AUGUST 21, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 8

Demystifying Judaism
Joseph Lieberman's rise may change how America thinks of Jewish practice

The sensation surrounding the elevation of Senator Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, to a national ticket lies less in the noun than in the adjective: Jews in American public life are old news; Orthodox Jews are not.

Had Al Gore chosen, say, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin or Senator Dianne Feinstein, there would have been a stir about a barrier broken. But just a stir. It would not have been much of a barrier. After all, how much of a fuss was there about Jewishness when Richard Nixon made Henry Kissinger Secretary of State?

Secular Jews, for whom Jewishness is little more than a form of ethnicity, identity or perhaps just racial memory, have long been accepted in the American mainstream. Why, Jerry Seinfeld--the quintessential nominal Jew who quite cheerfully acknowledges his Jewishness but finds it so devoid of meaning that it plays no role whatsoever in his life--became the most popular figure in American popular culture. The embrace of Jews is so thorough that Irving Kristol once noted wryly regarding the alarming rates of Jewish assimilation, "The problem is that they don't want to persecute us, they want to marry us."

This embrace of the secularized Jew has not, however, extended to the Orthodox. Orthodox Jews tend still to be seen by the mainstream as eccentric, even alien. Ironically, this cultural allergy is particularly acute among nominal Jews like Woody Allen, in whose films the Orthodox Jew is invariably a bearded, black-hatted buffoon.

Enter Joe Lieberman: beardless, hatless, witty, worldly, thoroughly modern, almost hip. This is Orthodox? Yes. And because it is, his ascension to the national stage will effect a demystification of Jewishness.

What will he do if a war breaks out on the Sabbath? the comedians asked. The answer is simple: he will break every ritual prohibition he needs to. Jewish law, the comedians and others are learning, not only permits it. Jewish law requires it.

They will learn that the rabbis seized upon an otherwise innocuous passage in Leviticus--God instructing the Israelites to observe his commandments and "live by them"--as an injunction not to die by them, and thus a subordination of all ritual to the higher value of preserving life.

This realization undermines the centuries-old myth of Judaism as severe and unforgiving, a slave of Pharisaic ritual, as opposed to the grace and charity of its progeny religion. Lieberman will not dethrone Shylock, still the single most influential Jewish figure in Western culture, for whom the law is pitiless law. But Lieberman's prominence and practice will illuminate the little-appreciated fact that Rabbinic Judaism is an attempt to take a very stark document--the Bible--and, by interpretation and adaptation, make it habitable for fallible human beings.

The most famous example concerns the death penalty. It appears rather promiscuously in the Bible. The Talmud, however, constructs such difficult evidentiary requirements and such extraordinary protections against miscarried justice that the rabbis termed a high court that executes one person in seven years "tyrannical." Another authority, continues the Talmud, says one person in 70 years.

The other great myth awaiting demystification is that traditional Judaism eschews spirituality in favor of petty, highly detailed ritual. Hence the sport that commentators have had trying to figure out what Vice President Lieberman would do on the Sabbath. Well, he rests on the Sabbath. The rabbis define rest in very specific ways: no traveling, no carrying, no writing, no telephones, no use of electricity.

The prohibitions appear arbitrary. Not so. They have a purpose: to provide insulation against corrosive everydayness. To build fences against invasions by the profane. To create a space for sacred time.

The effect can be quite profound. I know. I grew up in a home much like Lieberman's. We too did not use electrical devices on the Sabbath. As a result, when we sat down to the last Sabbath meal toward the end of the day, we relied for illumination on light from the windows. As the day waned, the light began to die. When it came time for the Hebrew recitation (three times) of the 23rd Psalm, there was so little light that I could no longer read. I had to follow the words of my father as he chanted the Psalm softly with eyes closed. Thus did its every phrase and cadence become forever inscribed in my memory. To this day, whenever I hear the 23rd Psalm, I am filled with the most profound memories of father and family, of tranquillity and grace in gentle gathering darkness.

The rabbis knew what they were doing. The elaborate way of life they constructed would not otherwise have lasted more than 2,000 years. Nor would it have lasted had it not produced the kind of spiritual transcendence that I experienced as a boy and that Lieberman experiences today--an experience many Americans will now learn about for the first time.

Which is why Lieberman's entry onto the national stage is so significant. It not only confirms and ratifies the full entry of Jews into the higher councils of American life. It marks the entry of Judaism into the deeper recesses of the American consciousness. END