There have been many other Jews who have reached great heights of American political achievement. Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright come immediately to mind. The difference between them and Sen. Joseph Lieberman is that in their case their Jewishness was incidental, rather than central, to their political views and careers. But Senator Lieberman was chosen not despite the fact that he is an Orthodox Jew but rather because of it. The strength of his faith is central to his appeal.
The American electorate is like a sailboat tacking in the wind, and the political wind has now shifted. In the '92 election, it was "the economy, stupid." But after eight years of phenomenal prosperity, it's now "the morality, stupid." It's "the family, stupid." Now that we've reestablished the health of the American "body" (the economy), there is a consensus that we must now reinvigorate the American soul (our values).
It's interesting to note that the political pundits were only half right about this election. They all said that John McCain's insurgent campaign was due to the electorate looking for a hero. Indeed, it was. But not a military hero. America was looking for a man (or woman) who is a hero to his or her spouse and kids. A hero at home rather than a hero on the battlefield. With all the criticism aimed at Al Gore for being wooden and lacking charisma, you would hardly have expected that he would have selected a running mate who is not celebrated for his electricity. But this proves that Gore, reading the pulse of the American people, understands that we have reached an age where people find morality to be magnetism and character to be charisma.
But Lieberman as a candidate of high moral stature is only half the story. He is not, after all, the only man of integrity in American politics. Al Gore could easily have chosen a devout Christian member of Congress as his running mate. The difference here is that Lieberman is a moral, ethical Jew.
There are two things that distinguish Jewish from Christian morality. First, Jewish morality is based primarily around the family. Whereas in classical Christianity, the family is the next best thing to celibacy, in Judaism it is the best thing period. Most Jewish spiritual practices revolve around the family, from the celebration of the Sabbath to the eating of the Passover Seder to the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah. Monasticism and celibacy are in Judaism sinful rather than saintly. Senator Lieberman's choice is a ringing endorsement of the family unit. The picture that ran in all the major media markets the morning when his nomination was made public was of him walking with his wife and daughter to synagogue on the Sabbath. When I was asked on the Fox News Network whether Senator Lieberman's observance of the Sabbath would make him a bad campaigner, I argued that the opposite was true. So many politicians cynically use their families as props to get votes. Who has ever heard of a man who puts his family before the votes? Who in the midst of a presidential election puts principles before politics, spending one day home each week eating chicken soup with his kids rather than consuming caviar with lobbyists? Besides, do we really believe that what America is missing most is yet another campaign stump speech on a Saturday afternoon?
It should be noted that not a single major Jewish religious personality in the United States called for Bill Clinton's resignation or removal from office over Monica Lewinsky. Rather, they called for his repentance. Even Senator Lieberman's much quoted criticism of President Clinton on the Senate floor was a model of moderation in which he expressly stated that he did not wish to see the president impeached. America respects Joe Lieberman because he is a humane moral voice with a down-to-earth spiritual center, rather than a know-it-all spiritual crusader with a holier-than-thou aloofness. America wants leaders who are spiritual. But it wants them humble and approachable, caring and compassionate.
And Orthodox Judaism--long the most insular and misunderstood of all world religions--is beginning to exert a curious yet undeniable influence throughout the land. One need look no further than the 20 million daily listeners to Dr. Laura Schlessinger and the popularity of the Kabbalah and synagogue among Hollywood stars to witness this influence. People want spirituality that works, and Orthodox Judaism, with its often practical orientation, is refreshingly appealing. That is not to say that America wants to be Jewish. It is to say that America can now appreciate and feel enriched by those who are Jewish.
If he wins the election, will Vice President Lieberman stop observing the Sabbath in order to better serve America? Perhaps. But I think it far more likely that America will start observing the Sabbath in order to better serve its families. I can see thousands of households across the fruited plane spending an uninterrupted weekend day of quality family time, with no phones, television, or internet to distract them. Because once the second-most-important man in the land shows us that his family is more important than even affairs of state, how will we fool ourselves into believing that our golf game is more important than our families?