Judaism at Lieberman’s core


NEW YORK, Aug. 8 (JTA) — Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s first Friday in the U.S. Senate posed a problem for him — not politically, but religiously.

It was 1988, and the Senate session was running late into the night. Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, was obliged to stick around, despite the Sabbath.

Instead of walking all the way to his new home in the Georgetown neighborhood — or violating the laws of Shabbat by jumping in a taxi — he made alternate plans: He would sleep on a cot in his office.

When his Senate colleague Al Gore got wind of Lieberman’s ad hoc accommodations, he implored the freshman lawmaker to stay at the nearby apartment of Gore’s parents.

Lieberman consented. He was then surprised to find that Gore had arranged for the bathroom lights to be turned on and the bedroom lights turned off.

As Lieberman later recounted to rabbi and author Kurt Stone, “I may have had the most distinguished Shabbas goy in history.”

Stone, who came to know Lieberman and his family in the late 1980s, has nothing but praise for the principled Connecticut senator.

In his Washington and Hartford offices, there are mezuzahs on the doors and pushkas on the desks, for tzedakah, or charity. It is said Lieberman, 58, calls his mother every day, and also prays daily.

He reportedly prayed with Gore on Monday after agreeing to be the Democratic vice presidential candidate.

“The best compliment I can give him is that he’s a mensch — and I define mensch as growing up to be the person that your parents always hoped you would be,” said Stone, author of the soon-to-be-released book, “The Congressional Minyan: The Jews of Capitol Hill.”

Indeed, as Lieberman noted at an AFL-CIO meeting Monday on his way to accepting Gore’s offer, he owes his value system to his parents.

His father worked the night shift loading and unloading a bakery truck before taking a similar job in a liquor business run by two brothers. When he began courting the sister of his bosses, they permitted them to marry only after he had raised his earnings to $25 a week.

“It was my parents who taught me to value and honor work,” Lieberman told the union crowd.

They also taught him the ways of Judaism.

Lieberman’s parents were reportedly not too religious, nor did either attend university. But his father became a self-taught Jew.

As Stone writes, in the liquor store Lieberman senior later owned in Stamford, Conn., customers walking in would often find him studying Torah, Talmud or midrash while listening to classical music.

Judaism became the core of the younger Lieberman.

At Yale in the 1960s, he was one of only a handful of Jews who kept kosher — so Lieberman was known as the one in the cafeteria always eating defrosted fish, says Stone.

When his first nominating convention for Senate in 1988 landed on a Friday night, Lieberman did not attend. Instead, he sent along a videotaped acceptance speech.

“It was a very symbolic and meaningful decision, the kind of thing that has deepened people’s respect for him,” says Ethan Felson, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Hartford.

“He knows when his involvement is necessary, and when he can employ other means.”

Indeed, in Washington, when Lieberman’s presence is needed in the Senate on a Saturday, he walks several miles to get there — with an escort for protection. He doesn’t use the subway or elevator. If he is required to vote, the Senate leadership allows him to do so by hand, rather than electronically.

“They used to say that Jacob Javits was the most Jewish Jew in politics; that title now belongs to Lieberman,” says Stone, referring to the former New York senator.

Not surprisingly, he has become something of a celebrity.

When yeshiva and day-school students visit Washington, “The kids always ask do I know the Orthodox senator,” said Abba Cohen, counsel and director of the Washington office of Agudath Israel.

“They don’t ask me if I know the president.”

Lieberman continues to consult with his childhood rabbi, Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz of Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford, Conn., who also officiated at his Bar Mitzvah.

In Washington, the Liebermans belong to the Kesher Israel congregation. Their daughter, Hana, recently celebrated her Bat Mitzvah and graduated from the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital in June. Lieberman spoke at her graduation.

With Lieberman bursting into the national limelight, and on the verge of being just a heartbeat away from the presidency, some Jewish activists express hope that the way Lieberman conducts his life will break down stereotypes of modern Orthodox Jews specifically, and Jews in general.

As Lieberman wrote in The New York Times in December 1992, “My parents raised me to believe that I did not have to mute my religious faith or ethnic identity to be a good American.”

While Lieberman is loathe to yield on his religious rituals, he may in fact have to make compromises if he assumes the vice presidency.

Some politicians and pundits have raised the issue of whether Lieberman could fully carry out his duties on Saturday despite the fact the senator has already done so, when necessary, for 12 years.

His rabbi at the Kesher Israel congregation in Washington, Rabbi Barry Freundel, advised Lieberman that he can vote on Saturday for the Jewish tradition of pikuach nefesh, or saving people’s lives.

The senator recently clarified his interpretation of that tradition to mean he may work on Shabbat, but only to promote “the respect and protection of human life and well-being.”

Lieberman’s clarification should put those concerns to rest, say some Jewish leaders.

“What about some presidents who take a day off to play golf? Except Joe’s day off would be Saturday, instead of Sunday.” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and himself a modern Orthodox Jew.

“These personal values and family values are the very values that people say they want to see in Washington.”

Lieberman’s religious values also infuse his political views, whether it be to protect the environment or to condemn President Clinton for questionable morality.

Described by acquaintances as open, thoughtful and low-key, Lieberman admits he sometimes confers with rabbis on particularly complex issues, like abortion.

“When I was in the state Senate, I would agonize and agonize over this,” he told Reuters in 1997.

“And I did occasionally consult rabbinical sources over the generations. Ultimately I decided that, after all my struggling with this question, we really had to respect the right of women to choose.”

Not all Americans will agree, of course, but some observers relish the thought of Lieberman injecting his Jewish values into public debate.

“It’s one of the great accomplishments of Joe Lieberman’s career,” said Irwin Kula, president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

“He never uses theology or God, but he’s found a way to bring those values into American discourse and policy in a language all of us can understand.

“That’s the American dream: not only that anyone can make it here economically, but that all these different cultures and views can come into the public square in real conversation about where we all want to go.”

(JTA staff writer Sharon Samber in Washington contributed to this report.)

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