The ADL vs. Joseph Lieberman
by Jonathan Rosenblum
Jerusalem Post International Edition
September 29, 2000
The recent condemnation of Joseph Lieberman for interjecting too much G-d-talk into the presidential campaign by Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, was as predictable as it was sad.
On its face, Foxman’s criticism is intellectually incoherent. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon, Foxman cited with horror, Lieberman’s invocation of the Fifth Commandment to honor one’s parents as a reason for supporting lower prices for prescription drugs. What if someone were to base his political position on the New Testament? Foxman wondered.
Well, what if he were? The genesis of each person’s political views is complicated. But views that have their source in religious teachings are not inherently less worthy of consideration than those that derive from John Rawl’s neo-utiliarianism. The Sixth Commandment’s prohibition against murder has shaped society’s repugnance for murder no less than Kantian ethics. Why should those whose views have their source in religious teachings have to enter the public square as truncated beings forced to deny what is most central to them?
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 the 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.
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. Ironically American Christians seem to take Lieberman’s professions of religious faith a good deal more seriously than those of the two "born-again" presidential candidates.
The reason, I suspect, has to do with George Will’s useful distinction between values and virtues. We are awash with talk about values. Value-talk, however, is shallow: Everybody has values, hundreds of them. Instead of values, Will urges, we should focus on virtues: patience, generosity, moderation, even-temperedness, honesty. Virtues are reflected in everything a person does, and tell us much more about him than the values he professes.
American Christians know that the profession of religious belief – like the parading of one’s values -- comes cheaply. 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.
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.
Related Topics: American Jewry & Continuity
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