Does Joe Lieberman speak for every American Jew? Jews are now getting a taste of a problem that Catholics and evangelicals have suffered for years. Who is an authentic spokesman for a religious community? Its bishops, pastors, or rabbis? Its lay leaders--whom no one elected and who may not be very religious themselves? Elected politicians who happen to share--but may not practice--the faith?

The problem arose for Jews this week when Senator Lieberman made some curious comments during his appearance on the Don Imus radio show. He was asked by Imus if Judaism places a ban on "inter-racial or inter-religious marriage or dating or that sort of thing." Senator Lieberman answered, "No, there is no ban whatsoever. Certainly not on inter-racial. And not on inter-religious." Many Jewish leaders--including the rabbi who leads the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, Jerome Epstein, and the layman who leads the Orthodox Union, Dr. Mandell Ganchrow--have said they beg to differ. Judaism, they said, does not favor intermarriage, which is in fact a big problem for the community.

Now, both Epstein and Ganchrow are legitimate spokesmen for key parts of the Jewish community, having been selected by their peers. No one asked Joe Lieberman to represent the rest of us on the question of intermarriage, since he was chosen by the voters of Connecticut and not by any organization of American Jews. He might have answered the question by saying, "Hey, I am not a rabbi." He might have said, "You know, this is a very complicated question, painful for many Jewish families," and left it at that. He might have said that all three major movements of American Jewry--Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative--want Jews to marry Jews, because that's the best path to having a Jewish family and raising Jewish children.

But he didn't. And now Jews are squirming to match his remarks with their own views, for Lieberman is an immensely popular figure, and for better or worse is now the most important interpreter of Judaism to America. We Jews should now understand far better what Catholics and evangelicals go through when a cardinal says one thing and a Catholic politician says another--about abortion, for example. When Ted Kennedy and Mario Cuomo talk about a woman's right to choose, and every American bishop, archbishop, and cardinal tells us that abortion is the taking of innocent human life, what's the "authentic" Catholic view? When a Baptist pastor in some church organization makes a comment about a policy issue, or for that matter about whether God hears the prayer of a Jew, is that a "legitimate" view? Must other Baptists correct it if they feel it is wrong? Should they feel embarrassed if they consider that view wrongheaded or intolerant, and worry that other Americans will attribute it to them and all their co-religionists?

Jews have avoided this bind because we've never had a Joe Lieberman before, a man to whom Christians look. Lieberman may not be telling Jews what we think--after all, we can each decide that--but he is certainly the true voice of Judaism for many millions of non-Jewish Americans. When he says we're not opposed to intermarriage, that's what they'll think. No American Jew has ever before stood in this position.

This certainly places an enormous burden on Lieberman. He must be extremely careful to distinguish his own views from the views of Judaism and of American Jews. When asked what "Jews" think or what our religion teaches, he must speak with exquisite caution. He did not do so on the Imus program; instead, he shot from the hip on a subject of immense controversy. Similarly, he suggested a few weeks ago that the Fifth Commandment (honoring our parents) requires support of a certain Democratic Party legislative program regarding the elderly. This too was a mistake, as it is always a mistake for politicians to argue that God wants us to vote a certain way. God doesn't endorse legislation or candidates, as Jews have often said when criticizing Christian leaders who seemed to suggest otherwise. The criticism (friendly, to be sure) Lieberman has aroused is healthy, if it reminds him just how thorny his position really is.

I have the pleasure of knowing Joe Lieberman, and, though I am a Republican, I remain a member of his fan club. I think it is wonderful for our country and for our community that an observant Jew is running as a major party candidate for vice president. But I do worry that the exigencies of a tough campaign will pull Joe Lieberman into positions that are really uncomfortable for him--and really uncomfortable for American Jewry. In fact, they already have. His contortions over affirmative action, which he firmly opposed until he was nominated, and his backtracking on sleaze in Hollywood and in the record industry are painful to watch. But that's politics: watching a moderate Democrat try to fit himself into liberal positions he strongly opposed until weeks ago. That's his problem, not the problem of the Jewish community. But when the question involves what Jews think or what Judaism teaches, it's fair to ask him to think twice--and twice again. What happened this week should not be repeated.

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