Joseph Lieberman's rise may change how America thinks of Jewish
The sensation surrounding the elevation of Senator Joseph
Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, to a national ticket lies less in the
noun than in the adjective: Jews in American public life are old
news; Orthodox Jews are not.
Had Al Gore chosen, say, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin
or Senator Dianne Feinstein, there would have been a stir about a
barrier broken. But just a stir. It would not have been much of a
barrier. After all, how much of a fuss was there about Jewishness
when Richard Nixon made Henry Kissinger Secretary of State?
Secular Jews, for whom Jewishness is little more than a form of
ethnicity, identity or perhaps just racial memory, have long been
accepted in the American mainstream. Why, Jerry Seinfeld--the
quintessential nominal Jew who quite cheerfully acknowledges his
Jewishness but finds it so devoid of meaning that it plays no
role whatsoever in his life--became the most popular figure in
American popular culture. The embrace of Jews is so thorough that
Irving Kristol once noted wryly regarding the alarming rates of
Jewish assimilation, "The problem is that they don't want to
persecute us, they want to marry us."
This embrace of the secularized Jew has not, however, extended to
the Orthodox. Orthodox Jews tend still to be seen by the
mainstream as eccentric, even alien. Ironically, this cultural
allergy is particularly acute among nominal Jews like Woody
Allen, in whose films the Orthodox Jew is invariably a bearded,
Enter Joe Lieberman: beardless, hatless, witty, worldly,
thoroughly modern, almost hip. This is Orthodox? Yes. And because
it is, his ascension to the national stage will effect a
demystification of Jewishness.
What will he do if a war breaks out on the Sabbath? the comedians
asked. The answer is simple: he will break every ritual
prohibition he needs to. Jewish law, the comedians and others are
learning, not only permits it. Jewish law requires it.
They will learn that the rabbis seized upon an otherwise
innocuous passage in Leviticus--God instructing the Israelites to
observe his commandments and "live by them"--as an injunction not
to die by them, and thus a subordination of all ritual to the
higher value of preserving life.
This realization undermines the centuries-old myth of Judaism as
severe and unforgiving, a slave of Pharisaic ritual, as opposed
to the grace and charity of its progeny religion. Lieberman will
not dethrone Shylock, still the single most influential Jewish
figure in Western culture, for whom the law is pitiless law. But
Lieberman's prominence and practice will illuminate the
little-appreciated fact that Rabbinic Judaism is an attempt to
take a very stark document--the Bible--and, by interpretation and
adaptation, make it habitable for fallible human beings.
The most famous example concerns the death penalty. It appears
rather promiscuously in the Bible. The Talmud, however,
constructs such difficult evidentiary requirements and such
extraordinary protections against miscarried justice that the
rabbis termed a high court that executes one person in seven
years "tyrannical." Another authority, continues the Talmud, says
one person in 70 years.
The other great myth awaiting demystification is that traditional
Judaism eschews spirituality in favor of petty, highly detailed
ritual. Hence the sport that commentators have had trying to
figure out what Vice President Lieberman would do on the Sabbath.
Well, he rests on the Sabbath. The rabbis define rest in very
specific ways: no traveling, no carrying, no writing, no
telephones, no use of electricity.
The prohibitions appear arbitrary. Not so. They have a purpose:
to provide insulation against corrosive everydayness. To build
fences against invasions by the profane. To create a space for
The effect can be quite profound. I know. I grew up in a home
much like Lieberman's. We too did not use electrical devices on
the Sabbath. As a result, when we sat down to the last Sabbath
meal toward the end of the day, we relied for illumination on
light from the windows. As the day waned, the light began to die.
When it came time for the Hebrew recitation (three times) of the
23rd Psalm, there was so little light that I could no longer
read. I had to follow the words of my father as he chanted the
Psalm softly with eyes closed. Thus did its every phrase and
cadence become forever inscribed in my memory. To this day,
whenever I hear the 23rd Psalm, I am filled with the most
profound memories of father and family, of tranquillity and grace
in gentle gathering darkness.
The rabbis knew what they were doing. The elaborate way of life
they constructed would not otherwise have lasted more than 2,000
years. Nor would it have lasted had it not produced the kind of
spiritual transcendence that I experienced as a boy and that
Lieberman experiences today--an experience many Americans will now
learn about for the first time.
Which is why Lieberman's entry onto the national stage is so
significant. It not only confirms and ratifies the full entry of
Jews into the higher councils of American life. It marks the
entry of Judaism into the deeper recesses of the American