In Praise of Public Life: The Honor and Purpose of Political Service
By Joseph I. Lieberman, with Michael D'Orso
Simon and Schuster, 174 pp.

When Abraham was 99, God promised him that if he and his children circumcised their sons, they would be a chosen people. When Joseph Lieberman was 18, Yale President Whitney Griswold reminded Lieberman and his fellow freshmen that they, too, had been specially chosen--and "that with that privilege came an obligation to give back by striving for positions of leadership and service in society."

"To my ears," writes Lieberman in "In Praise of Public Life," his autobiographical meditation on the meaning of public service published to coincide with his campaign to be Al Gore's No. 2, "this was a very comfortable extension of...the ethos of the covenant." From Canaan to K Street, Babylonia to the Bulldogs, Lieberman sees the holy amid the mundane, so much so that at times he mistakes the one for the other.

Long known as a thoughtful, humane, and moderate voice within the Democratic Party, Lieberman views politics as an extension of his faith. From his childhood rabbi, Lieberman learned the Jewish injunction of tikkun olam: Every Jew is obligated "to complete the Creation" by improving the world. This concept "presumes the inherent but unfulfilled goodness of people and requires action for the benefit of the community."

Tikkun olam requires a particular attitude to politics, one that is idealistic without being impractical. We must strive for justice and perfection but remember that it always eludes us. Quoting a famous passage from the Talmud, Lieberman writes, "The day is short and there is much work to be done. You are not required to complete the work yourself, but you cannot withdraw from it either."

Inspired by these passages, generations of Jewish thinkers have urged Jews to take radical measures on behalf of social justice. The 20th-century theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel was actively involved in the civil-rights movement; there's a famous photograph of him standing next to Martin Luther King, the Torah cradled in his arms.

Lieberman, though, is no crusader. He's a mainstream New Democrat. And when he invokes faith, he is more likely to mean "pursuing...heavenly aspirations along the very earthly path of practical politics in Connecticut" than letting justice roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Though Lieberman's faith might seem to set him apart, most of the time he sounds like just another politician. He advises aspiring young politicos that a "candidate must keep polling right up until the end [of a campaign], and be prepared to conduct the campaign accordingly." He is obsessed with compromise, bipartisanship, and getting along with people. "Your ability to get something done," he notes, "often depends on your rapport with your colleagues." If you want to go into politics, he says, and "you don't fundamentally like people, then this is probably not the career for you." Sounds more like Dale Carnegie than Amos, Isaiah, or the famously disputatious Talmudic rabbis.

Once upon a time, politicians invoked religion to galvanize a lethargic public and confront monumental injustices. This is what faith taught Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War: "If God wills that it continue," he said in his Second Inaugural, "until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.'"

When Franklin Roosevelt was asked by a reporter what he believed in, he replied simply, "I am a Christian and a Democrat." Supported by both pillars of this political faith, he denounced the "moneychangers" who "have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization" and called for "social values more noble than mere monetary profit."

Today, Lieberman's faith leads him to praise Ronald Reagan's "emphasis on economic growth"; to recall with pleasure how in his 1988 senatorial campaign against liberal Republican Lowell Weicker he was aided by William F. Buckley and other Republicans who believed that Weicker was too independent and Lieberman was, in his own words, "a kosher alternative"; to claim that our country is facing a crisis "not rooted in the economy...or civil and human rights" but "in ourselves, our values and the broad cultural and moral environment in which we are living our lives and raising our children." Where Lincoln and FDR looked to religion for answers to fundamental questions about economic justice and basic rights, Lieberman invokes it to extol Republicans. Where Lincoln and FDR believed faith should be mobilized as a battering ram against mammon, Lieberman sees faith as an opportunity to talk--and talk and talk--about...faith. Lieberman's politics doesn't need religion; his religion needs a little politics.

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