Call him Yishai. With word of his out-of-wedlock child on the newsstands, the Rev. Jesse Jackson is seeking comfort from Jewish sources: the biblical story of Judah and Tamar.
Jackson, a prominent civil rights leader and two-time presidential candidate whose relations with the Jewish community have not always been smooth, spent an hour in New York on Tuesday studying Torah with Rabbi Marc Schneier.
The head of the North American Boards of Rabbis, Schneier also is president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a group that focuses on strengthening black-Jewish relations.
The two studied the portion from Genesis in which Judah sleeps with his daughter-in-law, mistaking her for a prostitute.
Despite his transgression, Judah is chosen from among his brothers to become heir to Jacob’s dynasty, which later produces King David and, Jewish tradition holds, will one day produce the Messiah.
“We had a whole discussion as to why Jacob bequeathed royalty, or for that matter the messianic dynasty, to Judah over Joseph, his favorite son,” Schneier said.
The sages explain that it was because Judah was able to admit his mistakes, Schneier said.
“One of the key elements of leadership is the capacity to admit mistakes and the ability to change direction after one has admitted those mistakes,” he said.
Schneier presented Jackson with a Hebrew Bible inscribed with the Hebrew version of his name, Yishai. Jackson, a Baptist minister, had never heard that particular interpretation of the Judah story before, Schneier said.
“He was very clear in expressing his remorse and acknowledging the wrong he’d done,” Schneier said.
Jackson was in New York this week for a conference of his ecumenical organization, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. He could not be reached for comment.
On Jan. 18, Jackson, who has been married for 38 years, publicly acknowledged and apologized for fathering a child with an employee in his organization. Jackson had the affair while serving as one of President Clinton’s spiritual advisers during the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal.
In addition to talking Torah, the Jackson-Schneier hevruta, or study pair, spent a few minutes on politics.
“We spoke about the timing of this information coming out right before the inauguration of a Republican president, in light of fact that Jackson had been such a vocal critic of the election process,” Schneier said.
He was referring to Jackson’s speeches in the weeks after the election in which he asserted that election day procedures had disenfranchised large numbers of black, largely Democratic, Florida voters.
Jackson once was a pariah in the Jewish community because of his 1980s friendship with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, a renowned anti-Semite, and a 1984 reference to New York City as “Hymietown.”
In recent years, though, his relations with Jews have improved markedly, and in 1999 he took a leading diplomatic role on behalf of 13 Jews jailed in Iran on accusations of espionage.