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Jewish World Review August 10, 2000 /9 Menachem-Av, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

Joe Lieberman, Fundamentalist -- WHO WOULD HAVE GUESSED that the first fundamentalist to be nominated for vice president of the United States would be a Jewish one?

Connecticut's Joe Lieberman may not be thought of as a representative of the Religious Right, but he's big on family values, social cohesion and decency -- on television, in the movies and just in general. He's never confused the separation of church and state with the separation of religious values from public life. And he's not scared of religious symbols in everyday life. Sounds like the Religious Right to me, or at least the Religious Middle.

That a Jew has been chosen as a vice-presidential nominee is not as remarkable as the kind of Jew Al Gore chose: a man whose religious values are steadfastly reflected in his public stances. He's not a Felix Frankfurter or Henry Kissinger -- figures whose religion seemed incidental to their public personas, rather than central.

Joe Lieberman's piety is unassuming and unostentatious, but it's also undeniable. It's as if he wore an invisible yarmulke wherever he went.

One suspects that, if Senator Lieberman were an equally committed Baptist or Mormon, many of those now hailing his nomination would be murmuring darkly about the dangers of the Religious Right. It'll be interesting to see if the ACLU objects to a fundamentalist on the ticket when he's a Jewish one.

Joe Lieberman's religion isn't just another blank to be completed in his "Who's Who'' entry. This guy isn't just Jewish, he's shomer shabbos. That is, a watchman or guardian of the Sabbath -- one who observes the Sabbath laws, albeit in his own way.

For example, he participated in the Senate's debate over impeachment on a Saturday, but he walked to the Capitol -- a two-mile hike. In accordance with Jewish law, he didn't drive.

Yes, he's voted in the U.S. Senate on a Saturday, but he's declined to campaign on that day. Senator Lieberman says he participates in Senate votes on the Sabbath when it furthers a respect for human life and dignity. OK by me.

The need to serve the whole community, rather than just one's self, may also take precedence over the Sabbath in Jewish law -- if I remember my Hebrew School lessons right.

Jewish law may actually require one to break the Sabbath in order to save life. Pekuach nefesh, it's called. Some of us wish Senator Lieberman had chosen to respect and protect human life and dignity more clearly than he has. For if there is a cardinal principle of Jewish law, surely it is the simple imperative: Choose life. Instead, he's supported partial-birth abortion.

At least he had qualms about it. When he first voted to uphold Bill Clinton's veto of the ban on this particularly gruesome form of abortion, or maybe form of infanticide, he explained: "I will do so with a growing personal anxiety that something very wrong is happening in our country.''

Years ago, when he was still a new face in the U.S. Senate, he also said he'd support "a requirement that parents of a minor be notified before an abortion is performed.'' But he's repeatedly voted against requiring parental notification for abortions, even when the bill included exemptions for minors who might be abused by their parents.

No, the senator's talking about his qualms isn't as good as doing something about them. But it's better than pretending that nothing is wrong with our fashionable culture of death.

Joe Lieberman has never been fashionable, much to his credit. His popularity has rested on something else: his sense of duty, his quiet competence, his bedrock values. He's one politician who seems to know that there are things more important than politics.

On Monday, asked about the role his faith played in his life, Senator Lieberman answered simply, directly, believably: "My faith is part of me. It's been at the center of who I've been all my life. Without G-d, I wouldn't be here. That's where it all begins.''

Joseph Lieberman didn't have to say so. It's obvious. Anybody who's followed his career even slightly would have assumed as much. His faith shows.

It showed when he spoke out against the constant, daily, accepted, electronic stream of obscenity in American life we call entertainment.

It showed when he gave that remarkable speech of September 3, 1998, in an almost deserted Senate chamber. He spoke quietly and soberly, without anger or bluster or melodrama. He spoke so reasonably that there was no denying his point: The president of the United States had undermined the moral authority of his office. And good men needed to say so.

It was a watershed in the debate over impeachment. From that moment, impeachment was a respectable option. In this campaign, Joe Lieberman could make fundamentalism acceptable, if under a different name. Believing liberalism? (Why not? George W. Bush has made compassionate conservatism well known.)

Even more important than what Senator Lieberman said in his best-known speech was how he said it. He spoke in measured, reasoned fashion. This candidate for vice president isn't likely to go around giving testimonials to G-d as if He were another product to be marketed. But neither will he shy away from what he believes and who he is, which in his case are pretty much the same thing.

Joe Lieberman doesn't make a big thing of his faith. He doesn't have to. Maybe that's why his kind of fundamentalism doesn't upset anybody.

Paul Greenberg Archives


©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate