Author: Geffen, Rela Mintz
Date published: June 16, 2011
One only feels pride or shame, embarrassment or jubilation as a result of the actions of another if there is a familial relationship. That is why, in his groundbreaking studies of Jewish identity, the late social psychologist Simon Herman of Hebrew University used the following types of questions to test the connection between American and Israeli Jewish teenagers and the Jewish people: "When a Jew suffers in Moscow, I feel ..." and "Do you feel like a survivor of the Shoah?"
How many times have you listened for the Nobel Prize winners to see if any might be Jewish? Did you cringe during the Madoff scandal?
This feeling of familial interdependence, historically called Arevut by the rabbis and being a MOT (member of the tribe) by many American Jews, is a critical measure of the strength of Jewish peoplehood.
Sometimes this feeling can grow uncomfortable. When powerful figures in the United States and France evoke embarrassment, we flinch and hope it will go away. But whether it's in a Tweet or in a Jewish newspaper, encountering the news of Dominique StraussKahn or Anthony Weiner proves unavoidable.
In the case of U.S. Rep Weiner (D-N. Y), it cut particularly close because so many Jews considered him a hero fighting for the underprivileged. The case of Strauss-Kahn, a possible French presidential candidate who allegedly engaged in brutish behavior with a chambermaid, is horrifying, though it didn't hit as close to home.
But does the behavior of such individuals have anything to do with the fact that they both had a brit milah? Just a few months ago, we yearned to attribute their success to their being Jewish. Does this mean that we have to do the same when they embarrass us?
Are Weiner and Eliot Spitzer equal to Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards, John Ensign and Mark Foley? Jews, especially Jewish men, are overrepresented in government, given that we are less than 2 percent of the American population. So it would be strange if none of the recent miscreants was Jewish. Still, many of us wish that our public leaders who happen to be Jewish would reflect the best of our tradition.
Unless, of course, this issue has more to do with gender than religion. Setting DSK aside, since his alleged deeds are not foibles but felonies and he's from Europe, a question comes to mind: What is it about the way we are raising American sons, in many cases our best and brightest, that imbues some of them with a sense that power carries the right to take advantage of others, particularly, but not only, women? Are the consequences of their behavior exaggerated because of the 24-hour news cycle, the spectacular antics portrayed on reality TV and the increasingly invasive quality of social media?
In earlier eras, the standards of public behavior for leaders was to be above suspicion. Today, as the separation between public and private has been eroded, we know about their foibles as well as their misguided and often pathetic attempts to cover them up.
Citizens of other countries often accuse Americans of being puritanical, unable to separate out the public and private lives of leaders, especially as it regards sex. I don't agree. Perhaps we're too hard on public figures. Certainly, they're allowed to be human, to apologize, to do teshuvah and regain the respect they earlier took for granted.
Still, many times it is behavior outside of the spotlight that illuminates a person's true character. I don't know what has caused the misbehavior that has burgeoned during the last few years, but Fm certain Jewish identity is not at its root. One can't know these things for sure, but perhaps the omni-present cult of celebrity and tolerance of - even admiration for - the kind of anti-social and immoral behavior that pervades our culture requires a rejoinder from us.
An effective response would entail more deliberate cultivation and focus on positive role models in our homes, schools and, distinctly, in the public square.
ReIa Mintz Geffen, a sociologist of religion, is the former president of Baltimore Hebrew University and an adjunct professor at Gratz College.