To Al Gore's detractors he is many things. An annoying gasbag. A self-righteous know-it-all. A braggart who invented the Internet. A fraud who promoted global warming as an international hoax.
Such exaggerated criticism would explain why many believe the as-yet unsubstantiated account of a masseuse who claims that he forced himself on her sexually in a Portland hotel room.
But this demonization of Gore by his ideological enemies is not only ethically unsound by serves to confuse Gore's true moral failing.
First, the masseuse.
All a person really has in this life is his or her reputation. Once you destroy their name they will never again walk in the streets with their heads held as high. There are many questions revolving around the woman who is accusing Gore, including the fact that she missed three interviews with the Portland police about the alleged incident and the fact that she reportedly asked the National Enquirer for $1 million to tell her story. But amid these serious concerns about her credibility, right-wing news organizations are pouncing on the story because they relish how the High Priest of Environmentalism and proud family man (the alleged incident took place three years before the announcement of his separation from Tipper) is now exposed (no pun intended) as a pious fraud.
But accepting unsubstantiated gossip -- a currency too easily traded in our culture -- is a serious abrogation of moral values. Last week I heard some of my fellow radio hosts condemning CNN's decision to give Elliot Spitzer a TV show, repeatedly referring to him as 'Client Number 9.' Really? Is that all he is? Does America no longer believe in repentance, so that a man who makes one mistake is finished forever, no matter how much he has suffered for that mistake and what repentance he may have undertaken? Is that the kind of society we want to live in? A country where a hero like Stanley McChrystal can speak too candidly in front of a journalist who publishes his private conversations and then thirty years of service to his country under the most dangerous conditions are immediately forgotten?
Al Gore retains the presumption of innocence and those of us who believe in values dare not be complicit in character assassination. What is certainly true, however, is that Gore is a fool for being closeted alone with a woman at 11pm in his hotel room and every husband in America should learn from his mistake. That a public figure did not understand this is deeply troubling. In the Jewish religion a man and woman who are not married are not supposed to be in a locked room together. You might think this extreme but just imagine how much heartache could have been avoided by many innocent people on whom aspersions were cast had they abided by this simple rule.
More importantly, I know of few wives who would feel comfortable with their husbands being secluded in their hotel rooms for something as intimate as a massage late at night. The first rule of marriage is that you don't do things that hurt your spouse and Gore's actions betray a deep insensitivity.
Too often our society, in an effort to appear progressive, dismisses as repressive and Victorian basic rules of sexual propriety that once prevailed between the genders. But have we benefited from the erasure of nearly all sexual boundaries with weekly scandals of the he-said-she-said variety?
But it is not the cavalier attitude toward his wife or the incredible stupidity of a public figure putting himself into a morally compromising position that constitutes Gore's most important moral failing. Rather, it has to do with the environment.
Let me explain. I love nature and I believe with all my heart in protecting the environment. I am never more alive as when I get away from bricks and mortar out into open fields, forests, rivers, and mountains. Every year I take my kids way off the beaten track and as deep into nature as I can immerse them for our summer vacation. I want to teach them reverence for the beauty of creation and how it is a sin to pollute G-d's green earth.
So why aren't I grateful to Al Gore for highlighting the environment? Simply put, he overdid it. Saving a tree, however important, is never as significant as saving a human life. Stopping a rainforest from being decimated is still subordinate to stopping genocide. What Al Gore did was create a level of hysteria that elevated the environment to the foremost moral cause of our time, even as Africans continue to die in Darfur, Zimbabweans continue to be brutalized by Robert Mugabe, Iranians continue to be cut down by Mahmud Ahmedenijad, and Hugo Chavez' reign of terror intensifies by the day in a once-free Venezuela. So many people of goodwill who might have worked to bring clean water to Africa, to stop the scourge of AIDS, or to battle the oppression of women in the Arab world contented themselves with climbing up trees and ensuring they weren't cut down. I love the earth but I refuse to deify it. Human life is still the crown jewel of creation.
Some will say that my argument is specious. How can you have human life without a healthy earth to sustain it? My response is that respecting the earth and reducing pollution is an urgent priority not to mention a G-dly endeavor. Even those who reject global warming as a hoax would have to agree that all that black, belching smoke coming from exhaust pipes and factories can't be good for our air quality or world. But when the hysteria over the environment pushes to the backburner the ending of famine, stopping the spread of AIDS, fighting terrorist regimes, and giving orphans loving homes, our world is thrown into moral confusion. Al Gore convinced the world that the environment was more urgent than even removing Saddam Hussein from power -- an act he condemned and opposed -- even as The New York Times reported that the tyrant killed 800,000 Arabs and 300,00 Kurds. A true leader is one who teaches his people moral priorities.
Yes, the earth has a certain sacredness. But it is still the means to the even higher end of the infinite value of human life.
Shmuley Boteach, America's Rabbi, is host of 'The Shmuley Show' on 77 WABC AM in NYC, and is founder of This World: The Values Network. He has just published 'Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.' Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.