Allow Clinton, a good friend of Israel, to finish term

As I think about sin and forgiveness during the High Holy Days, my mind inevitably turns to President Clinton's problems.

I recall the wonderful Rosh Hashanah service that Bill and Hillary Clinton attended with my family on Martha's Vineyard in 1994. The president asked me to explain the meaning of several of the prayers, and to transliterate some words so that he could sing along. He then spoke from the bimah about his love for the Jewish people and for Israel.

I thanked him for having appointed two distinguished justices to the Supreme Court, and I recall his look of surprise, suggesting the religious background of the appointees was not even a factor in his decision.

Indeed, he has appointed Jews to positions throughout the government. President Clinton has been as strong a supporter of Jewish causes, Jewish appointments, and the state of Israel as any incumbent in the history of the White House. He has been our friend.

Now our friend has tzuris (trouble). He has sinned, acknowledged his sin, sought our forgiveness, and asked our help in remaining in office to complete his term. I intend to give all the help I can, and I urge others to do likewise.

Central to our heritage is the concept of compassion, or "rachmanut" (rachmunis, as my grandmother would have said). Yes, we insist on justice, indeed our Bible commands us: "tzedek, tzedek tirdoff" — justice, justice, thou shalt pursue.

Our sages asked why the Bible repeats the word justice. One beautiful answer is that there are two kinds of justice: the first demands retaliation; the second permits mercy and encourages forgiveness. In this season of repentance and forgiveness, I urge my friends in the Jewish community to focus on this second meaning.

On the eve of Yom Kippur we will all turn to our neighbors and ask them to forgive us, as we forgive them. The tradition tells us that we must ask three times. If by the third time, we are denied forgiveness, the onus shifts to he who will not forgive.

President Clinton has asked us for forgiveness more than three times. He has not sinned against us, indeed he has been righteous toward us, yet some within the community are withholding forgiveness. I urge you to reconsider.

Several years ago, a great Chassidic sage who I know but will not name, was told that a public official who had been extremely supportive of Jewish causes, and an otherwise excellent office holder, had committed a sexual sin under Jewish law. He told his followers that although he could never justify the sin, he would nonetheless urge them to support the public official if that official's public actions were otherwise consistent with Jewish values. He pointed to King David as an example of a leader who had committed sexual sins but who was forgiven and went on to greatness.

I am not suggesting the kind of parochialism that my wonderful grandmother always urged. When I would tell her the Brooklyn Dodgers had won, she would respond in her thickly accented Yinglish, "Yeah, but was it good or bad for the Jews?"

President Clinton has not only been good for the Jews, he has not only been good for America, he has been good for the entire world. Were he to be forced out of office, a terrible precedent would be established; a kind of sexual McCarthyism would be legitimated.

Our delicate system of checks and balances would be damaged if a single prosecutor could force the president out of office by issuing a report detailing his sexual misconduct. Yes, this case is about sex. Whenever efforts have been made to destroy people because of their sexual behavior, it has always been claimed that it is not about sex, but rather "national security," "character" or "honesty."

That is what J. Edgar Hoover claimed when he tried to hound Martin Luther King Jr. out of the civil rights movement by taping his adulterous escapades.

That is what Sen. Joe McCarthy claimed when he used sex to extort cooperation from former communists.

And that is what Kenneth Starr is claiming as he tries to drive President Clinton from office by issuing a report calculated to cause maximum humiliation of the president.

President Clinton has been humiliated, his family life has been affected, but his ability to govern remains strong.

Recently, I spent a semester in Israel. During that time, I gave several lectures about the Starr-Clinton issue. I did not encounter a single Israeli — from the left, right or center — who wanted to see President Clinton removed (even though Vice President Gore is an equally strong supporter of Israel). There are few other issues on which there is so broad a consensus in Israel.

But it is Americans who will decide President Clinton's fate. The vast majority of Americans — of all faiths, races and backgrounds — approve of President Clinton's job performance and want to see him complete his term. If you agree, as I do, let your elected representatives know that in the forgiving spirit of the season, we want Bill Clinton to continue his important work as our president.