Last week, virtually all the rabbis in America enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame. With the announcement that a Sabbath-observant Orthodox Jew had been nominated to be Al Gore's running mate, every major network scrambled to get a rabbi on the air to talk about what Senator Lieberman could and could not do on the Sabbath. The desperation was so great that a friend of mine who asserts himself to be an agnostic but happens to work for a Jewish website was drafted onto TV to discuss how Lieberman's observance would affect national policy. (His insights: The military would now purchase jets wholesale, and we would declare a new national holiday: Jewish Mother's Day--celebrated with the ritual donning of two sweaters by every good American son and daughter, at the height of the mid-August heat.) While I myself am apolitical, I am as jubilant about Joe Lieberman's nomination as any Jew in America. Moreover, I have had occasion to meet Senator Lieberman and found him to be an exceptional man of humility, wisdom, and grace.
As the euphoria settles, a sobering analysis does reveal the potential for the Lieberman nomination to create as much difficulty and dilemma within the Jewish community as it does delight. The nomination of an observant Jew may throw the two major American Jewish groups--the non-Orthodox, that is, Reform and Conservative, and Orthodoxy--into crisis.
The quandary for the non-Orthodox is obvious. Reform and Conservative Judaism, together comprising the overwhelming majority of affiliated American Jews, are largely based on a single, underlying premise, namely, that Judaism must adapt to the times if it is to remain relevant. Reform came into being in early 19th-century Germany largely as a response to Jewish political emancipation. Its leaders believed passionately that unless Judaism submitted to the inevitability of historical development and shed some of its more unpalatable and antiquated practices, the consequences would be devastating. Strict adherence to traditional rabbinical interpretation might stunt the development, and perhaps even the survival, of the Jewish people, and would certainly prevent their full integration into modern society. Judaism would continue to die a lonely death of ghettoization.
But then along comes Joseph Lieberman, an observant and Orthodox Jew who has officially reached the highest political plateau of any Jew in American history, and suddenly the idea that Jews must make compromises in their rituals in order to be fully integrated into mainstream culture seems to have been incontrovertibly refuted. This is especially true considering that Lieberman was chosen by Al Gore not in spite of his religious dedication but because of it. The night of the nomination, Senator Gore's aides made a point of telling the media that Al and Tipper had shared a kosher meal with Joe and Hadassah. Lieberman's moralizing on the Senate floor about the Lewinsky affair, together with his strong condemnation of Hollywood excess and his colleagues' description of him as "the rabbi" and "conscience" of the Senate, are a large part of why he was picked for the ticket.
Committed religious observance and the exigencies of politics and government make strange--and to some Orthodox minds, untenable--bedfellows, and the decisions that Senator Lieberman has made, and the measures he will continue to take to achieve his sometimes delicate balancing act, can be expected to stir up controversy among Orthodox representatives. Now that Lieberman has been unofficially crowned the most famous representative of Orthodox Judaism in the world, will the Orthodox rabbinate feel the need to publicly criticize or contradict some of the compromises he may feel himself forced to make? Will Orthodoxy develop a discomfort equal to our current state of elation at Lieberman's nomination, in fear that it may lead more and more Orthodox Jews to emulate Lieberman's standard of observance, participating in civic and government functions on the Sabbath that they might otherwise have avoided but that don't constitute a strict, technical violation of the Sabbath? For example, will we witness an entourage of Orthodox Jews walking to the inauguration-eve balls on Friday night, with the justification that if Vice President-elect Lieberman is present, then they can be there as well?