The Anti-Defamation League’s condemnation last week of Joseph Lieberman for interjecting too much G-d-talk into the presidential campaign was as predictable as it was sad.
The immediate occasion for the ADL’s criticism was a speech given by Lieberman in a black church in Detroit (not an unlikely venue for speaking about religion), in which he spoke of faith in a Divine Creator as a source of unity in the most religious country in the Western world and called for a rededication to G-d’s purposes. In the latter, he echoed George Washington’s stress, in his Farewell Address, on the importance of religion as the underpinning of civic morality.
A non-Jewish candidate who spoke in this fashion would not likely have been subjected to the ADL’s lash. In the ADL’s view, however, Lieberman, as a Jew, should have known better.
The organized Jewish community has long fought to banish religion completely from the public square. As Nathan Lewin, one of the nation’s most prominent appellate advocates, wryly notes: When American Jews worship at the Wall, it is more likely to be the Wall of absolute separation between state and religion than the Western Wall.
From fear of government favoritism of a particular religion – e.g., religious tests for office, Christian prayers in schools – American Jewry has, according to Elliot Abrams, come to fear religion itself. American Jewry operates on he assumption that public discussion of religion threatens Jewish interests. Inasmuch as it is religion that distinguishes American Jews from the majority Christian population any public mention of religion calls attention to Jewish distinctiveness. And that is bad -- or so the assimilationist ideology of American Jews has claimed -- for the advancement of Jews in non-Jewish society.
Whatever the validity of the latter proposition, it is clear that Judaism has been ill-served by the prevailing ideology. . Our young have readily perceived that their parents discomfort with public discussion of G-d reflects a similar private discomfort. And the frequently expressed disdain for those who most openly reject the community’s assimilationist norms – i.e., the Orthodox – has been translated into a disdain for Jewish religion itself.
As the glue of ethnic identity loses its binding power from generation to generation, and without any connection to their historic faith, American Jews are left with nothing to hold them together as a people. No wonder Jews qua Jews are disappearing.
Lieberman’s candidacy may thus be just what the doctor ordered. It has stirred interest in Judaism: Today most non-Jews in America know more about Shabbos observance than most Jews knew a month ago.
In addition, his candidacy refutes the assimilationist assumption that shedding all trappings of one’s Judaism is a precondition of success in America. Lieberman was chosen by Al Gore, not despite being an Orthodox Jew, but because he is an Orthodox Jew. His orthodoxy confers upon him a moral stature in the eyes of Christian America possessed by no other nationally prominent Jew.
Indeed it would appear that American Christians take Lieberman’s professions of religious faith a lot more seriously than they do those of George W. Bush, who calls Jesus his favorite philosopher, and Al Gore Jr., who says he never makes a major decision without first asking himself what Jesus would do.
American Christians know well that professions of religious belief come cheaply, like the motherhood and apple pie conjured up by Fourth of July orators. Anyone can talk about his or her faith. But what Americans see in Lieberman is that it is not just talk. His belief in G-d has real life consequences and is expressed in a rigorous religious discipline.
Lieberman first came to national attention in 1988, when he did not show up for the Connecticut Democratic convention that nominated him for senator because it took place on Shabbos. Many Jews, he found, were embarrassed by his overt identification as a religious Jew, but non-Jewish voters were reassured by a candidate for whom there are more important things in life than his own political advancement, and who was unwilling to trample every principle in the pursuit of power. Starting the campaign as a decided underdog against a well-known and popular governor, he eked out a narrow victory in a state in which only 4% of the population is Jewish.
In a parallel vein, George Will has pointed out that much of the current fad of talk about values misses the point. Everybody has values, hundreds of them. The question, however, is whether they are more than verbal pieties. Instead of values, Will urges, we should focus on virtues: patience, generosity, moderation, even-temperedness, frugality, honesty. Virtues are reflected in everything a person does, and tell us much more about him than the values he professes.
Americans, if the evidence of the polls is to be believed, are impressed by Joseph Lieberman’s religious discipline. They view him as a man of virtue, not just easily affirmed values.