Two scandal-plagued Jewish pols seek forgiveness in a primary that falls during the Days of Awe.
New York’s primary election this year falls on Sept. 10, almost exactly between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, a period known as Aseret Ymai Tshuva, or the Ten Days of Repentance.
During that time Jews, and by osmosis many other people around the world, have in mind the process of seeking and granting amends.
Nowhere will this be more evident on the public stage than in the spectacle of two Jewish men, though neither is religious, asking the public for mechilah, or forgiveness.
Unlike others who seek a handshake or a blessing, Democrats Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner will be asking for things far more tangible: votes, power, the public’s trust and, not least, a belief that they won’t betray it again.
If Weiner prevails in the mayoral primary, he’ll still have to convince a larger audience — including Republicans and independents — in the general election that he’s ready to run the city. Spitzer -- provided he gathers enough signatures to make it on the ballot by the deadline (pundits were expressing serious doubts on Tuesday) -- would likely seal his comeback if he wins the Democrat nomination for city comptroller.
Both sounded notes of contrition in their campaign kickoffs. “Look, I’ve made some big mistakes, and I know I’ve let a lot of people down,” Weiner said in a video. “But I’ve also learned some tough lessons.”
On Monday, Spitzer told reporters “I want to move on, I want to serve; I want to ask forgiveness and present the public with an opportunity for [the comptroller] to do more.”
It may be coincidence, as Spitzer claims, that they are seeking comebacks in this same season of supplication, or what the Associated Press called “a mini-Olympics of political redemption.” But more likely both sense that Americans — maybe New Yorkers more than anyone — are better at being dazzled by celebrity and notoriety than they are at holding grudges. First and foremost, as Weiner’s ascent in the polls suggests, they seem to want to be entertained by a good story, and Rocky rising from the canvas to throw the knockout punch is far better than Marlon Brando’s washed-up Terry Malloy whining that he could have been a contender.
But for many New Yorkers of faith, forgiveness is a central part of a religious life, which is why several people came out to Spitzer’s campaign launch for city comptroller Monday just to touch his hand and say that he could rise above his sins. At least one invoked God and her church.
Among Jews, given the timing, a mood of repentance during the Days of Awe could conceivably help both men with a high-turnout, influential voting group — if their positions on important issues are consistent with the voters’ values.
And, if those voters don’t ask questions about what the candidates have done to earn forgiveness other than offer us another opportunity to vote for them.
Weiner talked extensively in a New York Times Magazine interview about making amends with his wife, Huma Abedin, and the presence of Silda Wall Spitzer in her husband’s campaign, or lack thereof, will be scrutinized for clues about the state of their union. But that process of making amends is overwhelmingly private. The Redemption Tour may also require both men to discuss how they used their time out of office. Weiner became a high-priced consultant to corporations while Spitzer did some media commentary, worked at the family real estate firm and showed no interest in a return to politics until Weiner became the mayoral front-runner.
That opens them up to attacks from opponents that where their downfall ended, the comeback attempt began.
“I don’t think we see all that much from either of these men that would put them in a position where they would have earned a second chance, redeemed themselves from their selfish behavior,” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn told the Daily News earlier this week.
Rabbi David Wolpe, a Jewish Week columnist and spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, says the process of repentance only means taking the past and making it lead to a different future.
“Teshuva is a way of rewriting the story of your life,” he said. “It requires acknowledgment, work and repair. Has someone really changed? Ultimately only the penitent and God can know.”
Putting oneself out there as reformed, he added, invites others to judge one’s sincerity.
“So when Anthony Weiner and Elliot Spitzer run for office, in part on a platform of teshuva, we are forced to evaluate how true each is to his own word,” Rabbi Wolpe continued. “If we believe that they have done teshuva — not that the demons have fled, but they have learned ways of confidently dealing with them — then the past should not be decisive in our vote. A candidate for public office asks for our trust. Our judgment, based on experience and intuition, must be — do we trust them?”
Another rabbi, Hank Sheinkopf, who earns his living as a Democratic political consultant and helped Spitzer get elected attorney general in 1998, noted that one of the ultimate Jewish sages, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as Rambam, considered forgiveness of a repentant person imperative.
“It is a very basic, very personal decision people make,” Sheinkopf said. “The question is, will they?”
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Sheinkopf noted that despite evidence that Bill Clinton cheated on his wife in the early ’90s, he was elected president in 1992 and that other politicians have won elections even following legal troubles.
(More recently and locally, Alan Hevesi in 2006 was re-elected state comptroller after admitting using a state driver for his wife, though he later was forced to leave office. Rep. Charles Rangel was elected in 2010 amid an ethics investigation and remains in office after being censured by colleagues.)
In the days leading up to Yom Kippur, observant Jews recite Selichot, or supplications to prepare for the Day of Judgment. But it remains to be seen if that mood of repentance will translate to a political calculation.
“New York is one of the most religious cities in the country,” Sheinkopf said. “There are more denominations, and a major growth of Orthodox Jews. But we don’t know what people are going to do in the privacy of the voting booth because we’ve never had this kind of situation before.” He noted that forgiveness of a person and voting for that person “may be two completely different things.”
Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of the progressive Kolot Chayenu congregation in Park Slope said it is human nature to consider whether bad judgment in the past is reason to vote against a candidate. "It is clear that all candidates hope we focus as much on the future as on the past," said the rabbi. " But allowing a candidate the benefit of the doubt, while an important Jewish value, is different than offering forgiveness.
"Forgiveness for us Jews, as we are reminded by the practices and prayers of our annual Days of Awe, is part of a process of teshuva, usually translated repentance, but better understood as 'return to one's finest self.' "
Orthodox Jews, who tend to vote in large blocs and generally for the more conservative candidates, seem more likely to vote based on shared interests. In the current election cycle, increased aid to yeshivas and day schools through new public funding streams seems to be a top agenda item, as does resisting the city’s attempt to regulate a controversial circumcision practice. Spitzer was a key advocate of helping yeshivas as attorney general and Weiner is also supportive.
“The sincerity of anyone’s claim of repentance can be judged only by He who ‘sees into hearts,’ not any of us mortals,” says Rabbi Avi Shafran, the spokesman for Agudath Israel of America.
“And so, voters are probably best off just voting for the candidates whose positions they deem best for their communities, cities, states or countries.”
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