In the days since Al Gore tapped Sen. Joseph Lieberman as his running mate, a new branch of Judaism has emerged. Sort of. It’s not Modern Orthodoxy, exactly. And it’s not right-wing Conservative, either.
Call it Liebermanism.
With all eyes trained on the expression of the Connecticut Democrat’s faith, the Jewish community, while still basking in the glow of a religious Jew on the Democratic ticket, is now trying to figure out where his level of observance fits in the continuum, and what it all means.
Lieberman belongs to and davens at a Modern Orthodox synagogue in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., yet he prefers the term “observant.” And the first Shabbat after the Democratic National Convention found him at a Conservative synagogue in Wisconsin, where he was
reportedly called to the Torah with his daughter.
The vice presidential nominee campaigned and reportedly was seen drinking water on the fast of Tisha
b’Av, the most mournful night and day of the year. Yet most leaders of the haredi community refuse to criticize him, clearly cutting him some slack because of his spot on the national stage. “We do not presume to judge his minute-by-minute observance,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the fervently Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel.
Lieberman’s brand of Orthodoxy surely has been a shot in the arm for the beleaguered Modern Orthodox movement — Yeshiva University President Norman Lamm used the word “vindication” — yet Modern Orthodox leaders are not claiming him as the poster boy for the movement that is said to be adrift, buffeted by the right, the left and in search of itself.
Could the intense focus on Lieberman lead to a more elastic, tolerant brand of Orthodoxy? Or is it just a temporary courtesy so as not to embarrass such a public figure?
“At a moment when the boundary lines between the movements have been so sharply drawn, the basic message of the Lieberman candidacy is a kind of inclusively of all Jews,” said Steven Bayme, director of Jewish communal affairs at the American Jewish Committee.
“The symbolism of his candidacy,” Bayme continued, “is that here is a Jew, committed to his heritage and taking it seriously, and at the same time immersed in the broader culture. Modern Orthodoxy is the willingness to take two traditions and two cultures with equal seriousness, where there’s consonance and where’s there’s dissonance. That’s the beautiful dream of synthesis.”
Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and previously a severe critic of some aspects of Modern Orthodoxy, said that one of the benefits of the new focus on Lieberman’s Orthodoxy will be the growing awareness that “halacha [Jewish law] and Orthodoxy are far more complex than the little sound bites that have come across. The non-learned Jew still thinks of halacha as a sharp line demarcating the permitted from the forbidden.
“It was never true and it’s not true now,” Rabbi Tendler told The Jewish Week. “We spend our lives asking questions and writing responsa — why would we do that if everything was black and white?”
Rabbi Tendler seemed to be endorsing the new Orthodox elasticity.
“I don’t think it’s fair to look over Lieberman’s shoulder,” he said. “The halachic view is not to judge a man until you’re in his position. Not that we should give him the benefit of the doubt — we shouldn’t be doubting in the first place. For all anyone knows he has a medical condition that required him to drink on Tisha b’Av.”
Yet for some in the community, Lieberman’s liberal interpretation of Orthodox law, and his centrist politics, are cause for criticism.
On the right, Rabbi Meir Fund, ordained at Yeshiva University and the decidedly traditionalist leader of the Flatbush Minyan, told The Jewish Week that Lieberman was as much of a disappointment as a vindication
“I generally think it’s an incredible kiddush Hashem [sanctification of God’s name] what he’s doing,” he said. “But the jolt for me was Lieberman having a campaign rally on Tisha b’Av. Unbelievable. Imagine the impact — more than a thousand speeches on Jerusalem — if the media would have caught him sitting on the ground, actually mourning Jerusalem?”
Meanwhile, on the left, Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, the flagship magazine of the liberal Jewish Renewal movement, said of Lieberman: “One can be the most observant Orthodox Jew and nevertheless be a Hellenist in drag by buying into the worship of money and power.”
Speaking on PBS, Rabbi Lerner said, “I want to take exception to the notion that Lieberman isn’t an assimilated Jew, because there are two kinds of assimilation. There’s assimilation on the issue of private religious practice, and there he’s absolutely not assimilated. But there’s also assimilation to materialism and selfishness.”
Lieberman has cautiously eluded any denominational peg. On the one hand, when speaking in 1997 to Agudah, he said the group was “the Torah-true Orthodox Jewish community. … “We cannot dilute our halachic beliefs … so that we, under the direction of the gedolei Torah [rabbinic sages] will merit once again the coming of Moshiach tzidkeinu b’mheira b’yomeinu [the righteous Messiah, quickly, in our days].”
He also told Agudah that Jews “usually gave me tsuris [aggravation],” but that was only those Jews who didn’t understand his Sabbath observance.
Other the other hand, when asked on Larry King’s talk show about being Orthodox, Lieberman said: “Well, I like to think of myself as an observant Jew, because it is broader and it’s inclusive.” He “mostly” goes to Orthodox shuls, “but we also have worshiped at Conservative and Reform temples. Hey, I have worshiped at churches in my time.”
Lynn Samuels, a popular left-wing talk show host on WABC radio, who admits that although she is Jewish she knew nothing of Tisha b’Av’s laws and customs, began her midnight radio shift on Aug. 15 with an extended monologue on what a sanctimonious “hypocrite” Lieberman was for violating the Orthodox norm of not doing laundry during the Nine Days leading up to Tisha b’Av. She read a story by Matt Drudge, the rogue Internet scoopmeister, concerning allegations that on Tisha b’Av, “While aboard Air Force II, Lieberman was seen drinking and chewing on an apparent snack.”
Not only that, added Samuels, but he must have heard “live music” on Tisha b’Av at his campaign rallies.
Other non-Orthodox Jews challenged Lieberman’s Orthodox practices in ways that the general media and politicians wouldn’t.
Joanne Jacobs of the editorial board of the San Jose Mercury News, wrote of Lieberman refusing to ride or drive on Shabbat: “Orthodox rules for honoring the Sabbath don’t make sense to … Reform Jews like me. It’s considered work to drive or be driven on the Sabbath. But walking isn’t work, no matter how long and arduous the trip. What’s up with that?”
Actually, the Talmud established 39 categories of work — or creation — prohibited on the Sabbath as a reminder that God rested on the seventh day of creation and commanded Jews to do the same each week.
But for all the criticism, what Lieberman’s mix of private faith and public service seems to be doing is possibly creating a more flexible, tolerant Orthodoxy in his wake.
For example, as of now, would a man like Lieberman be ostracized within an Agudah shul because his wife doesn’t cover her hair or goes sleeveless?
“He absolutely would not be ostracized,” said Rabbi Shafran. And in fact there has been a long-standing tradition of tolerance within the Agudah community that the public is becoming aware of as a result of the Lieberman candidacy.
And how did the supposedly “ultra-Orthodox” Agudah react to Lieberman’s reported eating, drinking and campaigning on Tisha b’Av?
Said Rabbi Shafran: “I’d say he failed in that particular observance, and while that’s unfortunate it’s not for me to judge him. Maybe he was sick or dying of thirst, how do I know?
“He’s running for vice president, not chief rabbi,” Rabbi Shafran said. “But Lieberman is, at this point, in a position where he can influence a lot of people.”
Rabbi Saul Berman, director of Edah, the Modern Orthodox advocacy group, said, “the interest in Modern Orthodoxy created by the Lieberman candidacy is an important opportunity for our community to explain what Modern Orthodoxy is, both to the larger Jewish community as well as the broader American society.
“At the same time, we have to be very careful not to make Lieberman into a poster boy of Modern Orthodoxy. He is who he is, and he engages in the same struggles that we all engage in to maximize his own spiritual identity within the context of the real world.”