The Monica Lewinsky scandal and resulting impeachment debate have occupied the nation's time for more than a year now. But it is remarkable that the central issues in the impeachment trial were discussed centuries earlier by Rabbinic scholars.
In the book of Samuel, we learn two stories. Around the year 900 BC, King Saul was the first Jewish king in a monarchy that lasted only two years. Unfortunately, his rule was characterized by many misdeeds, but one in particular was the "fatal mistake" that warranted his "impeachment." The Prophet Samuel stripped him of his monarchy for disregarding a direct commandment to kill the wicked Amalekite King Agag. (Amalek was regarded to be the center of evil; King Saul's refusal to kill him was an act comparable to sparing a Hitler in our time.) King Saul died shortly thereafter.
On the other hand, King David, the paradigm of the Jewish monarchy, also sinned, by taking Bathsheba, another man's wife. He committed adultery with her, impregnated her and then attempted to cover up the affair by ordering her husband home from the battle front. When Uriah refused to leave on the grounds that he had no right to furlough, King David had him thrown into the worst battle, where Uriah was killed. When the prophet Nathan admonished him, King David accepted his punishment, however, and he was not stripped of his kingship.
How is this possible? Rabbi Joseph Albo, a 15th century Spanish philosopher, drew a distinction between the actions of Saul and David. Malbim, a 19th century scholar, cites Albo's commentary:
"For the sin of Saul was in a matter pertaining to the kingdom, and David's sin was not in an area that pertained to matters of state. We can explain this by an analogy. Let us say that two scribes sinned--one committed a sexual misdeed while the other produced false documents. The law is that the [scribe who committed the sexual wrong] is punished and reinstated, but the one who sinned within his very occupation is barred from ever being a scribe again. David sinned as a man and not as a king, but Saul sinned in a commandment that he was given in his capacity as king."
Perhaps Rabbi Albo's distinction goes to the heart of what constitutes "high crimes and misdemeanors." Others might argue that lying in a judicial proceeding might reach Albo's threshold of "in the nature of the monarchy itself."
There are certainly those who mitigate what David did, who say he didn't actually commit adultery (Jewish soldiers gave their wives bills of divorce before going into battle) or murder (when Uriah refused to obey his king, he was guilty of treason and thus deserved to die). But that is not Albo's distinction, nor is it that of a selection in the Babylonian Talmud in which Rabbi Huna wonders that "Saul erred in one matter and it was reckoned against him. David erred in two matters" and it was not held against him.
Maharsha (Rabbi Samuel Edels, a 16th century scholar) explains the difference as follows: If a king, when confronted with his own wrongdoing, admits the sin, then God will "be on his side" and not remove him from office. But if that monarch denies his sin, God has little faith in such a person's capability to hold high office, and he is terminated. King David covered up his sins, but when caught, admitted them. King Saul, however, blamed his blunder in foreign policy on the Jewish people in general and took no initial responsibility for his insubordination.
No one is suggesting that biblical kings, whom Jews believe were chosen by God, can be compared to presidents chosen by mere mortals. Nor am I implying that there are not many other complex factors to consider when studying the lives of King David and King Saul, not to mention President Clinton. But it is fascinating to realize that when one seeks to cite precedent for the Clinton impeachment trial, we can actually go back much further in history than the Andrew Johnson impeachment. Jewish scholars in the 15th century were discussing the very same issues that are now before the U.S. Senate.