The following is adapted from the sermon “Public Service and Public Presence” delivered by Rabbi Barry Freundel on Aug. 12, 2000, the first Shabbat after Vice President Al Gore picked Sen. Joseph Lieberman as his running mate. Lieberman and his family were in attendance at Congregation Kesher Israel in Washington when Freundel delivered his sermon.
WASHINGTON, Aug. 27 (JTA) The words of the Torah rang in my ears as I thought about the breakthrough moment in which a very visible Jew, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, was selected to run for the vice presidency of the United States of America on the ticket of a major political party.
The monumental events respond to centuries of Jewish pain and fear at being left out, discriminated against and reviled.
In response, I immediately thought of the words of Deuteronomy as spoken through the mouth of Moses, “behold I have taught you laws and statutes as the Lord my God has commanded me and you shall be observant of them and perform them for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations for when they hear about all these statutes they will say, ‘this is but a wise and understanding people,’ ” referring to the Jews.
For this congregation to have been intimately connected to this moment in history has created a euphoria that words are inadequate to describe. We have always been honored and excited to have Sen. Lieberman as a valued member of Kesher Israel, but this week we went far beyond those simple sentiments.
I think back to what I believe would have been the reaction of my father, may he rest in peace. My father and his cronies refused to vote for Jacob Javits precisely because he was a Jew. My father, who had left Germany in 1933 as the Nazis began to consolidate their power with an eye, in part, towards completing their final solution for the Jewish people, was convinced that if a Jewish senator from the state of New York did well, that would be ignored. But, if he did poorly that would create, if not a pogrom, at least a significant increase in overt anti-Semitism.
I am sure that he would have anticipated that the choice of an observant Jew as a vice presidential candidate would evoke at best some very forced smiles and some extremely difficult moments for many important officials as they struggled to swallow a very bitter pill. In no way would he have expected it to be a plus for anyone’s presidential candidacy or for the Jewish people.
Of course the opposite has been the case. For now, being an observant Jew is “in” and, so far, apparently, many people are reacting by saying, “this is a wise and understanding nation,” meaning that there is something valuable in the observance and the Jewishness. In short we are seeing this verse fulfilled in our day.
I want you all to know, and I say this with Sen. Lieberman present, that my agenda has not been to advance the cause of the noble nominee from the Georgetown Synagogue. Rather I think it critically important in my position that I present Judaism in an authentic manner, but at the same time in a way that it not be misunderstood so that it become an impediment.
For better or worse, whether it is fair or unfair, this is the test case. It will be the model for a very long time as to whether an observant Jew can successfully aspire to this type of success in the United States.
It seems to me we have struck an informal bargain with the rest of the American public. We have asked of the American people that religion either not be a factor or that it be seen as a positive quality in determining the qualifications of a nominee.
Our side of the deal is that we not create any unnecessary problem that might lead to a misunderstanding of what we are all about and how we function. If we fail on our side of the deal then being observant can and will become a negative or even a disqualifier. It requires us to be extremely careful as a community and as a people in what we say and how we comport ourselves.
We of course need to be authentic, we cannot distort who we are and what we believe, but we don’t have to. If we present ourselves and our faith fairly and in terms that are understandable to the rest of America there should be no problem. It is only if we attempt to make headlines or grandstand, as some have already done, that an issue may develop.
The verse with which I started speaks of the nations of the world looking at our observance and saying that we are a wise and understanding people. There is a second aspect that goes beyond our seeing the promise of the verse being fulfilled at this historic moment and it is one we cannot ignore. It appears to require us to do things and to explain our observance in a way that will make the non-Jewish world, at all times, not just during a vice presidential campaign, look to us as a wise and understanding people.
Rashi (1040-1105), our most important Biblical commentator, believed that there would be a day, sometime in the dim future, when the Torah’s promise that observance would be taken as “understanding and wisdom” would indeed come true. That belief is expressed in his commentary of this verse. He made his comment despite living through the First Crusade when Jews were reviled for their beliefs and observance. Therefore, we as Jews are impelled to make such a day come to pass if we can, to help bring the promise of G-d and Torah to fruition.
Ladies and gentlemen, we must recognize that for one of the few times in our history such a moment is upon us. We must come to this moment bearing not only the persecutions that our ancestors suffered precisely because they lived in times and places where non-Jewish reaction to Jewish observance was decidedly negative, but we also must bear the burden of their hopes and their faith that a moment like this could one day be a reality and that the Jews around at that miraculous time would make it work.
But unfortunately, something has already reared its ugly head in some of the comments that have been made within the Jewish community. There is a danger, it seems to me, that this moment of Jewish triumph could easily turn into triumphalism and that a moment of pride can become a time of chauvinism.
For that to happen, even internally, would be a terrible tragedy. It would be even worse if it became public. To respond to this event with a sense that we are somehow superior, that somehow this is our divine right, that somehow this is our guy and therefore he is better just simply because he is our guy does not do anyone any good.
The candidate will suffer unfairly and the Jewish community will come off badly. Even for the individual who feels good saying such things, she or he is guilty of false pride and an abhorrent ethnic primitivism.
We must all make no mistake about this moment. For better or worse, fairly or unfairly, Observant Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, modern Orthodox Judaism are all being examined very closely here, and the question that is on the table is “will we be determined by others to be a nation of wisdom and understanding?”
There is today, right now, an opportunity to actively promote and influence others to say of us that we are wise and understanding. The quality of our speech will go a long way towards the final judgment of who we are.
Sen. Lieberman, our good friend Joe, we wish you Godspeed, every good luck and God’s protection on your journey. Congratulations to you, congratulations to all of us and let us hope and pray we will all be equal to the task that this moment has brought to us.
(The full text of Freundel’s sermon is available at www.kesher.org)