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Religion and Politics

By Adam A. Sofen, Crimson Staff Writer

This has been a banner week for American Jews. When Al Gore '69 announced Tuesday that he had selected Connecticut Senator Joseph I. Lieberman as his running mate, a storm of press coverage heralded the "bold" and "unprecedented" decision. Ordinarily cynical pundits praised Gore warmly for promoting tolerance and diversity in choosing Lieberman, the first Jew to run for vice president on a major party ticket. Jews across the country were said to be celebrating at the news. "From the kosher restaurants of Manhattan's Upper West Side to the corner shuls of Los Angeles' Pico-Robertson district," proclaimed the Los Angeles Times, "conversations on Monday turned to a single thought: He's one of ours."

The pride that many Jews take in Lieberman's selection is expansive and genuine. But the media's single-minded focus on the senator's Judaism is unusual, to say the least. The possible addition of another Jew to the upper echelons of government hardly seems like news. The Clinton administration in particular has promoted significant numbers of Jews to positions almost as high as the vice presidency: Many of his top Cabinet deputies, like Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and former Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin '61, come from Jewish backgrounds. Both of Clinton's appointees to the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, are Jewish. But hardly anyone focused on their Judaism when these men and women were tapped, and no one cited them as symbols of diversity or tolerance. With Lieberman it's different--the word "historic" seems permanently welded to his name, like the W. in George W. Bush.

Maybe that's because the vice presidency is, technically, an executive position--stereotypically Jews have been regarded as advisors and assistants rather than as leaders, and the vice president is at least potentially a leader. But a more obvious explanation is at hand. In a country where the vast majority of Jews are Reform, Conservative or non-practicing, Lieberman is Orthodox. As even Americans who have never met a Jew in their lives know by now, Lieberman keeps kosher, does not campaign on the Sabbath and walks home from the Capitol on Saturdays. Practically alone among Jewish politicians, he laces his speeches with references to his faith--at the official announcement rally in Nashville, Lieberman opened with a quote from Chronicles and gave repeated thanks to God, "maker of all miracles"--a technique more familiar to a Christian Coalition Republican than the average Jewish Democrat. Jews may be well represented in the upper ranks of government, but not Orthodox Jews: With the exception of Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Lieberman stands alone as the most prominent Orthodox Jew in America, and he is certainly the most widely respected.

The spotlight on Lieberman illuminates a subtle tension in American Jewry that is often overlooked by the national media. Judaism is both an ethnicity and a religion, but the most prominent Jews in American life usually embody the former quality more than the latter. Jewish senators like Barbara Boxer or Charles E. Schumer '71 rarely quote from Chronicles, or any part of the Bible. Seinfeld, Kramer and Elaine never set foot in a synagogue. There are few rabbis or religious Jews who enter public debates with the forcefulness of Jerry Falwell or Cardinal O'Connor. But Lieberman is different: His most memorable political moments, his campaign against Hollywood indecency and his condemnation of President Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal, were clearly motivated by his abiding faith. Moreover, he is outspoken in identifying that faith as different from the Christian majority. The Gore-Lieberman campaign has not attempted to soft-peddle his Judaism, to put it mildly (witness the senator's endearingly lame joke about Gore's "chutzpah"). Lieberman is not an ethnic Jew or a religious Jew; he is both.

This dual identity may explain why commentators have had such a hard time pinning Lieberman down ideologically. Within hours, Gore was said variously to be moving towards the center with his selection and to be placating his party's left-wing base. The senator's record has inspired very different interpretations. Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine, groused that Lieberman was "bad for the Jews and bad for America" because of his conservative stances on school vouchers and Social Security and his hawkish enthusiasm for the military. And Lieberman is unquestionably conservative--for an ethnic Jew. Meanwhile, some Orthodox Jews wondered aloud whether his liberal support for gay rights and his unwaveringly abortion rights voting record made him less authentically Orthodox. On these issues, Lieberman is well to the left of most religious Jews.

Lieberman has a chance to fuse these diverse strains and overcome Americans' preconceived ideas about Jews, especially Orthodox Jews. Ironically, those preconceived notions may be strongest among the same liberal ethnic Jews who are themselves so well-represented. The day after the announcement, I asked a Jewish friend what his mother thought of the choice. She was pleased, he said, but wary, because she considers Orthodox Judaism "essentially a cult." Even more open-minded ethnic Jews might feel alienated by Lieberman's strongly religious language and values. He may encounter that kind of skepticism next week in Los Angeles, where in heavily Jewish Hollywood, Judaism is less a religion than a state of mind.

For those Americans, and those Jews, who consider Orthodoxy synonymous with narrow-mindedness and intolerance (paging Dr. Laura), Lieberman has a chance to set the record straight. If he manages to bridge the gulf between the ethnic and religious camps, Lieberman will ultimately be good for the Jews in more ways than one: Not only will he teach America what it is to be Jewish, he may teach Jews something about themselves.

Adam A. Sofen '01, a Crimson executive, is a history and literature concentrator in Pforzheimer House. He spent the summer compiling a book of quotations in Berkeley, Calif.

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