As this issue goes to press, the result of the November election is unknown. But whatever the outcome, the nomination of Joseph I. Lieberman is a moment of truth for American Jews. The following essay was originally given as a sermon by Rabbi Gellman on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.
Even if this were not the season of confession, I would freely admit to many foolish conceits and unwarranted prejudices. One of them is a prejudice against Jews who collect duck decoys. I want to ask them, “Why are you doing this? Do you enjoy duck hunting, or is this collection of duck decoys more the result of your love of gentiles than your love of ducks? Duck hunting is their sport. Our sport is golf, or gin rummy.”
The assimilationist hunger among Jews is epitomized for me by a clothing manufacturer named Ralphie Lipshitz who, with the aid of some blond gentile models, some flannel clothes, and, yes, a few duck decoys, became Ralph Lauren—a Jew who out–gentiled the gentiles. Irving Berlin, a cantor’s son who changed his name from Israel Baline, stoked the assimilationist legacy with his music. In 1942, when Auschwitz was belching smoke, Irving Berlin was belting out the music for “White Christmas,” the most popular Christmas song ever. It was a fitting complement to another of his great hits, “Easter Parade.” I have decided this yontif to finally forgive Ralphie Lipshitz and Israel Baline, and all the duck decoy Jews, because they were all born before Joe Lieberman.
The selection of the first Jew—that is, the first Jew who had not already become an Episcopalian—to run on a national ticket is not a small thing. Not since Sandy Koufax decided not to pitch in the World Series thirty–five years ago has a Jew entered the national consciousness of America in so deep and complex a way.
Joe Lieberman’s selection has definitively ended the assimilationist myth that in order to succeed in America you have to hide your Jewishness. How can duck decoy Jews let their kids skip out of synagogue to attend a soccer game when the possible Vice President of the United States is skipping out on a campaign strategy session to go to synagogue? In fact, one could argue that Lieberman was selected to run for the second highest office in the land not despite his Jewishness, but because of it. In his prophetic jeremiad against Bill Clinton and his attack on violence and pornography in the media, his faith and his morality, his piety and his politics, are conjoined—and they were considered assets, not liabilities, by Al Gore.
John F. Kennedy set the pre–Lieberman model for dealing with one’s faith while running for high office. Kennedy built a firewall between his religion and his politics, claiming that his faith was a private matter and that it would not influence his public decisions in any way. The nine other Jewish Senators and thirty Congressmen who serve today all ran on the Kennedy plan. Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, for example, was the head of the United Jewish Appeal, but he never mentioned it during any of his campaigns. But the old way of separating one’s religion from one’s politics is dead and gone with Joe.
Another consequence of Joe Lieberman’s selection is that the hysterical and, I believe, largely irrational fear of the Christian right harbored by so many Jews must now end. I am delighted that in his first campaign speech in Nashville Lieberman invoked God thirteen times. I am delighted that he went to a black Baptist church in Detroit and told a wildly cheering audience that America needs “a new spiritual awakening”—and then said, “The First Amendment promises us freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.” He went on to say that he hoped his nomination would “encourage people to feel more free to talk about their faith” and reinforce the idea that “there must be a place for faith in America’s public life.” The next day in Chicago he called America “the most religious country in the world” and said that not only were Americans citizens of the same country, but that “we are also children of the same awesome God.”
If a Christian politician had said these very same words, many Jews would have gone berserk. Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti–Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, did go berserk. But for most Jews the language of politically active faith doesn’t now seem so frightening or subversive of the Constitution. Lieberman, in linking both the founding of the nation and morality to religion, was quoting John Adams and George Washington, not Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used such language to condemn segregation and urge a change in America’s laws, and nobody complained that he was violating the separation of church and state. It is unfair and hypocritical for us to accuse Christian conservatives of doing the same thing Christian liberals did at the time of Dr. King and that Joe Lieberman is doing now. The fact that a political position has its origins in faith ought not make it frightening or subversive. The fear in the Jewish community of politically active religious people ends with Lieberman, because he is one of them.
Another consequence of this historic selection is that it now frees Jews to vote against Lieberman even though he is Jewish. His selection is the historic moment that marks full Jewish acceptance in America—not the rise of Henry Kissinger, not the movies of Steven Spielberg, not the corporate mastery of Michael Eisner. None of them have done and none of them mean what Lieberman has done and what Lieberman means. True acceptance means that we as Jews can be delighted that he was nominated and then vote against him because we do not agree with his politics. Voting for Lieberman because he is Jewish is just as wrong as voting against Lieberman because he is Jewish. Acceptance means being considered for public office because of where you stand on the issues, not where you stand on the sabbath. Politics isn’t baseball. There is no room in politics for irrational rooting for the hometown team. If you believe in Lieberman’s political views, then you should vote for him; if you don’t, then you shouldn’t, and you should not feel as if you have betrayed Judaism or the Jewish people or God by your vote. And if you vote for him, it better be for more substantial reasons than simply the fact that he can pronounce a chaf and layn torah. I guarantee you that Jesse Jackson would not vote for Colin Powell just because he’s black. Joe Lieberman’s selection is important not because it tells us how to vote, but because it tells us how far we have come, and because it shows us the new possibilities for living a Jewish life that is public, political, and powerful.
