachable moment — both for him, and for us.

In Weiner’s Jewish tradition, the word most commonly translated as “sin” is the Hebrew word “het,” a term that means, essentially, to “miss the mark.” Sin is an act, not a state of being. The idea is that if someone misses the mark, there is always an opportunity to recalibrate, aim and try again.

Four rabbis offered their advice to the embattled congressman, both profound and practical.

“Were he to come to me for counseling, my first conversation would be, ‘Anthony, why? What was going on in your life physically, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, etc., that you had this need for sexting?”‘ said Rabbi Allen Secher of Whitefish, Mont.

“Next step: ‘Anthony, why did you feel the need to lie to cover your tush? It is there the damage lies. But now that you have owned up to it, your punishment is going to be living with it — within your family and your constituents.”

Secher recalled a saying from the Talmud: “A liar’s punishment is that he is not believed even when he tells the truth.” Weiner, he said, has “a long row to hoe to rebuild that trust,” but he can do it. “I forgive you,” he said. “Others will too. And in time, you’ll forgive yourself.”

That said, Secher doesn’t believe Weiner’s actions constituted adultery. “Stupidity he committed, but not adultery,” Secher said. “His offense was lying. The emails were just plain silly.”

Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro of Baltimore concurred.

“I would tell him that his biggest mistake was lying,” he said. “At the moment he lied, he lost public trust. He sacrificed his integrity on the altar of self-preservation. For most people this is normal behavior. For a leader, it is inexcusable.”

Now that Weiner has confessed his sins, his responsibility is to make “teshuva,” (literally “a return”) or repentance, Shapiro said. “I would advise him to resign, to withdraw from politics, and take some time to focus on and appreciate all the amazing blessings he has in life.”

Rabbi Irwin Kula of New York City, author of “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life,” urged Weiner to make amends and honestly examine his conscience. Plus, he added, “No public comments for at least a month!”

“He has three different commitments that he needs to address: his wife, his constituents, and himself/God,” Kula said. “My first piece of advice is not to confuse these with his political office or future political career. Saving his career cannot be a goal.”

Weiner would do well to look to the great Jewish sage Maimonides and his ‘Four R’s’ for further instruction, Kula said:

Recognition of what he really did.

Regret for what he did.

Repair of his own character and the relationships he damaged.

And reconciliation, “which will only happen in the end with his doing the work and a bit of grace,” Kula said.

Kula also had counsel for the rest of us: “I would teach very seriously how … our interest in and judgment of Weiner is damaged, projected self-judgment of our own very distorted culture and our own hidden secrets.”

Similarly, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder of the Jewish social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek in New York, suggested a longer view of the Weiner scandal and its broader implications.

“The misuse of social media can lead us to prioritize weakly bonded relationships with strangers over our more strongly bonded relationships with family and colleagues,” Yanklowitz said.

“As public figures, the demands for cheap relationships with little authentic meaning … are all the more enticing, and it’s all the more important for us to be cautious and prudent in our dealings.”

This commentary originally appeared via Religion News Service.

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