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We Are All Anthony Weiner

In the former congressman’s fall from grace, Judaism offers lessons in empathy

Liel Leibovitz
September 02, 2016
Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

I’m not usually one for heartfelt confessions, but the news this week drove me to just the other side of intimacy, so here it goes: Until very recently, I weighed slightly more than 350 pounds. Nightly, I would feast on meals that could comfortably nourish a gaggle of refugee children. I measured out my life with tablespoons of ice cream, swallowed mindlessly by the freezer late at night, or pizza pies of noble proportions chewed over with joy and washed down with wine. I ate even as my waistline grew larger and my breaths more shallow, even as everyday activities required rest, even as loved ones intervened and told me, again and again and again, that I was gorging my way to morbidity. Eventually, I listened and turned to steamed cauliflower and SoulCycle and other desperate measures you take when the scale is stacked against you, and within seven months dropped the aggregated weight of the American Olympic women’s gymnastics team. I feel much better now, and am grateful for my transformation, but every time I hear the sound of teeth on tacos, say, or smell the submission of soft butter to warm bread, I wonder if I won’t be fat again soon. I wish I could say for certain that the answer is a definite no, but I can’t: My conviction is only as strong as the next meal.

Why am I telling you this? Because I know what it’s like to be Anthony Weiner, and if you’re the least bit honest, then so do you.

Sure, the temptation to lambast the amorous politician is strong. For starters, he is unimprovably named for the occasion, and, more poignantly, is displaying the kind of behavior that makes even the most open-minded among us reach for the DSM-5 in search of answers. If you have a heart, bearing witness to Weiner pursuing his escapades while snuggled with his young child was enough to break it.

And yet before you furrow the brow or roll the eye, before you make that joke or that moral judgment, ask yourself this: Are you that different?

Have you never, like me, allowed your compulsive eating to jeopardize your health, your family life, your future? Have you never bought a bottle of vodka on Friday evening, watched it go dry by Sunday afternoon, and told yourself that you can stop whenever you choose but you just don’t choose to right now? Have you never allowed a need or an urge to grow into a snarling beast that bit everything or everyone that stood between it and its pleasure? If the answer is no, then sister, brother, you’re among the fortunate few: Most of us down here are just struggling with perpetual imperfection. We do our best to be good parents, and we fail miserably. We work hard to be the best spouses we can, and too often we let the same angers or anxieties we know only too well take over. We fail in all the familiar ways, and our failures eventually harden into monuments to a life boldly lived.

Don’t get me wrong: Some make terrible mistakes, and make them more than once, and pay a price, and make their families pay as well. Weiner belongs squarely in this category and deserves each painful tumble in his fall from grace. But when confronted with such struggling souls as his, derision is hardly the best approach. Instead, we may want to take a page from our elders, for whom misdeeds came not in one flavor but three. Because Judaism does not believe, like its younger and more popular sister, in original sin, it differentiates among different degrees of being bad—cheit, a sin performed inadvertently; avon, a sin committed under the sway of wild desire; and pesha, a hardened and deliberate rebellion against God. The first category calls for abundant compassion; the word cheit literally means “missing the mark,” suggesting that the sinner is more of an errant archer than a smooth criminal. The third category, naturally, involves stern retribution, as rising up against the Lord isn’t something to be trifled with. But what to do with category two? The Rambam addresses this question in his Mishneh Torah, and it finds him in a gentle, forgiving mood: Speak softly and kindly, he counsels of anyone addressing those who’ve committed an avon; show the sinners respect, and speak so as to benefit—never to humiliate—them.

But these are generalities, and in real life it may be hard to apply such lofty ideals to thorny, ugly situations. When confronted with the evidence that our spouse has been repeatedly sending lewd photographs to a perfect stranger, I bet, very few of us would think of the Rambam. We might, however, think of Reb Zusha of Hanipol.

The Hasidic master’s Hasidic master, Reb Zusha, born in 1718 in Galicia, was an expert in many things, most impressively the ability to see the divine spark that burns even in the darkest transgressions. His students, goes one story, once brought before him a thief, a wretched young Jew who was caught stealing for the umpteenth time. They shoved the young criminal before the aged rabbi, expecting the sage to mete out some fiery justice. But Reb Zusha just looked at the criminal with kind eyes and smiled. “I’ve learned so much from this man!” he told his stunned disciples. “He invests such great effort in what he does! He takes risks to get what he wants. And he is swift on his feet. Most importantly, he is always optimistic: If he fails, he always tries again and again and again.” If only Reb Zusha edited New York’s scornful tabloids, we’d get a much different—and much more instructive—view on Weiner’s disgrace.

It’s up to us, then, to find the Zusha within. Stories like Weiner’s are compelling to us not only because of their juicy bits but also because they allow us the opportunity to reflect, at a safe distance, on our own fights and our own failings. In Weiner, then, let us see not a punchline for an easy joke but ourselves: struggling with demanding careers, trying to keep a marriage afloat, feeling lonely and in need for affirmation, tempted by the gross and transactional nature of a world now governed by soulless digital applications that celebrate nothing but the immediate relief of unbearable urges. We all mean well. We all try. We all fail. The point is to keep trying.

Zusha understood that perfectly. On his deathbed, goes another story, the old rabbi sat and wept bitterly. His students, gathered around him, speculated about what could make their rabbi so despondent. “I bet he’s crying,” said one, “because he fears that when he meets God, the Almighty will tell him he was not quite as righteous as King David.” “No,” argued another, “it’s because he fears that God, when he meets him, will tell him he was not quite as holy as Moses.” Overhearing the conversation, Reb Zusha lifted his head and smiled. “The only thing that truly frightens me,” he told his students, “is to meet God and have Him tell me ‘Zusha, you have not been the best Zusha you can be.’” We should all share the same concern. Nothing else truly matters.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.

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