Being an Orthodox Jew has not stopped Sen. Joseph Lieberman from rising to national stature. Indeed, his aura of integrity is often attributed to the very fact of his Orthodoxy.
But now that the Connecticut Democrat is said to be on Al Goreís short list of vice presidential candidates, the issue of his Orthodoxy is being revisited. Is it racist for an Orthodox Jew to oppose interdating or intermarriage? On Saturdays, what would come first, duty to God or duty to country?The Weekly Standard (March 20) acknowledges that ìLieberman is thought of as a mensch,î but even thatís a problem because ìGore would have to find somebody else to act as hatchetman. Another concern is that as an Orthodox Jew, Lieberman is prevented from using anything automated ó cars, telephones, electricity ó from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. That would provoke questions about his ability to govern in the event he became president.îWhy are these questions even being asked? Judith Shulevitz in Slate (March 30) points out that Lieberman has been in the Senate for 11 years and hasnít missed a vote on Friday nights or Saturdays ó he walks, and there are voice votes ó nor has he missed any Saturday meetings at the White House when heís been invited.Shulevitz cites rabbis and professors of Talmud at Yeshiva University to testify that Liebermanís governmental duties can be reconciled with ìthe strictest construction of Jewish lawî under the principles of ìpikuach nefesh, the ëvalue of human life,í and tzorchei tzibbur, ëthe needs of the community.í îLieberman told Slate that he didnít want to seem presumptuous but it was important to set the record straight on how an Orthodox Jew would balance responsibilities. ìIíd try to schedule [critical White House meetings] some other time [than Shabbat], but if something needed to be done, Iíd do it [and] if I had to ride, Iíd ride,î he said.All right, then, but what about this front-page headline in The New York Observer (May 1): ìWhat Would a Jewish Veep Say About Intermarriage?
îPhilip Weiss, a Jew married to a non-Jew, points out that ìGeorge W. Bush was strung up for visiting Bob Jones University, which had a policy against interracial dating. So what about the dating policy in conservative Jewish organizations: the strict stance against intermarriage?î
The article is equally fascinating for the questions Weiss poses to all Jews who are opposed to intermarriage.ìOn some levels,î admits Weiss, ìthe Jewish opposition to intermarriage is perfectly understandable [but] the rhetoric and practices surrounding opposition to intermarriage are often so discriminatory they seem to border on racism. … In fact, how many gentiles have felt excluded, caricatured, misunderstood by Jewish associates? Xenophobia and disdain are alive and well in the Jewish community today.îWeiss went on to say: ìThe Orthodox Union, of which Senator Lieberman is a member, repeatedly characterizes intermarriage in chilling terms in public statements. It is a ëthreatí even to ëphysical survival,í one official commentary on [the Orthodox Union] Web site says. … Orthodox children are all but segregated from wider American society in day schools; even play is discouraged. ëIt All Begins with a Dateí is the name of an anti-intermarriage book that is promoted on the Conservative movementís Web site.îWeiss points out that Orthodox and Conservative Jews ìbar the intermarried from many leadership positions, including day-school teachers and youth workers, because they are not good ërole models,í and exclude the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers (who have not converted) from attendance at summer camps.îMeanwhile, he writes, ìJohn McCain scored points in Michigan by saying, feelingly, that Bob Jonesís policy against interracial dating (since abandoned) was ëcruelí to young people. The same can be said about attitudes and policies in the Jewish community.îNot only is this ìundemocratic,î writes Weiss, but even ìthe term ëmixed marriage,í favored by some anti-intermarriage writers, seems oddly reminiscent of Southern whitesí concern with miscegenation.îWeiss says that Lieberman declined to respond to his fax on the issue, his spokesman saying he did not see the question as ìpertinentî to his job.
Slateís Shulevitz (May 1) again comes to Liebermanís defense, pointing out that ìJudaism is, among other things, a religion. The Jewish objection to intermarriage is (in part) identical to the Catholic, Moslem, Greek Orthodox … objection to intermarriage. If you recognize the right of these religions to exist, then you have to acknowledge the validity of their distress at intermarriage and their attempts to limit it.îRacism, she says, has nothing to do with it. ìEven the most religious Jews drop their opposition to a so-called ëmixed marriageí when the non-Jewish partner converts. The edict at Bob Jones, on the other hand, was aimed at the preservation of a race. A white person was not allowed to date a black person. There was no conversion option.îNevertheless, for all the moral glow attached to Liebermanís Orthodoxy during the impeachment months, Orthodox Jews more recently have been increasingly challenged in the media as bigoted or hopelessly outdated regarding homosexuality, circumcision and now whether it is racist to fight intermarriage. Additionally, is old-time Zionism racism? Lieberman is a traditional religious Zionist but the ascendant post-Zionist Israelis, even in the Israeli cabinet, are rethinking the morality and ethics of that, as well.Lieberman, the Orthodox Zionist, may have to answer questions about that, too, before the summerís over.