The irony of Jackie Kennedy, whose husband won few awards for marital fidelity, calling Martin Luther King, Jr. a phony because of FBI wiretaps showing that the preacher cavorted with other women, is rich.
To be sure, a grieving widow just 34 years old can be forgiven for invective against a living legend who that year won the Nobel Peace Prize while her own husband was lying prematurely in his grave. But the former first lady's comments bear scrutiny for another reason altogether.
Ever since humans began worshiping other humans as deities, they have held out perfection as the singular standard of greatness. Just as deities have no flaws, the same must perforce apply to men and women of distinction. Thus, Jesus, in order to be worshiped, had to be elevated away from his human frailty and vulnerable Jewishness into a Christian supergod who had no inclination to evil and who willingly and fearlessly laid down his life so that we mortals might be absolved of sin. The humanity of Christ was therefore lost with profound implications for a Church that until recent times has not always acted humanely or compassionately.
The Catholic Church insists still today on papal infallibility and refuses to acknowledge the sins of modern popes like Pius XII, who remained silent through all the years of the holocaust and never once condemned the wholesale slaughter of Europe's Jews. It's as if any concession to human failings would undermine the authority of the Vicar of Christ on earth when, for many believers, precisely the opposite is true.
But something of the same tendency exists even in the characterizations of our own founding fathers. When I was a boy they told me that Washington chopped down a cherry tree as a child but confessed it to his father since he never told a lie, and that Lincoln walked many miles to return an overpaid penny to a shopkeeper. Both stories were fabrications, designed to convey the perfection of the great men of the Republic so that we might revere them more.
What this fraudulent emphasis on perfection actually did was not only make these men inaccessible but also predictable, boring, and monolithic. They glared at us condescendingly as marble men and statues from their high perch in history's pantheon. It wasn't until the late '90s when new biographies of the founding fathers -- like American Sphinx by Joseph Ellis, which revealed that Thomas Jefferson had a sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings that bore him six children -- suddenly brought them to life in full color, foibles and all. Their frailties and failings lent them a moral complexity with which we could identify. His Excellency, by the same author, portrayed George Washington as an ambitious young officer seeking wealth and prestige who consciously courted Virginia's wealthiest widow in order to join the landed gentry. Most of these books not only became best-sellers but they actually endeared the fathers to today's citizens. Turns out that Washington actually got cold at Valley Forge. Still, he soldiered on.
This is a valuable lesson for President Obama, whose public image of near perfection (his only flaw, apparently, is that he smokes) makes him come across as aloof, professorial, detached, and cool. The people seemed to have preferred Bill Clinton for being, as one of his chief advisors described him, 'all too human.'
When it came to her own husband, however, Jackie Kennedy took the opposite approach. She wanted the country to see her husband as a near-perfect icon -- a fallen god -- and created the myth of Camelot. Whether she was unaware of her husband's weakness for women or simply chose to close her eyes, she gifted the nation an impeccable and glamorous martyr to mourn and cherish.
It is not surprising, therefore, that she denigrated the great civil rights leader as a fraud because by the standards of godlike perfection he was far from perfect.
I have long lamented the fact that the Christian emphasis of perfection has won out over the Jewish insistence on struggle. The main difference between the two faiths in general and the Hebrew Bible versus the New Testament in particular is that Christians define righteousness through perfection while Judaism defines it through struggle. The Torah has not a single perfect man or woman. Abraham is criticized for his treatment of Ishmael. Jacob favors a child which leads to enormous family dysfunction. Joseph invites jealously by vainly bragging to his brothers about his dreams of grandeur, and King David capitulates to sinful weakness in the matter of Bathsheba. So why are these people heroes when they are so imperfect? Because, amid a flawed nature they struggled mightily with their humanity to lead lives of extraordinary devotion to G-dliness and goodness. When you fight for something it makes it all the more valuable. And the real battle is not, as in myths of yore, against sea-monsters or dragons but against our own inner demons. The Talmud expresses it best when it says that an olive only releases its oil when it is pressed.
Had Martin Luther King been perfect it would have been predictable that he stand up to the murderous taunts of the Klan and the vicious attack dogs of Bull Connor. But now that we know that he was at times weak, his achievements as a man who dismantled the monstrous injustice of segregation becomes all the more wondrous. We now know that the fearlessness he demonstrated in going to jails controlled by southern racists repeatedly was not intuitive but acquired through long, hard battles with his nature. And because we know this, we, the mere mortals who follow in his footsteps, have little excuse not to summon similar courage in battling injustices in our own times. In short, Martin Luther King was a man in full and, amid personal shortcomings, bequeathed us a nation that is infinitely more righteous and just.
Jackie Kennedy was an icon of beauty, charm, and feminine dignity. But beneath the veneer of near perfection was a vulnerable woman who suffered unspeakable loss. Few of us have a right to judge a wife whose husband's brain matter was sprinkled on her by an assassin's bullet. But in reading her disparaging comments of nearly half-a-century ago of one of the greatest Americans that ever lived, it is important for us to remember that suffering does not necessarily convey wisdom and youthfulness and glamor do not necessarily grant insight. Those qualities would come later to Jackie as she grew in understanding and experience. But it took a life of exposure to human frailty and weakness and courage to finally appreciate the value of struggle.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's new book, Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself (Wiley) will be published later this month, followed by Kosher Jesus (Gefen), which recounts the Jewish values and teachings that were central to the founder of Christianity. Follow him Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
This column is written in memory of Machla Debakarov.
Follow Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RabbiShmuley