NEW YORK, Oct. 3 (JTA) – Much has been made about Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman taking time off the campaign trail to attend Rosh Hashanah services.
But in congregations around the United States, Lieberman became part of the Rosh Hashanah service, with many rabbis incorporating him into their sermons.
While generally avoiding Lieberman’s politics, rabbis used the various aspects of Lieberman’s public prominence to discuss what it means to be a Jew in America today.
Judging from a random sampling of rabbis across the country, the most common themes were Lieberman as a symbol of how far American Jews have moved into the mainstream of society and as an example of how one does not have to fully assimilate or sacrifice Judaism in order to be a successful American.
“We’ve had many Jews who reached high office, in particular in this administration, but not Jews for whom Judaism is a central part of their lives,” said Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, who heads a Chabad congregation in Yorba Linda, Calif., near Los Angeles.
Eliezrie, who plans to speak more extensively on Lieberman during his Yom Kippur sermon, said he told his congregants on Rosh Hashanah that “the importance is not the fact that he’s running for office, but fact that he’s walking to shuls on Shabbos.”
The public acceptance of Lieberman – with kosher restrictions and Shabbat observance part of the package – shows that “Jews can be public about their religion, and that certainly was not always the case,” said Rabbi David Cohen of Congregation Sinai, a Reform temple in Milwaukee.
Rabbi Rebecca Lillian of Temple Menorah, a Reform synagogue in Chicago, said she pointed to Lieberman “as an example that it is no longer necessary to divorce Judaism from being American.”
“You can be a 100 percent devoted American and a 100 percent devoted Jew,” added Lillian. “He revels in it and excels in it.”
Rabbi Jonathan Hausman of Ahavath Torah Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in the Boston suburb of Stoughton, Mass., said he used Lieberman as a call to his congregants to become more Jewishly knowledgeable and observant.
“With Lieberman on the ticket, people are going to start asking questions that could make us Jews quite uncomfortable,” he said, adding that if “non-Jews are learning about our faith, dietary laws, observance of Shabbat and fast days,” they will be asking Jews to explain their practices and beliefs.
“And here’s the rub. How many of us are capable of answering these questions in any meaningful way?” he asked his congregants.
“With an observant Jew on the ticket, you can no longer get away with running to the rabbi or educator to answer these questions,” Hausman concluded. “You’ll be responsible for learning and living a Jewish life.”
Several rabbis used Lieberman as a way to discuss Jewish values.
Cohen suggested that Lieberman rose to national prominence “not because he was Jewish but because he did something particularly Jewish – stand up to power and question authority,” he said, referring to how the
Senator broke from party ranks and spoke out against President Clinton’s behavior in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Rabbi Margot Stein, a Reconstructionist rabbi who has a High Holiday pulpit at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Jewish Community Group in suburban Washington, also talked about Lieberman’s outspokenness during the Lewinsky scandal, using it to illustrate distinctions in Jewish ethics between shaming, which is forbidden, and rebuking someone, which is encouraged.
Although some Jewish critics have attacked Lieberman’s flexibility in observing certain aspects of halachah, or Jewish law, Chicago’s Lillian cited him as an example of one who takes Jewish teachings seriously but looks for ways to balance them with other demands.
“He takes every decision he makes about mitzvot and halachah seriously and interprets them in such a way so he can fulfill his role as public servant and still fulfill his role as observant Jew,” she said.
She noted that this spurred a larger discussion in her synagogue of “the role of halachah and mitzvah for liberal Jews, how one looks at commandedness when one doesn’t feel literally commanded by God.”
Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in suburban St. Paul, said he would have spoken more about Lieberman were it not for a tragedy concerning a congregant that occurred shortly before the holidays and dominated his Rosh Hashanah sermons.
However, he did say in his sermon that what may be most notable about the Lieberman nomination is how sharply it has altered American Jewish morale from just one year ago, when the High Holidays closely followed the anti-Semitic-motivated shooting at a Los Angeles Jewish community center.
“A year ago, every congregation in America was unfortunately and unnecessarily terrified that there were going to be terrorists running into the building,” he said.
“Last year we felt like victims of hatred. This year we feel like we’re