A joke was told about U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman during the 2000 presidential campaign. Not only was Lieberman the first Jew to run for vice president, but he was a famously observant one. “If you elect Joe Lieberman,” the joke went, “he will be on the job 24/6.”
“Not only have I heard it,” Lieberman told The Jewish Journal in a recent telephone interview, “I’ve used it.”
Lieberman reveals some of the private moments of his Jewish life in “The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath” (Howard: $22), a celebration of the rewards of Sabbath-keeping that also offers insight into his tumultuous political career. Thus, for example, he reminds us that the man who ran on the Democratic ticket with Al Gore in 2000 broke with his party and ended up coaching Sarah Palin for the vice presidential debates in the 2008 election.
“She seemed tired and distracted,” he recalls. “Her answers were halting or confused.” The Republican campaign staff called on Lieberman precisely because he was a man of faith. “Senator, you’ve got something in common with her that none of the rest of us has,” a campaign staffer said. “You’re both religious. Please go in there and talk to her and maybe pray with her.” He cited Queen Esther, a biblical role model of a woman who “shook off her doubts and took action,” and he urged Palin to “be yourself and have faith, and God will see you through this.”
Then, too, Lieberman and his co-author, David Klinghoffer, show how he strikes a balance between his public duties and his religious obligations in the superheated political environment of Washington. When a crucial vote in the Senate keeps him at the Capitol past sundown on a Friday night, he walks all the way home regardless of the weather or the hour, although he has a police escort along the way. “Many are devout Christians,” he writes. “The journey takes about an hour and a half, and we’ve had some wonderful discussions about the Sabbath in particular and faith in general.”
“The Gift of Rest” reminds me of Herman Wouk’s classic “This Is My God,” another book that introduces the rhythms and rituals of Modern Orthodoxy to readers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who may not have experienced traditional Judaism for themselves. “For me, Sabbath observance is a gift because it is one of the deepest, purest pleasures in my life,” he writes. “It is a day of peace, rest, and sensual pleasure.” But I suspect that some readers will find the inside story of his life in politics to be even more compelling than his religious instruction.
I spoke with Lieberman by phone from his Washington office on the occasion of the publication of “The Gift of Rest.”
Jonathan Kirsch: When I first opened your book, which is addressed to both Jews and non-Jews, I was prepared to find a kind of “Sabbath Lite,” but you have described the Orthodox traditions of Shabbat in rich detail. What do you intend for non-Jewish readers to draw from your book?
Sen. Joseph Lieberman: Theologically, the gift of Sabbath rest is a gift that God gave to all of humankind through Moses. But I really wanted to explain to people what a traditional Jewish Sabbath is like. People who know that I am Sabbath-observant usually know what I don’t do, but they don’t know what I do on Shabbat and why I do it. I want to invite the non-Jewish reader and the non-observant Jewish reader into my home and show them how my wife, my family and I observe the Sabbath.
JK: You remind us that the 39 categories of labor that are forbidden on Shabbat do not clearly instruct a sitting U.S. senator on how he ought to conduct his work life. Do you seek rabbinical rulings on these questions?
JL: I can’t say that there is any single rabbi whom I ask for guidance. I am obviously affected by rabbinical rulings, but I thought it would be unfair to my rabbis to put the burden on them. I felt I was breaking new ground, at least in America, and I wanted the wisdom of my rabbis to inform my decision, but ultimately I’ve got to make the choice.
JK: I am curious about why Sen. Joe Lieberman, who may be the most famous Orthodox Jew in America, does not wear a kippah.
JL: Once, about 10 years ago, I was walking through the Senate building with Harry Reid — he’s a Mormon, but his wife was born Jewish — and he asked the same question: “I know you are Orthodox, but why don’t you wear a skullcap?” I would have to say it’s generational. I grew up in the 1950s in a town where literally the only people who wore a kippah in public were the rabbis. I wear a kippah in my house, and I wear a hat when I walk home on Shabbat, but it was never a part of my life experience to wear one outside. But there are a lot of younger staff members around the Senate who are walking around with kippot, and one day one of them will be elected to the Senate.
JK: Were you concerned that your nomination as the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket might provoke anti-Semitism?
JL: There were actually fewer questions raised about it than I thought there might be. The American people are increasingly respectful of diversity, and there is no question that there is a profound and growing respect among Christians for Judaism. The fear of anti-Semitism among Jews was much greater than the fact of anti-Semitism among Christians.
JK: As a Jewish man in the public spotlight, what do you make of the recent spate of scandals involving Jewish figures — Eliot Spitzer, Bernie Madoff, Anthony Weiner, Dominique Strauss-Kahn?
JL: The lesson, if there is a lesson, is that Jews are subject to the frailties of human nature as much as anyone else is. It is an embarrassment, but it’s also a challenge. We’re supposed to take the system of values that comes from Sinai seriously and live by it to the best of our ability. The more power you have, the more money you have, the greater is your responsibility to act appropriately. Whether you like it or not, when you’re Jewish, you bear a responsibility to live by the law. The only answer is to try to come back with renewed energy and creativity and teach the upcoming generations about the values of Judaism.
JK: Surely that’s one of the points of your book.
JL: I hope so. As important as all the rabbinic rules are, they are there to protect life and honor God’s creation.
JK: What is next for you now that you’ve announced that you are not seeking re-election?
JL: This will be a short answer because I don’t know, and I’m enjoying not knowing. I feel privileged to have served these four terms, and I’m going to try to get some things done in the remaining time. After that, I may try some different things. I don’t know. Time will tell.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.