Two hundred years ago Napoleon told the council of French Jews who were seeking civil rights after the French Revolution, “Everything to you as Frenchmen, nothing to you as Jews!” This Napoleonic deal has set the parameters of Jewish power since the Enlightenment and until Lieberman. After Napoleon the price for civil rights was a kind of cultural Judaiectomy, the excising of one’s Jewishness from one’s public life. Napoleon’s deal was eagerly accepted by French Jews and other Jews of Europe who had been chafing under the burdens of institutionalized European anti–Semitism since the Crusades in the eleventh century. Yehudah Lieb Gordon gave voice to Napoleon’s deal: “I will be a Jew in my tent, and a German on the street.” But being a Jew in your tent was often not enough to satisfy the heirs of Napoleon. Often, conversion to Christianity was also necessary to prove one’s national allegiance to the Christian culture of the state. Benjamin Disraeli’s father had him baptized at the age of thirteen to lubricate his slide into the upper classes. When Queen Victoria asked Disraeli, then Prime Minister of England, if he was an Old Testament person or a New Testament person, he answered, “Neither. I am the blank page between the testaments.”
Well, Joe Lieberman is not a blank page. The pages of his life are filled with Hebrew and Yiddish writing. In a campaign appearance in Florida with Al Gore, Tipper Gore, and Hadassah Lieberman, he called the Vice President and himself nochshleppers (hangers–on) in comparison to their beautiful wives. How can you not love the fact that for the first time in history the word nochshlepper has been used in an American political campaign! Lieberman is not campaigning on shabbat. He is turning down the pork ribs in Alabama, and if he is elected he is going to walk to the inauguration on Saturday afternoon. Lieberman is a new thing and he marks a new time. He is the first completely public Jew to run for high office anywhere at any time in Jewish history. Everything was given to him because he is a Jew, not because he is the senior Senator from Connecticut. With the selection of Joe Lieberman the Napoleonic deal is dead.
Let me ask you to ask yourselves, beyond what Joe Lieberman means to Jewish history and to the culture wars over politics and religion, what does his selection mean to you in your Jewish life? I think Joe Lieberman has become a kind of assimilationist Rorschach test for the American Jewish community, and many Jews are not happy to be tested in quite this way. Have you ever said to yourself, “He is just too Jewish for my tastes”? If so, go buy a duck decoy. Have you ever felt just a little twinge of embarrassment or discomfort that his wife’s name is Hadassah and not Tipper or Muffy? If so, go buy a duck decoy. Does the fact that he can find time to go to shul on shabbos while you are out golfing make you think that there is something wrong with him? If so, go buy a duck decoy.
I was jolted into Jewish consciousness by Koufax’s decision not to pitch on the Sabbath in the 1965 World Series. I took it as a personal challenge to do more for my Jewish life, to sacrifice more for the Jewish people, to assert with more vigor my pride in all things Jewish. Perhaps the selection of Joe Lieberman will have such an effect on some kid today. I pray that young Jews and others who are still impressionable might be moved into a deeper and more confident Jewish life because of this event.
Some Jews are scared to death that in the privacy of the voting booth, an anti–Semitic backlash will take place. Perhaps they are right; perhaps Napoleon was right. Acceptance in America obviously does not mean acceptance by every American. The New York Times recently reported that one in five Americans harbors some anti–Semitic beliefs, but I pray that this cancer of Jew hatred is dead or in remission in this great country of ours. I pray that Americans will listen to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
In the end, Joe Lieberman and his politically public Judaism may actually help to revive Judaism in America. Any religion, particularly Judaism, that is forced to become completely private is forced to become completely dead. Judaism gave the world the prophets, and the prophets gave the world the message that private rituals are not enough to please God. Although private religion might repair our broken hearts, it is incapable of repairing our broken world. On Yom Kippur we read from Isaiah 58, in which God condemns those who fast from eating but refuse to fast from oppressing their workers. On the day of our most inward and private rituals, we are jolted by Isaiah into a realization that God wants us to build a Judaism that has the public purchase and political vigor to fight for those who sleep in the dust and fast not because they are pious but because they are poor.
Would you really be more proud of and more connected to your Judaism if it had nothing to say about hunger or homelessness; nothing to say about capital punishment or abortion; nothing to say about euthanasia or rationing health care; nothing to say about genetic engineering or third world debt, violence or pornography, poverty or slavery? Would Judaism truly inspire you and uplift you, would it transform your soul and realize your dreams if it was merely a complete theory of candle lighting and bread blessing? One of the reasons why so many people care so little about Judaism is that Judaism—through its official interpreters, that is—seems to care so little about the great issues of our world. Napoleon forced us to privatize our Judaism, but many Jews have made a virtue out of that distorted and disfigured compact. Such a Judaism would be incomprehensible both to Isaiah and to God.
This is indeed a great and historic moment for Jews and for America, but it is also a great and historic challenge. Through this moment we may have the opportunity not only to bring Judaism closer to the world, but also perhaps to bring the world closer to Judaism. This is one election where we really can say that the phrase in the pledge of allegiance, “One Nation Under God,” is not just a political slogan. It is the truth of our nation, and someday, perhaps, with God’s help, it will be the truth of all nations.
Marc Gellman is the rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Dix Hills, New York, and author of God’s Mailbox, Lost and Found, and How Do You Spell God?