Sen. Joseph Lieberman is a modern Orthodox Jew. He keeps the Sabbath in a traditional Jewish manner: He will not travel, spend money, write, or work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. His diet is restricted to meat that has been slaughtered in a particular way, and he will not eat foods deemed non-kosher by the Bible and subsequent Jewish writings (meat from a pig or various other animals, varieties of shellfish, etc.). His food must be prepared in a manner consistent with kosher principles--he will not eat meat and milk at the same meal, for example.
It is entertaining to speculate on how these restrictions might play on the world stage. What will he eat at the banquet in Beijing? Will he stop his meeting with the national security staff to davven mincha--that is, pray the afternoon service? Will he refuse to ride in a car on the Sabbath if there is a national emergency?
Senator Lieberman has made it clear that his religious observances will not interfere with his governing. He will have latitude in certain circumstances to violate traditional restrictions for the higher purposes of helping humanity. Nonetheless, he will be the first Jew to be in the White House, and the first observant Jew (that is, one who follows the laws of Judaism) to be in a position of such importance for centuries. Ritual restrictions are extraneous to the central matter, which is simply this--what can it mean for a Jew to be in the second most important position in the land?
There are loose precedents. Benjamin Disraeli was twice prime minister of England in the second half of the nineteenth century. Yet Disraeli's involvement with Judaism was complex. Despite a strong identification with the fate of the Jewish people, he was hardly a practicing Jew, and perhaps not even a self-identified Jew. The most recent example of a Jew who walked the corridors of power, Henry Kissinger, was never elected, and his Jewish identity was more of a nostalgic immigrant's memory than an active principle in his life.
Inevitably, Joseph Lieberman will recall to many the biblical Joseph, who was second in command to Pharaoh. But for all the poetic resonances of that connection, the biblical Joseph was not an elected official. Moreover, he lived long before millennia of anti-Semitism had seeped into the Western consciousness.
Certain parallels might also be sought among medieval Jewish figures. The great scholar and leader Don Isaac Abravanel was the financier to Ferdinand and Isabella, though he chose to leave Spain at the time of the Inquisition rather than convert and continue to be their adviser. Here again, although anti-Semitism was acute, Abravanel is hardly an adequate parallel for an elected official in a modern democracy.
If elected, in other words, Senator Lieberman would in a certain sense be unprecedented in history. What does his nomination portend?
Certain anti-Semitic factions will be roused. Given the ancient canard that Jews pull the secret strings that control the world, Lieberman's nomination will provide fuel for the haters and the delusional fanatics that scatter the globe. They will point to a Jewish presence in the White House as proof of what they have always suspected. Of course, to a fanatic everything is proof. The absence of Jews in power proved that Jews were secretly controlling the world behind the scenes. The presence of a Jew in power proves that they are controlling the world more boldly. There is no way around the iron certainty of the paranoid.
But this nomination says something hopeful as well.
First, there is the simple reality that a political figure of Gore's stature and experience would decide that the nomination of a religious Jew would help his candidacy. That is an astonishing conclusion. Politicians are by necessity careful calculators of the public mood. Could this be evidence that we are further along the path to tolerance than many suspect?
As we enter a new millennium, perhaps the increasingly interlinked world is recognizing the awful futility of ancient enmities. Hatreds that used to exact a cost on the heart of the hater--and the life of the hated--are now far more costly. Technology has accelerated the price of hate. Interdependence is no longer a slogan but an increasing reality.
Anti-Semitism has been called "the longest hatred." If this nomination is a sign, however tentative, that in this great land the longest hatred no longer holds sway, there is reason for all humanity to celebrate this event. As the season unfolds, the repercussions will be fascinating to follow. This may be a sign to all those in America who dream one day of a presence in the White House that nothing is impossible in this great and good land. We shall see if we are ready, in the rhetoric and tenor of the months ahead, to follow what our greatest leader called "the angels of our better nature."