Indeed, had anyone predicted 35 years ago that in 2000 a Jew would be named to the national ticket, most people, particularly Jews, would have assumed that the candidate would be a rather assimilated Jew, the sort commonly referred to in the Jewish community as a "three-day-a-year Jew," one who shows up in synagogue only on the High Holidays and perhaps attends a Passover Seder.
Instead, a phenomenon has now occurred. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, perhaps the most religiously committed Jew ever to enter American political life, has now been named to a national ticket.
Still, people are sure to start asking: How will Lieberman's Orthodoxy affect his electability and his job performance should he become vice president or even president? It certainly is a legitimate question. If a man doesn't use electricity for a daylong period each week, from Friday night to Saturday night, and is indeed committed to doing no work on that day, is it safe to entrust such a man with national office?
In truth, Lieberman's religiosity has not hindered him yet. The Democratic convention in Connecticut that nominated him for the Senate was held on a Saturday, and he wasn't present for his own nomination. Instead, he sent the convention a video, in which he explained to the delegates that he did not work on his Sabbath (and seeking a nomination definitely qualities as work), but expressed his gratitude to the delegates for nominating him. After such a well-publicized incident, his religiosity was well known to Connecticut voters, and it didn't seem to alienate many of them.
In the Senate, his religiosity has not hurt him either. I've heard Lieberman tell the story of how a crucial Senate vote came up on a Friday night, and so he resolved to remain in the Senate while the matter was debated and voted upon. Since senators vote by pushing an electronic button, he arranged for his friend, Vice President Al Gore, to push the button at his request. Then he walked back to the room he had taken for the Sabbath (it was too far to walk to his house, and he doesn't drive on the Sabbath), trailed by a police car.
But, one may argue, vice presidents and presidents have more pressing obligations than do senators, and therefore these Sabbath restrictions could prove damaging to the country. And what if, God forbid, something happens to the president, and the Orthodox Vice President Lieberman were to become president?
In truth, Judaism is an eminently practical religion. Strict as the Sabbath laws are, Jewish tradition has always held that all these laws are suspended in cases of pikuach nefesh--endangerment of life--and virtually any emergency matter that comes before the president can, and should, be classified in that category. If a matter is not an emergency, and it can be dealt with equally effectively Sunday or Monday, is it such a bad thing for a country to have a chief of state who for 24 hours each week is actually thinking about something other than politics, such as God?
I recall that when Lieberman emerged as a senatorial candidate, there was discussion among some whether it was an appropriate position for an Orthodox Jew. Then, during the Monica Lewinsky controversy, Lieberman spoke out, and it immediately became clear that not only had he been accepted as a mainstream Democrat, he was widely regarded as the conscience of the Democratic Party. Why? Specifically because he is a man who takes God and religion seriously.
My one significant personal experience with Senator Lieberman likewise suggested to me how finely attuned his conscience is. In 1996, I embarked on a campaign to try and establish in the United States a "National Speak No Evil Day," a day each year during which Americans would try for a period of 24 hours to say nothing unkind about or to anyone. I sought out two senators to sponsor this resolution, Joseph Lieberman and Connie Mack, the Republican senator from Florida. I remember that when I met with Lieberman and his aide, Nina Bang-Jensen, he commented to Bang-Jensen, "This will be a real mitzvah for you." A mitzvah is, first of all, a divine commandment, but in spoken American-Jewish English it also refers to a very good deed, the right and decent thing to do. Bang-Jensen laughed, but it was clear that whoever worked for Joseph Lieberman knew what a mitzvah is.
Unfortunately, the National Speak No Evil resolution never got the requisite 50 senatorial co-sponsors, but Sen. Joseph Lieberman has gone on to accumulate many mitzvahs. He is a man who has a higher standard by which to judge himself than many others, and even when I don't agree with his positions, he is one of those politicians--they may be few in number--who I believe asks himself, "What is truly the right thing, even the Godly thing, to do?"
I believe that having in office someone who asks himself that sort of question would be a pretty good way to start the new millenium.