The common denominator of Jewish sexual scandals
At least five of the most notorious and sensational national sexual stories of the modern era belong to Jews: The Monica Lewinsky story of the 1990s; the quickly forgotten and tragic Chandra Levy affair in 2001; the duplicitous life of Governor Eliot Spitzer (who prosecuted prostitution rings, only to use them himself); the disturbing pedophilia of Jared Fogel, disgraced Subway pitchman, and now the libidinous Anthony Weiner once again creeping into national life.
To be sure, Jews have no monopoly on national or political sex scandals. Tiger Woods, we learned, was very much scoring off the links. Speaker Dennis Hastert was once third in line to the presidency, and then served time for predatory homosexual behavior on boys during his salad days as a wrestling coach in Illinois. And perhaps one of the more heart wrenching stories of recent times was the lurid details of disgraced Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, who will die in prison for rapes of children that went unreported for years.
But the typical American sexual scandal is neither the sexual excesses of a Tiger Woods nor the pedophilia of a Jerry Sandunsky. It is an extramarital affair between two consenting adults. This was true of North Carolinian Senator Jonathan Edwards, who fathered a child with a woman not his wife, and South Carolinian Governor Mark Sanford, who discovered that his soulmate was not his wife but rather a South American woman. This was true of General David Petraeus, who liked his biography so much he slept with his biographer, and this has been true of an array of political figures including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Gary Hart, Speaker Newt Gingrich, and perhaps two dozen other congressional figures now of lesser name recognition. (Some of these figures were guilty of something Americans sometimes rightly find as ugly as adultery and that is hypocrisy: Gingrich was having an affair while calling for Bill Clinton’s ouster, and Jackson was having an affair while dispensing spiritual advice to Clinton when the Lewinsky news made headlines.)
The typical Jewish-American sexual scandal involves an extra layer of transgression and temptation: an age taboo. Both Lewinsky and Levy were intoxicated by and having sexual liaisons with powerful men old enough to be their fathers. They may have been borrowing from the playbook of Amy Fisher, the half-Jewish, half-Italian “Lolita of Long Island,” whose notoriety with Joey Buttafuoco also involved age taboo in the 1990s when she was 17. Eliot Spitzer was not having an emotional involvement with a middle aged woman: he was shacking up in tony Manhattan hotels for physical excursions with young women only a few years older than his then prep school aged daughters. Jared Fogel’s famous line “the younger, the better” will always color his extremely lurid double life of child pornography and child prostitution, and now Anthony Weiner, we learned, was sexting not just adults but at least one 15 year old girl. There is a pattern of Jewish national sex scandals. And this pattern is reinforced when we pause to recall that Woody Allen married his stepdaughter.
If there is this pattern—that Jewish sexual excess involves not just the temptation of another contemporary but the added component of even greater forbidden fruit—we need, as a community, to ask ourselves why. We need—with ourselves, our elders, our rabbis, our teachers, our psychologists, and our social workers—to understand how trends in American Jewish assimilation have led to these prurient scandals. A healthy sexuality involves a partner someone can be seen with in public; all of the scandals involved deeply shameful experiences behind closed doors. In non-Orthodox Jewish life, it often feels like the once sacred value of modesty, became replaced by a desire to prove to the world that we could be as brazen, depraved, and pornographic as the non-Jewish population. A bar mitzvah might have sexy go-go dancers to get the kids to shake their boogie; chaperones are asked to make sure dancing does not turn into groin grinding for 7th graders (or that more salacious activity does not take place elsewhere). The idea that Jews are not participants in embarrassing sex scandals no longer holds water—we are likely perceived often enough as the instigators of such scandals, which reinforces Anti-Semitic stereotypes. Certainly Fogel’s actions gave fodder to Anti-Semites who paint Jews as sexually predatory. Modesty is something we now might associate with Sikh Americans or other groups that you simply don’t see, at least yet, as centerpieces of American public sexual gossip. Lewinsky contributed to a constitutional crisis, and “pervert Weiner,” with Hillary Clinton emails on his laptop, was used in anti-Clinton ads days before her Trumpian downfall.
Why are these scandals different from all other scandals? Each of the named scandals involved an unhealthy search for a parent or an unhealthy role as a parent. Something deeply woven into Jewish family structures, mores, and culture has led to the additional age factor of Jewish sexual scandals. It is something we must confront. The secular values of indulgence, excess, “me first,” and “whatever I can get away with” have eclipsed modesty. Jewish parenting often over-emphasizes grades and academic success while continued sexual dialogue—past a solitary explanation of the birds and the bees or of birth control—takes a back seat. Boundaries are not perceived. It is time to take great moral inventory of what is causing this pattern, to ask ourselves if the acceptance of assimilated sexual values such as “boys will be boys,” or “kids will be kids,” or “pornography is just good clean fun” (when it is linked to the trafficking and exploitation of girls and women, addictions, the harm or destruction of marriage and relationships, and potentially an undercutting of society by nefarious actors such as Russia, from whence many pornography sites originate) is how we want to proceed in the 21st century, and what wisdom in Torah can be reclaimed to foster a healthier Jewish sexuality—and prevent more Jews from becoming living room names of national disgrace.
Richard Ries is a former Jewish educator and a writer in Washington, D.C.