If Joe Lieberman’s political career flounders, he could always consider the rabbinate.
Last Shabbat, the Democratic presidential candidate delivered a 20-minute d’var Torah that was well received by an overflow crowd of more than 700 worshippers at tony Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach.
He began by noting that the Book of Numbers, now being read in the weekly Torah cycle, with its references to counting the Israelites, has a strong resonance for him. After running for vice president in the unique 2000 national elections, he quipped that he was quite familiar with counting.
Lieberman, who earlier had been called to the Torah and recited the blessings flawlessly, launched into a serious talk dealing more with his ideological views than his political ones. He cited Catholic theologian Michael Novak as well as 19th century Judaic scholar Samson Raphael Hirsch in emphasizing the compatibility of secular freedoms and a Judaic outlook that sees the world as progressing toward an ultimate meaning.
The junior senator from Connecticut, looking relaxed, pointed out that the counting of the Jewish people in the book of Exodus was by individuals, while in Numbers, after they had been unified by the presence of the holy tabernacle, they were counted by tribes. Lieberman said the reading suggested religion can play a central role in society while allowing for individual rights.
He noted that most Americans have no problem with his religion, a point made more forcefully by Rabbi Marc Schneier, who, in introducing the senator, criticized strongly those Jews who are fearful of having a Jew in the White House. The rabbi called such an attitude "a sheepish, defenseless display of a ghetto mentality" and said Lieberman represents a bridge between America and its Judaism.
After services, Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah, daughter Rebecca, and New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, shmoozed with congregants at the lavish kiddush outdoors. The senator also held two fund-raisers while in the Hamptons.
No stranger to Orthodox synagogues, Lieberman is a regular at services in his Georgetown neighborhood of Washington. He told the Westhampton congregation that one has to be crazy to run for shul president, but not so to run for president of the United States.