Did General Petraeus Have to Resign?

Rabbi Moffic looks at the moral questions surrounding the resignation of David Petraeus


“Who is strong? One who conquers his own impulses."  Ethics of the Sages, 4:1

David Petraeus was hailed as the greatest soldier of his generation. His abrupt resignation as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency has led to more questions than answers. How could someone renowned for his discipline make such an impulsive choice?  Can he be forgiven? Did he need to resign?

A Lack of Discipline

When Bill Clinton admitted to extra-marital affairs, few were surprised. It was not out of character.

For General Petraeus, however, it went against the image most had of him. From his five-mile daily runs in Afghanistan to his detailed analysis of what worked in combatting militias, he conveyed buttoned-up discipline.

Yet, as all religions teach, appearances often conceal more than they reveal. In Hebrew the word for deception is begidut. The word for clothing has is begedim, which comes from the same root letters. How we appear does not always reflect who we are. The forces that motivate our behavior are complex and rarely fit easy categories.

Furthermore, as psychologists often teach, we sometimes do not even know ourselves. People make decisions they know are wrong, and afterwards wonder how in the world they could have done so. I suspect this may be true of General Petraeus.

Can He Be Forgiven?

Of course. Even as investigators determine whether he violated military or civil law, General Petraeus can find forgiveness. The speed and manner in which he does so depends upon his sense of contrition, his self-evaluation, and relationship with his family.

Indeed, Judaism holds out the potential for forgiveness for all those who seek it with sincerity and resolution. Faith and forgiveness go hand in hand.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it, “Forgiveness demands real change on the part of two people. The perpetrator needs the courage to acknowledge his or her wrong. And the victim needs the courage to let go of animosity and revenge. It’s the supreme test of human freedom, and it’s one of the greatest gifts Judaism and Christianity brought to the moral imagination of humankind.”

Did He Need to Resign?

I think so. First, he believed he needed to do so, and that understanding may reflect his own assessment of what he needs to find reconciliation and forgiveness.

Second, in Jewish law, leaders are held to the highest standards. While having an affair may not disqualify someone from doing a job well, the loss of credibility or reputation affects one’s influence. What a leader does communicates much more than what a leader says.

Some may suggest that General Patraeus had such a unique set of skills that accepting his resignation undermines American security. While I am not qualified to assess this view from the perspective of the military, I can say that America’s greatest security does not lay with one particular individual or insitution. It ultimately rests in our sense of right and wrong, and the moral framework we sustain.

As Alexis de Tocqueville put it so beautifully 200 years ago, “I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there; in the fertile fields and boundless prairies, and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits, aflame with righteousness, did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

What Do You Think? Did General Petraeus Need to Resign? 

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Chnaridr November 13, 2012 at 09:26 PM
I respectfully disagree that he needed to resign. Sure he might be held to a higher standard but infidelity is only an immoral law and he broke no laws, no national security was breached nor was anyone hurt in which he supervised. He followed all protocols and came to a conclusion that he would be guilty either by a court of law or in the court of society. Its time we change that law and or its jurors thoughts. I truly think this country is way too preoccupied with sex and its belief that it is an evil act. This could not be further from the truth. Albeit an extra marital affair may be immoral in this case it did not impede his job at hand, in fact he was probably the best at it in several decades. Let's face it people have sex and sometimes its not in the best of situations. Its time we accept that fact and accept the fact that some people are immoral or as the Rabbi writes, forgiveable! What if we apply this standard to everyone? Congress would be near empty, pro sports teams wouldn't field enough players and unemployment rates would soar to perhaps above 50%. And using the logic of an affair, I question why isn't all sex criminalized in this fashion including sex with your spouse? It's high time we accept sexuality and not repress it
Rabbi Evan Moffic November 13, 2012 at 10:42 PM
Bob, I think it depends on the way his action affects his ability to lead. He may have concluded it impeded his ability, and it may have been cause for diminishing of his reputation and influence in the intelligence community. Morality does influence public life, whether we want it to or not, in a way different from sports or business. I think it's part of American culture, different from France or other European nations.
Just My Thoughts November 14, 2012 at 02:56 PM
Well stated Rabbi It was disheartening to hear Bob's comments, but unfortunately that is the thought of many Americans today. "just accept that little sin', 'it was just a little white lie', 'what he doesn't know won't hurt him'. You see all of these lenience’s are the beginning of a fall. It starts with one thing you overlook, then another and so on, until we have accepted a host of undesirable behaviors and unethical practices. As quoted in the article, America is great because she is ‘good’, and if America ever ceases to be ‘good’, America will cease to be great. Our leaders have to be the example, they except high-powered responsibilities and along with that are expectations. Just as in parenting, you lead by example.


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