Sympathy for the Devil: Anthony Weiner and the Ten Days of Repentance

I’d like to talk about what Anthony Weiner did and my personal reaction to it, which many of you may find surprising. From there, we may have a takeaway that we can use this High Holiday season.

I have to start out by saying that I was never a fan of former congressman Anthony Weiner. He wasn’t “my guy” as a politician. I never voted for him (which I couldn’t have done even if I had wanted to because I don’t live in his district) nor did I support him. Nevertheless, I thought what happened to him in 2011 was wrong.

In May of 2011, Weiner sent a selfie of a sexual nature to a woman who followed him on Twitter. While he initially denied sending the image, claiming that his account had been hacked, he eventually admitted that he had engaged in “sexting” relationships with six women. Because of the scandal, Weiner was forced to resign from Congress.

While I don’t approve of what he did, I think the punishment wasn’t commensurate. What he did wasn’t illegal or unethical (except insofar as his wife feels about it), it was just dumb. Both before and since, politicians have gotten away with far worse: corruption, tax evasion, sexual misconduct, obstruction of justice, and more. To use one example fairly contemporary with Weiner’s scandal, in 2010, Representative Charles Rangel was found guilty of 11 ethics violations by the House Ethics Committee and censured. As a result, Rangel stepped down as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee but as a politician, he’s still going strong.

The guy with bad judgment was driven out of office while the guy with 11 ethics violations is still in office 16 years later. That just seems off to me. In a normal world, Weiner would have finished his term and put up with six-months of being the butt of jokes on late-night TV (exacerbated no doubt by the unfortunate confluence of his surname with his indiscretion). When reelection time rolled around, his constituents would have decided whether his bad judgment was a deal-breaker or not. Instead, Weiner got the heave-ho.

As readers are no doubt aware, the story does not end here. In 2013, Weiner tried to rehabilitate his political career by running for mayor of New York City. His campaign was quickly derailed by a second sexting scandal, which also made public his pseudonym, “Carlos Danger.” At this point, a wise person packs it in and goes home.

And yet, it still doesn’t end there. Fast forward to last month. In August, 2016, Weiner was caught in sexting scandal number three. His judgment in this area seems only to have gotten worse, as Weiner’s young son was also visible in the photograph. Third time is most definitely not the charm, as Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, quickly announced their separation.

As I write this, Weiner is currently being investigated for allegedly sexting a 15-year-old girl. Now that ventures into the realm of crime and, if true, there must be repercussions. (Hold that thought.)

Believe it or not, I can’t help but feel sorry for Weiner. Not disgust, revulsion, ire or derision, just pity. Clearly, this is a man with a problem. He’s lost his career, his wife, his family, and the respect of the public, but he just can’t stop himself. In this, he’s like an alcoholic. If a drinker loses their job and family, ending up on the street, you pity them even though they brought this on themselves. We recognize that there’s a point where they lost control and the addiction took over. (It must be noted that this does not absolve one of responsibility for his actions. Just as an alcoholic must pay the penalty if he has a DUI, Weiner should suffer the consequences if he sexted with a minor.)

The Talmud (Kesubos 67b) discusses the case of a person who has money but refuses to spend any of it, preferring to starve. The question is whether or not the community is responsible to feed such a person. Bottom line, we are not responsible to support someone who has the means to support himself – if we were, there would simply be too much potential for abuse. But you’ll note that it’s still a discussion. We recognize that one who has money and refuses to spend it on food has a serious, self-destructive problem. That’s how I see Anthony Weiner.

People can be really judgmental and condescending about Weiner, calling him pervert, degenerate, and worse. Me? I just can’t conjure up the energy to be angry at him or to feel holier-than-thou. I just feel sorry for him because he’s on a self-destructive downward spiral and he doesn’t seem capable of stopping. That’s just sad.

This line of reasoning doesn’t just apply to disgraced politicians. We are in the time of the yomim noraim – the “Days of Awe.” Before approaching God seeking atonement, we ask one another to forgive our misdeeds and indiscretions. Each of us has no doubt both wronged others and been wronged by others. When asked for forgiveness – and perhaps even when not asked – it might be helpful to reframe others’ offenses against us as the result of their own human shortcomings – based on greed, anger, jealousy, etc. – rather than as premeditated personal attacks on us. (In my experience, most interpersonal conflict is based on human weakness rather than overt malice.) Remember, the way we judge others is the way that we ourselves will be judged. I know that I, for one, would much rather be judged for weakness than for malfeasance. If Bob’s offense against Joe is the result of shortcomings in his own character traits, which Bob is working on improving, it’s a lot easier for Joe to forgive him and perhaps even to support him in his efforts.

“Hanlon’s razor” states, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” The same is true of human weakness. During these Ten Days of Repentance, let’s try to remember that about one another, whether or not we’ve served in Congress.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.