Whether he wins or loses his run for vice president in November 2000, Joe Lieberman has ushered in a new era in American Jewish life.
For years, the conventional wisdom was that to get ahead in secular society, you had to tone down your Jewishness.
But Lieberman has changed all that. As an orthodox Jew, he observes Shabbat, eats kosher, and prays three times a day. He's proven that you can reach the pinnacle of secular society without compromising your Jewishness one bit.
And that's only half the story.
The real eye-opener is that Lieberman's selection was not "in spite" of his Jewish observance. Rather he was chosen precisely because of it.
Al Gore needed an icon of moral stature in order to distance himself from the scandal-ridden Clinton administration.
And the best man for the job was the orthodox Jew.
Lieberman is popularly known as "the moral conscience of the Senate." He was the first Democrat gutsy enough to stand up on the Senate floor and rebuke Clinton for his adulterous affair with Monica Lewinsky.
This type of integrity -- doing the right thing even at personal cost -- is what Jewish observance is supposed to be all about.
Lieberman has the personal conviction to do what's right, regardless of whether it's politically correct.
The first Jew, Abraham, preached monotheism at a time when the entire world was steeped in idolatry. Having endured all types of mockery and persecution, he earned the moniker Avraham Ha-Ivri -- Abraham the Hebrew. Ha-Ivri means "the one who stands on the other side" -- while the entire world stood on one side, Abraham stood firmly on the other.
Lieberman's appeal is that he has the personal conviction to do what's right, regardless of whether it's politically correct. Senate colleagues report of meetings where they pleaded with Lieberman to change his position. Not only did Lieberman stand by what he believed in, colleagues say, but he did so with such conviction and belief that the others felt no anger, only respect.
As Lieberman himself said on "Larry King Live": "Sometimes you've got to speak the truth to your friends, and ask them to draw a line, and say, 'Okay, maybe we can make a few more dollars going over this line, but it's not worth it, because it's not good for our country and for our kids.'"
The novelty of an orthodox Jew holding high public office is not new to history. Daniel was an advisor to Babylonia ruler Nebuchadnezer. Mordechai, of the Purim story, served as Prime Minister to Achashverosh. Maimonides was the royal physician to the Sultan of Egypt. And Don Yitzhak Abravanel, the rabbinic leader of Spanish Jewry prior to the Inquisition, was the finance minister to King Ferdinand.
There is something eminently trustworthy about a man who considers the Almighty -- and not himself -- to be the highest power. This theme is first introduced in the book of Genesis, chapter 41:
- The Egyptian Pharaoh calls for Joseph and says: "I hear that you are able to interpret dreams."
"No," replies Joseph. "I cannot claim any independent ability. All my power comes from God."
Pharaoh demurs: "Because you are a man of God, that's why I am selecting you to be my second-in-command."
There is something trustworthy about a man who considers the Almighty -- and not himself -- to be the highest power.
Lieberman, like his Biblical namesake Joseph, has risen to greatness precisely because he raises God above himself. When he first ran for senator in 1988, he missed his own nominating convention because it was held on Saturday. Lieberman says that non-Jews throughout Connecticut would say to him: "I respect you for putting something above political success... [and that's] why I'm going to vote for you." Lieberman's margin of victory in the general election was less than 1 percent. He says: "Who's to say whether it wasn't the fact that I didn't go to my convention on Shabbat that gave me the margin of victory?!"
Stories like this can also occur in everyday life. A man recently told me the following:
- I had been working for several months trying to put an important business deal together -- a million-dollar service contract for my company. Finally the big day came to sign the papers. The client, my investors, the lawyers, everyone was there. We spent the entire day hammering out the final details.
Then I looked up at the clock. It was one hour until sundown on Friday afternoon. I had no choice. I stood up, and began to assemble my papers into my briefcase. "What are you doing!" everyone shouted. "We're not finished yet!"
"I'm sorry," I replied. "I've got to go home for Shabbat."
The lawyers were livid. I was certain that I'd blown the deal.
I arrived back at work Monday morning at 9 a.m., and the phone rang. It was the client. "We want to come over and sign the papers right now," he said. "I was impressed on Friday with your strength of conviction. That's the type of person I want to do business with."
As the verse says: "All the nations will see the Name of God upon you, and they will be in awe" (Deut. 28:10).
NEW JEWISH DYNAMIC
A century ago, the Jewish philosopher-poet Yehudah Leib Gordon admonished: "Be a Jew in your house, and a regular person outside." In other words, keep your Jewish practice a private affair, and when interacting with the rest of the world, relegate your Jewish identity to the back burner. Or better yet, hide it altogether.
Lieberman's legacy is not to be afraid. He publicly articulates the practical and spiritual benefits of observing mitzvot -- and how that brings foundation, order and purpose to one's life. As he told Larry King: "I can see thousands of households across the fruited plain, spending an uninterrupted weekend day of quality family time, with no phones, television, or internet to distract them."
Lieberman's legacy is that we shouldn’t be afraid and hide our Jewishness.
Today, with assimilation threatening American Jewry, this image of how Torah values and Western success can go hand-in-hand is needed more than ever. The morning his nomination was announced, the media ran a photo of him walking with his family to the synagogue on Shabbat. How refreshing to have a leader who for 24 hours each week is actually thinking about God and not politics. Who is actually fulfilling family values, not just talking about them.
In the end, Judaism is what Jews do best. We may achieve success in science, finance and the arts -- but fulfilling our role as "Light Unto the Nations" is the essential Jewish mission. Sandy Koufax is in the Baseball Hall of Fame because he was a great pitcher. But what he is remembered for most of all is refusing to play on Yom Kippur.
When a Jew stands up and says that "faith in God is the primary value," that creates a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God's name.
Of course Lieberman is not perfect, and we should be wary of putting any human being on a pedestal. There are unanswered questions about some of Lieberman's views which seem to counter the Torah perspective -- on late-term abortion, or his spurious comment on the permissibility of intermarriage.
But regardless of whether or not Lieberman wins the election, and regardless of what shade of Judaism he practices, I think we need to keep our eye on the big picture. And that is: With the publicity surrounding Lieberman, there is an unparalleled window of opportunity during these next few months to instill Jewish pride and to communicate the Jewish message to millions of Jews and non-Jews alike.
When an in-depth article on the laws of Shabbat appears on CNN.com, it underscores the heightened interest in exactly "what is Torah Judaism?" When was the last time a Vice Presidential candidate wore Tefillin? And when Lieberman walks into his Sukkah next month, every Jew in America will get an education about the Sukkah.
Certainly we have every right to question Lieberman's politics. But he is running for Vice-President, not Chief Rabbi, and I think that nit-picking his observance is misdirected energy.
Overall, the fact that Lieberman identifies with the core tenets of Torah law fits him squarely in the camp of those trying to strengthen the Jewish message, not making it worse. So let's keep it positive, with eyes wide open.