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High Holidays Sermons Focus on Clinton Scandal

October 5, 1998
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

President Clinton’s path of repentance wove its way into American synagogues during the High Holidays.

Many rabbis incorporated lessons and opinions from the presidential scandal into their sermons.

But even when it wasn’t mentioned, Clinton’s affair with a White House intern made its presence felt at services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In 30 years at Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove, N.J., “I have never had a year when people were so interested in the concepts and theories of atonement and forgiveness,” Rabbi Norman Patz said of his Reform congregation.

Patz gave two sermons on the scandal during Rosh Hashanah, when he said such a political issue is more suitable to discuss than on Yom Kippur.

Clinton began what calls his public repentance at a prayer breakfast with religious leaders on Sept. 14, and has continued doing so in interviews, public addresses and private spiritual guidance. His use of the Yom Kippur liturgy during his speech at the breakfast tied his repentance to the Days of Atonement that begin the Jewish year.

In a pre-Yom Kippur interview with syndicated columnist Trude Feldman published in The Washington Post and St. Louis Jewish Light, Clinton said, “What has been really helpful to me in the last few weeks is religious guidance that I have been given about atonement from the Yom Kippur liturgy, to remind me that while it is unusual for the president to be in a public situation like this, the fundamental truth is that the human condition — with its frailties and propensity to sin — is something to I do share with others. I can believe in the reality of atonement and ultimately of forgiveness.”

Clinton continued, “The Jewish New Year is a symbol of what a person ought to do every day. Each day should be a new beginning.”

“In the Jewish tradition, the slate is wiped clean and you start anew. With real repentance, I’m told, the sins are effectively removed,” he said.

Many found parallels in Clinton’s behavior to that of biblical leaders.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, spoke from his former pulpit at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City on Yom Kippur in support of Clinton.

Hirsch compared Clinton to “flawed” Jewish leaders of the past — Joseph, Moses and King David — to argue that personal flaws don’t necessarily impede one’s ability to lead.

Other religious leaders, and even Clinton himself, have referred to the story of King David in recent weeks. The story follows the course of David’s repentance after fathering the child of Bath-Sheba, a young woman with whom he had an affair, and sending her husband, Uriah, to the front lines to be killed so he could marry her.

Hirsch tried to steer his listeners away from focusing on the personal flaws of leaders to concentrate on more “morally compelling” issues.

“Hundreds of thousands are about to be ethnically cleansed in Kosovo,” Hirsch said in his sermon, referring to the current crisis in the Balkans. “No one is doing anything. These are the sins of public officials we should be most concerned about.”

In Washington, Orthodox Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel mentioned the scandal on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

“I made the issue more introspective and less political,” he said.

Freundel highlighted community responses throughout Jewish history when groups attempted to remove leaders from office.

“The communities were unsuccessful when the people were distant, and didn’t realize that what happens to a leader happens to us all,” he said.

But not all rabbis felt Clinton’s troubles should be discussed. “I alluded to it,” Rabbi Naftali Rotenstreich of the Orthodox Community Synagogue of New York said, “but I did not spend time on it. The High Holidays should be cherished, not spent dwelling on an issue people have chewed on already.”

Other rabbis, Rotenstreich included, said their congregations were happy they didn’t mention the scandal — some members even called later to thank them for not mentioning it.

Conservative Rabbi Lavey Derby of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, Calif., said his congregation groaned when he briefly mentioned the Clinton scandal on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

While many rabbis refrained from mentioning the Clinton scandal during the High Holidays, they added that they did bring the issue to the pulpit during preceding Shabbat sermons.

“When I returned” from the prayer breakfast in Washington, some members of my congregation asked me to talk on the issue,” said Rachel Mikva, a Reform rabbi at the Community Synagogue of Rye, N.Y.

“I wouldn’t mention it during the Days of Awe because it is forbidden to isolate any one individual for shame. It would reflect our own drive for gossip.”

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