Even as Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman’s positions on issues from gun control to Hollywood are dissected, some Jewish leaders hope that he can keep quiet on at least one topic: Jewish law.
Interviewers “should stop asking him about it, and he should stop talking about it,” said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union.
He and other Jewish leaders are growing more concerned over the way Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, expresses points of Jewish theology – especially after his appearance on a nationally syndicated radio show Sept. 15.
In the course of a humorous conversation with host Don Imus, Lieberman was asked to clarify several issues of Jewish law and practice, including Judaism’s position on intermarriage.
When asked if Judaism placed “a ban on interracial or interreligious dating, that sort of thing,” Lieberman responded that there was “no ban whatsoever.”
Lieberman elaborated, “But there’s what I would describe as a natural tendency among a lot of Jews, as there is among a lot of Christian and other ethnic groups,” to marry within the faith “to keep the faith going. But, believe me, there’s a lot of intermarriage as well.”
Earlier in the program, Lieberman joked about his decision never to say a Jewish prayer in which one thanks God for not having been born a woman. Imus quipped that the prayer’s sentiment would not appeal to “soccer moms.” Lieberman answered, “That was put in historically by the rabbis way back, and of course there is an explanation. But I don’t accept that. There’s a certain amount of latitude here.”
Reaction to Lieberman’s comments was tempered among Jewish leaders, who are still not in agreement over the extent to which Lieberman is responsible for presenting Judaism to the nation.
“It’s an awesome responsibility,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America. “If he can, he should speak honestly, knowledgeably and clearly. But for whatever reason, his most recent comments about intermarriage were gravely misleading.”
Most Jewish leaders agreed that Jewish law forbids interreligious marriage, but none said they would harshly criticize the politician for making the theological mistake.
“He’s not a rabbi, he’s a politician in a national campaign with the burden of explaining Judaism to millions of Americans,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
Asking whether or not Judaism bans intermarriage is a question “loaded with political overtones,” Yoffie added. “Though his answer was not necessarily accurate from a halachic standpoint, saying Jews marry within ‘to keep the faith’ going was a way of gently explaining our tradition.”
The Orthodox Union’s Ganchrow agreed that it is “totally unfair to make” Lieberman a “paradigm of Orthodoxy, but he should leave questions of theology to the rabbis.”
Ganchrow said people should take into consideration that the tone of the interview was “frivolous” and not deeply philosophical. Judging others, in general, is “un-Jewish,” he added.
Still, the comments by Lieberman, who sits on the Orthodox Union’s board of directors, surprised Ganchrow.
“Given that intermarriage is probably the number one problem affecting the Jews today,” he said. “I don’t know what went through Lieberman’s mind when he said that.”
Since the program aired, there has been no further comment from Lieberman about his remarks.
Steve Rabinowitz, a media adviser to the Gore-Lieberman campaign, said, “The campaign has no opinions on the senator’s religious beliefs. He is free to express whatever he wants.”