2016-06-30
Joseph Lieberman may not be vice president-elect, but he remains a historic figure: the first Jewish nominee for the second highest position in the world's number-one superpower.

As a result, even Jews who supported the Bush/Cheney ticket have been rooting, and continue to root, for Lieberman--for his success, that is, as a prominent Jew proudly embracing Jewish observance, in setting a good example for the huge number of American Jews with limited knowledge of their religious heritage.

In that calculus, it is not Lieberman's political office that is of ultimate importance but rather whether he proves to be an instrument of kiddush Hashem--of "sanctifying the name of G-d."

And in many ways he has indeed been that. It became widely known--and widely lauded--that Lieberman had made considerable sacrifices of both comfort and honor for the sake of things like the Jewish Sabbath or kashrut (kosher) laws. And his self-identification as, simply, an observant Jew bespoke an admirable reluctance to "define down" Jewish observance with artificial adjectives, as is so casually and frequently done by so many American Jews.

And so, when questions were raised about specifics of the senator's personal religious observance, Agudath Israel, the Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization--resolutely refused to jump on the basher-bandwagon. We pointed out, in a phrase later widely borrowed by others--including Lieberman himself--that he was "running for vice president, not chief rabbi."

Nevertheless, when the senator carelessly answered some questions about Judaism on a nationally syndicated radio program, the very same concern for kiddush Hashem impelled Agudath Israel to take immediate and public issue with what he said. A prominent observant Jew's every public word or action, after all, has powerful potential for not only good but, G-d forbid, the opposite.

That episode, and, indeed, Lieberman's prominence itself, may hold an important lesson--maybe even a message--for all of us Jews who aspire to the title "observant."

For the senator is far from the only observant Jew in the public eye these days. During the weeks following his nomination, a book about strained relations among Jews garnered widespread attention. "Jew vs. Jew," by Samuel G. Freedman, colorfully chronicles several Jewish communal "hot spots" that have erupted in controversy over recent years. Observant Jews play rather prominent roles in each of the six stories the book tells.

And the current market offers not only Freedman's book (which contends that "in the struggle for the soul of American Jewry, the Orthodox model has triumphed"), but several others that focus on observant Jews. There has been, as well, an abundance of articles in a broad array of publications on varied aspects of Orthodox Jewish life. One of the country's most popular nationally syndicated radio talk-show hosts makes no effort to hide her Orthodox affiliation, and several recent national advertising campaigns have even featured unmistakably Orthodox subjects.

By association, all American Orthodox Jews, whether we wish it were so or not, are on display these days, more than ever before. Unfortunately, there are all too many, even among our fellow Jews, who look at us not with admiration or even curiosity but with something darker.

Throughout Freedman's book, for instance, it becomes clear that observant Jews--not exclusively but especially haredim, those often called "ultra-Orthodox"--are viewed by many Jews less familiar with Jewish observance as spiteful, uncouth or threatening.

Needless to say, most such assumptions have their source in vivid imaginations, leavened with healthy doses of guilt and generously sprinkled with wishful thinking. Freedman himself, with whom my colleague David Zwiebel and I recently spent some time, confirmed that fact. Among the observations the author shared with us was the way non-Orthodox Jews in certain communities resent seeing Orthodox Jewish women strolling babies in carriages in the street on the Jewish Sabbath. While it should be obvious, Freedman noted, that few sidewalks are wide enough to accommodate two friends with their strollers, neighbors rushed to assume that the women walk in the street to prevent others from driving on the Sabbath, or to haughtily stake a claim to the neighborhood.

None of us, of course, can prevent fellow Jews from making unreasonable assumptions. But, at the same time, might some changes in our own conduct more effectively counter them? Could we not help others see us more accurately by paying closer attention to the details of our behavior "on the street," by engaging in more active outreach to other Jews, by taking care to make sure we present what the Talmud calls a "smiling countenance" and to offer a "good morning" or "good Shabbos"--the traditional Sabbath greeting--to those we meet who are not from within our community?

One deeply angry character in Freedman's book described a turning point in his attitude toward Orthodox Jews. He was tending his front yard on Shabbos, the Sabbath, when two men and a woman, who "by the dark suits, fedoras, and long-sleeved dress" he could tell were Orthodox Jews, passed by his home.

"On Shabbos you have to work?" the woman asked.

"You come back down during the week and do this work for me," Si shot back, "and I won't have to on Saturday."

A bit later in the book, the author attributes the character's feelings as having their source in his sense of having been "judged, scorned, found deficient as a Jew." There is a commandment, indeed, to "rebuke" a fellow Jew who is violating Jewish law. But not for naught did the rabbis of the Talmud teach us that personal rebuke had ceased to be an effective option even in their own times. Today, experience too has taught that Jews are brought closer to their roots not with stones, physical or verbal, but through their diametric opposite. What might have happened had Si been warmly invited for kiddush--refreshments after services--and cholent, the traditional Saturday-lunch stew?

Could the message of the Lieberman phenomenon, in other words, be that we are all, in a way, Joseph Lieberman? That the very potential for pride and pitfalls the senator has faced and still faces is precisely our own as well? His every utterance and action may well have an impact on how others appreciate Judaism and perceive its practitioners. Do not all observant Jews today bear similar burdens?

And so, these days more than ever, as we meet others on the street or at work; as we walk the sidewalks of our cities or drive their streets; as we engage in our professions or our recreations; when we are in buildings or buses or business meetings--it behooves us to envision ourselves under not only a divine watchful gaze but one of mortal men and women as well. And to wonder, constantly and seriously, if what we are doing at any given moment will promote kiddush Hashem.

After all, what we expect from Joseph Lieberman we must surely expect of ourselves.

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