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In New York City Mayoral Primary, a Referendum on Repentance

With Weiner and Spitzer on the ballot, Talmudic scholars would say the real question is whether they’ve atoned

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Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer is mobbed by reporters on July 8, 2013, while attempting to collect signatures to run for comptroller of New York City. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
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Tomorrow, when New York City’s voters go to cast votes in the mayoral primary, they’ll be doing more than simply picking the best candidates to represent them. With not one but two disgraced politicians on the ballot, the body politic will be conducting a referendum on whether former Rep. Anthony Weiner and former Gov. Eliot Spitzer should be allowed to return to their chosen profession: public service.

The polls suggest that the decision has already been made in the case of Weiner, whose comeback mayoral candidacy has sputtered since the revelation that he continued sexting with strangers even after his tearful resignation from Congress in 2011 over racy Twitter exchanges. But Spitzer—who actually committed adultery, with multiple prostitutes—remains in serious contention for city comptroller. Even if he loses, the tightness of the race suggests a willingness to look past his transgressions.

Both men have certainly engaged in the theatrics of repentance. In contemporary American politics, the standard approach entails some tearful expression of remorse, followed by a period in the wilderness, and then, after a time, a careful return, often in a delicately orchestrated media interview with a loyal spouse standing by. And while one suspects the Sages would have been unmoved by TV-style theatrics, there is precedent in the halakhic literature for reinstating disgraced officials: As Justice Menachem Elon of Israel’s Supreme Court once noted, Jewish decisors generally allowed them to return to office provided they could prove that they had changed their ways. Repentance is an axiom of Jewish theology, and the notion of automatically disqualifying sinners because of past deeds was usually deemed, with a few exceptions, an actual deterrent to repentance.

Thus the central and most complex question, both then and now, remains how disgraced political figures can prove they have repented—not just for their wrong acts but for bringing dishonor to their offices and on our system of government. We desire the skills and experience of talented officeholders, yet we remain wary that tearful confessions are just opportunistic manipulations by pathological narcissists. We seek a displayed sense of humility in which these figures are sufficiently shamed to realize why they could be barred from office yet not so downtrodden that they despair from ever earning back our trust.

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Talmudic literature gives conflicting indications regarding this broader dilemma. A high priest or kohen gadol who commits a serious violation receives lashes, like all other sinners, but continues to serve in his lofty position, yet the disgraced president of the Sanhedrin, or Supreme Rabbinic Court, may not be reinstated to even a lower position on the court. In other passages, the Sages disagree whether we reinstate a leader who committed involuntary manslaughter and was exiled to a city of refuge.

These passages have inspired a rich literature about how to address cases ranging from political figures who commit financial fraud to synagogue sextons who kill in car accidents. While Jewish legal sources do not necessarily give us definitive answers, they provide a framework for our deliberations. As Nahum Rakover has documented, the debate essentially revolves around three major variables: the gravity of the sin, the stature of the position the individuals held or seek, and the perceived sincerity of their repentance.

Opinions range from those who believed that anyone ousted for any infraction should never be reinstated to others who asserted that after the punishment has been meted out, a person may return to office. A reasonable intermediate position is asserted by Maimonides and Rabbi Yom Tov Asevilli, with the former asserting that only grave sins exclude one from potential reinstatement, and the latter adding that the sin must be particularly repulsive. The distinction remains important, especially in societies that seem, in effect if not in intent, to treat aspiring “supermom” politicians who illegally employ nannies as harshly as serial philanderers who hire prostitutes. Both are guilty of wrongful behavior, but the former seemingly does not involve the same moral turpitude that should make us question the perpetrator’s ability to make amends and return to office. And yet, the opposite could also be true: The philanderer might genuinely repent like King David, whereas someone who denies the protections of labor laws to household employees or fails to pay their taxes may continue to cut corners when setting policy.

Another important distinction emerged in the 12th century when Henry I, Count of Champagne, asked the great scholar Rabbeinu Tam why King David kept his kingship after his affair with Batsheva while King Saul lost his reign following his failure to kill the king of the Amalekites. Rabbeinu Tam replied that whereas Saul’s infraction stemmed from his failure to complete his duties, David’s sin was unrelated to his position. A similar claim was made by the philosopher Joseph Albo, who argued that Saul’s infraction raised severe doubts about his ability to perform his duties.

This is an appealing approach that seems to resonate with contemporary American voters who, according to a 2011 study, are likelier to forgive politicians caught in sex scandals than those who have abused the powers and privileges of office. Admittedly, the line between personal indiscretion and abuse of power can easily get crossed, as Americans were reminded when former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford lied to cover up his 2009 disappearance in the midst of an extramarital affair. (Sanford has been given another chance: He won election to the House this year.) Indeed, we should recall that to cover for his sexual indiscretions, David sent Batsheva’s husband, a soldier, on a suicide mission. As the Sages say, “One sin leads to another.”

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In New York City Mayoral Primary, a Referendum on Repentance

With Weiner and Spitzer on the ballot, Talmudic scholars would say the real question is whether they’ve atoned