In Jewish homes, synagogues, and communal organizations, there was a certain amount of legitimate delight expressed yesterday with the selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, as Al Gore's running mate.

Even though it is too soon to tell how a Jewish vice-presidential candidate will play with evangelicals, blacks, and Catholics (not to mention Muslims), Jews were bursting with pride.

"I imagine Jewish mothers all over America calling up their sons and saying, 'Nu, nu, so what's your excuse?'" one of my friends wrote to me in an e-mail.

In formal statements, Jewish organizations gushed, but, at least on Day One, I found the Orthodox reaction a bit restrained.

Shlomo Z. Mostofsky, national president of the National Council of Young Israel, an organization of over 150 Orthodox synagogues throughout North America, called the selection "a historic new level of achievement for American Jewry."

But Mr. Mostofsky also emphasized the universal nature of the choice. The selection of the Connecticut senator, he quickly added, was "proof that America has achieved a new level of acceptance for all minority groups and religious beliefs."

The Orthodox Union, which certifies kosher products as well as provides support for synagogues and youth groups, downplayed the religious significance. In a statement, Dr. Mandell Ganchrow noted that the choice of Lieberman was made "without thought to extraneous matters such as religion."

Betty Ehrenberg, the director of International and Communal Affairs for the Orthodox Union, added that "once the novelty dies down, most Americans will make their assessments on the issues, like the economy, health care and his voting record."

"I don't think his religious behavior will be the focus," she said. "Whether or not there's a kosher kitchen in the vice president's mansion will be interesting for one or two newspaper articles, but people will make their assessment based on the merits."

Non-Orthodox groups seemed more comfortable seeing a religious meaning in the selection. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism did not issue a statement, but when I reached Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the organization's executive vice president, he demurred on politics.

"There are better pundits than me who can tell you what this means from a political point of view," he said.

But from the vantage point of religion, Epstein saw only positives. "Many committed Conservative and Reform Jews will see this as a very positive empowerment," he said. "The fact that Lieberman makes Sabbath observance a priority will resonate well beyond the political."

The statement from Reform Judaism was the most joyful and, in some ways, the most Jewish. "We in the American Jewish community cannot but take some measure of pride (or, as the senator might say, naches) in the fact that, for the first time, a member of our community has a place on a national ticket," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

He continued: "For the first time, our children can look at a candidate for the second-highest office in the land and see themselves." Almost as an afterthought, he added: "And we are confident one of the messages in Senator Lieberman's selection--that every American child can believe that, some day, he or she might be president--will be heard clearly, especially in other minority communities."

Why the Orthodox restraint for one of its own boys?

Yaakov Kornreich, a journalist and columnist for Orthodox newspapers, said that many Orthodox were afraid of a backlash. "Remember the Al Smith and Geraldine Ferraro factor," he said.

Smith (the first Catholic to run for president) and Ferraro (the first woman on a national ticket for vice president) were held accountable by many for their party's losses. "They became poster children for discrimination in this country," Kornreich said. If the Gore-Lieberman ticket loses, he said, Orthodox Jews will be blamed.

I think there is another fear here as well. The Orthodox embrace is not complete because they're not quite sure Lieberman is one of their boys.

"Let's face it, with Lieberman we're dealing with the liberal left of the radical right," said Professor Samuel Heilman of the City University of New York, the author of several books on Orthodox Jews.

Heilman's point was that Lieberman is not your stereotypical Orthodox Jew. He doesn't wear the distinctive dark dress of the more traditional Orthodox and doesn't have a beard or wear a hat at all times. The right and left of Orthodoxy have been fighting for years about what behaviors are appropriate.

The more traditional element, which controls most Orthodox organizations, does not want a self-described "modern" Orthodox Jew to set the terms of what is proper and what is not in Jewish practice.

Lieberman, despite his Jewish observance, has made several well-reported religious compromises in an effort to be true to both his religion and his public responsibilities.

For example, he will not violate the Sabbath by driving or being driven in a car, but he will appear in the Senate to vote or participate in crucial meetings, compromises that many modern Orthodox Jews would make. Jewish law clearly makes allowances for emergencies--human life is the highest value, and rabbis routinely give dispensations to doctors, for example, to break the Sabbath in life-and-death situations. I've never heard anyone question the compromises that Senator Lieberman has made. But are Lieberman's allowances normative? Will that now become Orthodox practice?

The way I see it, the Orthodox establishment very much wants to see Lieberman as vice president but does not want him to see him as America's chief rabbi. Leave the religious decisions to us, they are saying; let Joe handle the politics.

What's more, while the Reform Rabbi Saperstein--and many modern Orthodox--see a role model in Lieberman, the more fervently Orthodox don't really want their children to be president. Chief rabbis maybe, but presidents, no thank you. Too many religious compromises.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad