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Focus on Issues: President Invokes Reform Prayer in Emotional Confession to Clergy

Facing the gravest test of his presidency and personal life, President Clinton has turned to the Yom Kippur liturgy for what he hopes will be the right words of atonement.

With 106 clergy members gathered at the White House last Friday for a national prayer breakfast, Clinton opened up Gates of Repentance, the Reform movement’s High Holidays prayer book, and read a passage about the challenges of penitence and changing one’s ways.

Clinton invoked the Jewish concept of atonement as part of an unprecedented baring of his soul and his most extensive confessional to date regarding the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

His voice thick with emotion, Clinton said he had sinned and focused his remarks on what one rabbi described as the Jewish steps for repentance – – acknowledging wrongdoing, apologizing to those you have wronged and taking steps to make sure you do not repeat the transgression.

“That was an incredible tie-in,” said Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement’s rabbinic body, who sat at a table with Clinton in the ornate East Room of the White House.

The prayer breakfast took place just hours before the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to make public the report of independent counsel Kenneth Starr, which provides vivid details of Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky, a former White House intern, and alleged impeachable offenses. The White House issued a rebuttal of the Starr report over the weekend.

Clinton, a Southern Baptist, is known to be deeply religious and has frequently turned to scripture throughout his political career.

“It takes an act of will for us to make a turn,” Clinton told the clergy as he read from the prayer book that he said was given to him by a friend, Miami attorney Ira Leesfield, whose home Clinton visited after a Democratic fund raiser last week.

“It means admitting that we have been wrong, and this is never easy. It means losing face. It means starting all over again, and this is always painful. It means saying: `I am sorry.’ It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. These things are terribly hard to do. But unless we turn, we will be trapped forever in yesterday’s ways.”

The passage, coupled with other words of contrition, struck most of the rabbis in the room as appropriately poignant, particularly with Yom Kippur approaching at the end of the month.

“The power of the Jewish concept of repentance and the liturgical expressions of Yom Kippur do have a universal resonance,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. “It was very touching at a moment of crisis to hear the president of the United States turn to the Jewish prayer book for inspiration.” Saperstein was seated at the annual break fast next to Hillary Clinton, who was visibly affected by her husband’s words, her eyes welling up with tears.

Clinton’s speech to the broad cross-section of religious leaders, including about 15 rabbis, came amid signs that his support among clergy members is beginning to erode.

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary and a leading figure within the Conservative movement, last week urged Clinton to resign.

Other prominent religious leaders, including Paige Patterson, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Bishop Richard Grein of the New York Episcopal Diocese, have also called for Clinton’s resignation.

In an interview with The New York Times, Schorsch said Clinton’s moral authority has been “destroyed” as a result of the scandal. He was unavailable for further comment.

Schorsch, regarded throughout the Jewish community and by senior Jewish Democrats as a great moral voice, traveled with Clinton to Israel for the Israeli-Jordanian peace signing and for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral, both events in 1994.

His call for Clinton’s resignation, which came before the prayer breakfast, caught many off guard and did not appear to reflect a widely held sentiment among other rabbinical leaders as Starr’s report made its way into public view and lawmakers tried to determine how to proceed.

Rabbi Menachem Genack of the Orthodox Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Englewood, N.J., said he thought Schorsch would have been “wise to wait for that judgment.” Genack, a longtime Democratic supporter who attended the breakfast as a representative of the Orthodox Union, said he was airing his personal views.

“I only agree in the sense that (Clinton’s) moral authority has been compromised,” he said. “But that’s what repentance is all about — it’s retrieving that again.”

In watching Clinton speak at the prayer breakfast, Genack said he saw a recognition that repentance is a process.

“He’s beginning to internalize some of those values and transforming anger into contrition,” he said.

Indeed, many of the religious leaders gathered at the White House said they had been won over by Clinton’s apology, in which he spoke of reaching “rock bottom” and having a “broken spirit.” Some of the rabbis in attendance said they intended to construct Yom Kippur sermons with the president’s story as a modern parable.

But in the political realm, it remained unclear what impact Clinton’s confession would have on rapidly unfolding events. Shortly after he spoke, his words quickly became lost amid the lurid details of the Starr report.

“I think it would have been better to have had all this come out months ago, but catharsis at any given point is helpful,” said Orthodox Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue in New York.

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