Years ago, as a rabbinical student, I was one of a group of rabbinical students who visited an African American seminary in Atlanta. My fellow rabbinical students and I expected an uplifting weekend of interfaith sharing like we had experienced in visits to other (largely white) seminaries. We were unprepared for the raw anger directed against us as Jews. We were blamed for “Jewish exploitation of blacks.” We heard stereotypical charges against Jewish pawnbrokers and Jewish landlords, the middlemen who represented institutionalized oppression in the ghetto. Having lived in the buildings of exploitive landlords myself, I could understand their anger against such landlords (not all of whom were Jewish). But I could not understand why these students held so tightly to their anger against all Jews or why they transferred such anger to us. One of the more self-reflective students explained it this way: African Americans were angry that we Jews could succeed in America where they could not because we could pass as whites whereas they could not.
I have thought a lot about those interactions since the recent brouhaha over presidential hopeful Barack Obama’s relationship with his controversial black liberation pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
It may be a twist of fate that Eliot Spitzer faced his downfall a few days before Purim, the Jewish holiday that entertains how people are often not what they appear. Spitzer appeared to be someone who defended and upheld the law of the land. He was known as a ruthless attorney general. Now we know it was all a mask.
Spitzer’s sin was not only that he cheated on his wife. He also cheated on the people of New York who voted him into office as governor to uphold the laws of the land.
My Dad had a terrific insight on the lessons learned from the Spitzer fiasco and the rise and tarnishing of his successor, David Paterson. In Ethics of our Fathers we are told that Hillel “once saw a man’s skull floating on a body of water: whereupon he said: Because you drowned others, you shall be drowned and ultimately those who drowned you they themselves will also be drowned.” (2:7)
There were far too many people gleefully cheering at Eliot Spitzer’s downfall. They were mimicking Spitzer’s own glee, but ultimately the ones who had the biggest joke played on them were the people themselves. For only a few hours after the honorable David Paterson took the oath over the Bible and was inaugurated in as Governor of New York, he admitted to having his own infidelity problems. And so who really is the joke on? Of course Paterson’s and Spitzer’s situations are radically different but the point remains the same: When we go on witch hunts the hunts will eventually come to our own doorsteps.
In this Jewish season of farce, a lecherous ruler (King Achashverosh) is mocked for his desire to have a pretty woman (Queen Vashti) dance for his court wearing nothing but the royal crown. Truth, of course, is even stranger than fiction, as another lecherous ruler (Eliot Spitzer) has been mocked for his desire to have pretty women (the ladies of Emperors Club VIP) go a bit further than dancing. Spitzer’s behavior is contemptible and, quite frankly, I think he has richly earned the abundant scorn being heaped upon him from all corners. In all the media frenzy to cover this juicy story from as many angles as possible, however, there has been one aspect in particular that has intrigued us here at Virtual Talmud–the question of whether prostitution should in fact be criminalized or whether the type of establishment that Eliot Spitzer, um, patronized, should be legal and regulated (one of the best such analyses is at Slate.com).
Let me start by saying clearly that this isn’t a question of whether Spitzer’s own behavior is in any way excusable or appropriate; it’s not. The man repeatedly committed adultery and ultimately humiliated his wife and teenage daughters, exposing the hypocrisy of a holier-than-thou public figure who was blatantly violating the law.