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Lieberman Lessons
Aron Raskas

Vice President Gore's selection of Senator Joseph Lieberman as his running mate gave rise to much debate. Was it "good for the Jews" or "bad for the Jews?" What effect would Senator Lieberman's religious practices have upon the presidential race? What would it be like to have an observant Jew in the White House? Would Senator Lieberman and the Jews be blamed for a loss by the Democrats in November?

With the election now receding into history, those questions may now be answered. It is safe to conclude that the annals of American political science will find that Senator Joseph Lieberman's religion had little impact upon the presidential race. At the same time, it is equally fair to suggest that this campaign was overwhelmingly good for the Jews.

Certainly there was an initial flurry of interest - wanton curiosity, some might say - in candidate Lieberman's religious practices and beliefs. Senator Lieberman was right to meet those questions head on, discuss his background and allow the country to understand just what kind of person he is. To amplify the words of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., men - political candidates included - should be judged not by the color of their skin nor the denomination of their religion, but by the content of their character. While religion is not the ultimate benchmark for choosing a candidate, it certainly is a component of his or her character and moral grounding. By discussing his religious heritage and the values that he draws from it, Senator Lieberman helped the electorate understand just who he is and just where he stands.

While openly discussing his religious beliefs and practices, Senator Lieberman was also correct in consistently noting that, to the electorate, his religious philosophies were less important than his political policies and legislative positions. Indeed, Senator Lieberman has always been able to reconcile his religious beliefs with legislative positions that he takes (albeit often to the dismay of many religious voters, both Jewish and not). Thus, for example, while he may personally believe that abortion is wrong, his libertarian values have led Senator Lieberman to positions that do not impose his personal values upon others. He has learned that there is difference between advocating for a currently unpopular position and legislating it into being. [The disappointment to many during the course of the campaign was his retreat from positions that he had personally held such as on affirmative action, school vouchers, cultural pollution and other issues in a painfully transparent attempt to placate certain elements of the electorate.]

To their credit, after the initial flurry of curiosity, it seems that the electorate did in fact evaluate Senator Lieberman on the basis of his policies rather than his religion. As the campaign progressed, it was interesting, and satisfying, to see the issue of Senator Lieberman's religious practice slip slowly into the background. Indeed, it is fair to say that, as far as Senator Lieberman was concerned, the election turned more on quotas than on kugels, on taxes more than on tefilin and less on the issue of Shabbos than on the issues of schools and Social Security.

Despite the loss of the Gore-Lieberman ticket, it is difficult to see this election as a setback for the Jews of the United States. Given the manner in which the electorate has received Senator Lieberman, it is doubtful that politicians, pollsters and analysts will find any basis upon which to attribute the Democrats' loss to the presence of a Jew on the ticket.

There will be other Jewish candidates on presidential tickets in future years. If this race has demonstrated anything, it is the following proposition: So long as the Jewish people of the United States continue to produce politicians with the integrity, stature, and moral character of Joseph Lieberman, the electorate of the United States will welcome them to their highest offices.

Jews can be proud of the distinguished manner in which Senator Lieberman conducted himself in this race, the poise and dignity that he exhibited and the widespread respect that he earned from the American electorate at large. Jews should also be proud, rather than embarrassed or critical, as many were, of the unabashed manner in which Senator Lieberman spoke of his religion and the values that he constantly draws from it. It has been encouraging, to this writer at least, that Senator Lieberman has single-handedly rewritten the American definition of just what a Jew really is. From having been almost literally defined in the public eye as "secularists" always seeking to banish any semblance of religious display from the public square, Senator Lieberman has demonstrated forcefully, clearly and unabashedly to the American people that many Jews are in fact religious people with solid moral values, and that they are not afraid to stand publicly with G-d.

But the Lieberman candidacy has not only influenced the American public's perception of Jews, it has eternally altered the manner in which both Jews and non-Jews alike understand the traditional Jewish community.

A story is told of a previously devout Jewish Holocaust survivor who, following the war, ceased all of his prior religious practices. Explaining that change to Rabbi Eliezer Silver, the great Orthodox Jewish leader of the post-war era, the Jewish survivor recounted a scene that he had repeatedly witnessed in the concentration camp where he had been interred. Another Jew had been able to retain and conceal from the Nazis a precious little siddur (prayer book). Yet rather than share that treasure with his fellow inmates, this Jew advertised that the use of his siddur could be had by any other inmate in exchange for that inmate's daily ration of food. After watching this man day after day take from emaciated, diseased and dying Jews the rations that may have been the difference between their life and death, in exchange for the mere opportunity to read a prayer from the siddur to G-d, this survivor swore that he would never again participate in the practices of this religion.

Rabbi Silver's response was insightful. Certainly the actions of the Jew with the siddur were wrong and indefensible. But why focus, he asked, upon those despicable actions of one single man. Look at the countless other Jews who regarded their religion so dearly that they would give up their very life's sustenance for a chance to pray properly to G-d.

The media, which unfortunately includes the Jewish media in particular, often attempts to define, and then dismiss, "Orthodox" Jewry with reference to those elements and characteristics that they find easiest to disparage. One can generally expect any story concerning Orthodox Judaism to be accompanied by photographs of Jews with long beards and payos (side curls), black hats and long black coats. Traditional Jews, the message goes, are too unenlightened and insular to be able to engage modern society and to contribute to it. An isolated deviant within Orthodoxy (and they regretfully exist, just as they do within any population), such as the man who would use his siddur to take advantage of the genuine piety of others, is often held out as an example of a defective community.

Orthodox Jewry, however, is not so monolithic or disengaged - and it certainly does not lack virtue. It is comprised of hundreds of thousands of honest, intelligent, educated, articulate and broad-minded men and women fully and passionately engaged in the day to day affairs of contemporary society in a thoughtful, concerned and productive fashion. They might not be United States senators or vice-presidential candidates, but they may be faithful government workers or honest and hard-working doctors, accountants or business owners. They may look like Senator Joseph Lieberman, with long blond hair blowing in the wind, or they may choose to attire themselves in a more traditional manner. Regardless, Senator Lieberman has demonstrated to the world that the face of Orthodox Jewry is in fact one face of the 21st century.

With his integrity, passion and sensitivity, Senator Lieberman has truly earned the Kesser Shem Tov (the "crown of a good name"), which the Mishna in Pirkei Avos notes is the attribute that rises above all others. His dedicated work has effectively brought that crown to rest not just on himself, but also on the head of each and every Jewish person who shares a commitment to justice and to G-d.

With such a result, it is difficult to see how the Jewish people can emerge as anything but winners in this election year.


Mr. Raskas is an attorney in Baltimore, Maryland.

 


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