Going back to John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign, when he had to make it clear that he wouldn’t govern by the dictates of his Catholic church, through the rise of the Christian right, through numerous debates, from abortion to end-of-life issues, few things have rattled Jews more than the prospect of undue interference by religious leaders upon the nation’s lawmaking. After all, religion thrives on absolutes while politics thrives on compromise.
So when Joseph Lieberman, the independent U.S. senator from Connecticut, is castigated by fellow Jews “for failing to uphold two cardinal commands of Torah: pekuach nefesh (saving life) and tzedek tzedek tirdof (justice, justice shall you pursue),” according to an Open Letter organized by the Shalom Center and signed by thousands, writes the center’s Rabbi Arthur Waskow, we have a problem.
The headline in The Daily Beast the other day was, “Joe, Start Acting Jewish.” The story, by senior columnist Lee Siegel, says the senator “has derived his political morality from his religious fundamentalism.” And there are many other examples of Lieberman being called out as somehow less of a believer in tikkun olam than other Jews with other political views.
It’s not a matter of whether we agree with Lieberman on his criticism of the health care legislation, but that he is being attacked as an observant Jew perceived as not living up to the demands of his religion.
This is a slippery slope, indeed, and we can imagine the outcry, and deservedly so, if Orthodox rabbis spoke out against Jews in public positions for violating the laws of the Sabbath or kashrut or a few of the Ten Commandments.
Judaism is not a one-party state, either religiously or politically, even within denominations. And Lieberman is far from the only politician whose positions have frustrated allies and friends, yet he seems to be the only politician in this fracas whose religious integrity has been questioned.
There have been calls for his wife to be dismissed from charity campaigns, and there has been a thoroughly unfair mocking of the senator’s religious observance, having nothing to do with health care.
Ours is a diverse community, united by little beyond our common aspiration to pluralism and civility. We are not a community where rocks are thrown at Jews who desecrate Shabbat, or those who intermarry, or who support Israel in a different fashion. We cannot be a community where rabbis, be they chasidic or Reform, throw “rocks” at politicians or congregants over areas of honest disagreement. Bullying in the name of tikkun olam can’t be what the Torah had in mind.