“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?