September 10th, 2013
02:22 PM ET
Opinion by Jeffrey Weiss, Special to CNN
(CNN) - A day before the start of the Jewish High Holy Days, New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner was out asking voters to judge him favorably in Tuesday's election.
He ran into a bit of unwelcome moral judgment, as well.
One of the city's best-known Jewish politicians got into a heated religious argument at the Weiss Kosher Bakery in an Orthodox neighborhood of Brooklyn.
The argument - replayed and reported on cable news - raised questions about how the Jewish tradition deals with transgression, judgment, repentance and rebuke.
Those are all prime concerns for the days around Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance, which begins Friday night.
Weiner, of course, is the former congressman forced to resign after being caught in a scandal not covered by the rabbinic sages: digital infidelity.
After a year of relatively private life, he decided to run for mayor of New York City, only to see his campaign slowed by revelations that his graphic sexting continued long after he’d said he’d stopped.
But his campaign, incredibly, didn't stop.
READ MORE: Weiner: Hate media? Love me
I’ll say only this in Weiner’s support: He has enough chutzpah for an army. (Leo Rosten’s famous definition: Chutzpah is the attribute possessed by a man who, having killed his parents, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.)
So the day before Rosh Hashana, Weiner wanders into a bakery in Brooklyn. The first three minutes of the campaign stop, recorded on video by a blogger, is merely and painfully surreal.
Weiner is trying to do the normal candidate glad-hand thing and none of the customers initiate a conversation or even make eye contact. They look at him, look away.
I would bet many of them were thinking “A shanda fur die goyim.”
The Yiddish translates literally as “a scandal for the non-Jews.” In the days and places where Jews were attacked for no reason, the worst sin was a transgression by a Jew that became widely known and gave anti-Semites an excuse to tar the entire Jewish community.
That’s still a live concept for the Orthodox. How did Weiner expect to be received in that bakery?
As the candidate leaves, one man in the shop can no longer hold his tongue: “You’re a real scumbag, Anthony Weiner.”
Weiner keeps walking, but responds: “Very nice in front of kids. Very nice. That’s a charming guy right there.”
And then the critic, later identified as Saul Kessler commits an error of his own, saying that Weiner “married an Arab.” Actually, Weiner's wife, Huma Abedin, was born in Michigan. Her father was from India, her mother from Pakistan. Sure, she’s Muslim. But most of the world’s Muslims aren’t Arabs.
READ MORE: Is Huma Abedin blaming herself?
Kessler and Weiner have a heated exchange, but Abedin’s ethnic heritage doesn’t come up. Weiner challenges the man’s right to judge him. Kessler tells Weiner that he’s a bad example and should stay out of the public eye.
“What rabbi taught you that you’re my judge,” Weiner demands. “You know who judges me? Not you. You don’t get to judge me because you have shown no sign you are superior to me. And you are not my God.”
Is Weiner right in saying that only God can judge him?
From a religious standpoint there’s a long Jewish tradition calling for those who transgress religious norms to be judged and rebuked by others in the community. (The Christian concept of “judge not lest ye be judged” has nothing to do with Judaism.)
Exactly how and where it should be done – whether the right place was a shouting argument in the middle of a bakery – is more of a grey zone.
As the saying goes, if you question three Jews you’ll get four opinions. But let's look at a few of the most common interpretations.
Let's start with a famous passage from the Torah, in the book of Leviticus: “Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him.”
The Talmud has a long passage chewing over what that means. Here’s a nugget: “How do we know that if a man sees something unseemly in his neighbor, he is obliged to reprove him? Because it is said: Thou shalt surely rebuke.”
So maybe Kessler was right?
But the biblical passage also seems to say that the correction must be done without incurring your own guilt – done in a proper manner.
And another Talmudic passage says “judge every person on the positive side.” Which some rabbis interpret as saying that you should always give someone whatever benefit of the doubt you can.
There are other instructions that rebukes should be done in private, if possible, and always in a way that minimizes humiliation of the person being corrected.
So maybe Kessler was wrong? Definitely with the “scumbag” line.
But what if this is the only chance he’ll have to talk to Weiner? Maybe that justifies his verbal attack in that place and time?
And by putting himself in front of the public to be judged, by walking into the bakery, maybe Weiner invited this sort of judgment?
And while Kessler says some nasty things about Weiner, he also makes some specific and potentially constructive suggestions about how Weiner’s behavior could be better.
So maybe that part is OK?
But then there’s another whole Jewish tradition called “loshon hara” (literally “evil tongue”) that covers what one should and should not say about other people.
Under this teaching, passing along negative stories is generally wrong – even if the stories are true. So maybe Kessler’s public rebuke violated that idea?
But there’s a loophole in loshon hara: You’re allowed to pass along the information if it’s important for others to know it.
And maybe the other people in the bakery, some of whom were voters, needed to know the details of Weiner’s transgressions?
Here’s what we know for sure: The voters’ secular judgment will be passed down on Tuesday.
As for the judgment of the Jewish community? The annual Yom Kippur service includes a public confession where the entire congregation repeatedly ‘fesses up to imperfections.
The “Al Chet” prayer starts with this:
“For the sin which we have committed before you under duress or willingly.
That seems to cover both Weiner and Kessler. And most of us, as well. As the prayer says, “For all these, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.”
Jeffrey Weiss is an award-winning reporter in Dallas. The views expressed in this column belong to him.
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