The Elections and the Jewish Question

Back in the sixties I began collecting lapel buttons. While I started with those that dealt with the Civil Rights Movement, the war in Vietnam and the Grape Workers' strike, I soon noticed an increasing number that had Jewish themes and these attracted me. Since then, I've amassed a collection of over a thousand different buttons, each one somehow related to a Jewish issue or concern, or expressing a Jewish idea or image. One of the earliest the struck me then and seems once again (at least partially) appropriate now read: Dress British -- Think Yiddish. For some reason, that future historians will study, the period felt as though Jewish ideas and ethnically identifiable Jews suffused popular culture. Not only did Barbra feel emboldened (thank goodness) not to have her nose fixed, but Woddy Allen and Mel Brooks made us laugh. Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Norman Podhoretz and others made us think, while Leonard Bernstein helped our souls soar on wings of sound. Even non-Jews got in on the act: While the Weavers had made Tzena a hit song in the early fifties, by the sixties Harry Belafonte sang Hava Nagila and Johnny Mathis sang Eli Eli and the Kingston Trio sang a "folk song" based on an Israeli melody (By the Firelight - Dodi Li).

It was common then for ministers, priests and rabbis to speak and work on behalf of social issues. We all know that he was "The Reverend" Martin Luther King Jr. The Jesuit priest Father Daniel Berrigan, actively stood at the barricades. And I have always held dear a photograph (available on my Web Site) of Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel marching with arms linked in Selma, Alabama. We took it for granted that religion (Judaism in particular) and politics were interwoven. Our Jewish values brought us into the public sphere. My bother and I did a study together (we each got credit for it at our various schools). We distributed a questionnaire to politically active young Jews. It asked from where came the values that pointed these young people to their current activities. As the questions asked, they (not so) subtly pointed out the links between their concerns and the values of the prophets and the rabbis. "Let justice roll down like water," "Care for the widow and orphan," "Do not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." "Don't do to others what you don't want them to do to you." and "Take care of yourself, because no one else can be expected to, but don't make your personal needs your only concern; and do it now." These are the values that the Reform movement has always stressed as Prophetic Judaism and Reform rabbis had always been at the forefront of those efforts.

However, during that same time, a small Christian group started here on the west coast. It was not concerned with correcting the wrongs in American society. It wanted to transform the individual. Its name told enough about it: Campus Crusade for Christ. This was the kernel of what has grown to become the "Christian Right." As the name of its earliest group indicates it has always been concerned with the "Christianizing" of America.

I remember this now, brought on by the intense discussion of religion in relation to the candidacy of Senator Joseph Lieberman for the vice presidency.

Not only has the issue of religion in public life come to the fore once again, but it is, due in good measure to Lieberman, now again, "in" (at least in certain respects and in some crowds) to be Jewish.

Religion has always been an integral part of American life: the Pilgrims came in 1620 for religious freedom denied them in England (though they, in turn, also became rather exclusive themselves). Roger Williams left (well, he was banished from) Massachusetts and founded the more religiously tolerant Rhode Island in 1639. But it wasn't until 1654 when a few Sephardic Jewish refugees from Brazil via Recife arrived in New Amsterdam and were permitted to stay did true diversity become an aspect of American religious life. While many of the founders were Christians, perhaps just as many were theists. We might call them ethnic Christians who accepted the idea of a deity but not the divinity of Jesus. They fully believed that God (with a capital G) played a significant role in the founding of this nation. The Declaration of Independence speaks of the rights due because the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them." It is interesting to note, however, that the Constitution does not mention God and the First Amendment goes on to ensure that the government will "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Nonetheless, there have been tensions. We need to beware of a dichotomy between what is acceptable, and, in fact encouraged on the one hand and what is unacceptable, and must be discouraged on the other. First, we should praise and encourage the personal piety of individuals, and how that piety plays its role in formulating that person's views and actions. Second we must condemn and discourage the imposition of particular forms of piety on others. The Abolitionist and the Civil Rights movements have been efforts guided by personal piety. Fast days called by Presidents George Washington and John Adams in the earliest years of the Republic (a practice that Jefferson stopped) and attempts to put some (usually Protestant) version of the Ten Commandments in the court-house, as well as prayer in the public schools and other publicly funded institutions (not to mention "Bibles" in the hands of every graduating senior) are examples of imposing a particular form of piety on others.

All this has been brought into a higher relief now that an observant Jew is in the limelight. One of Senator Lieberman's first comments when accepting Vice President Gore's invitation to share the Democratic ticket was a variant of the Shehechayanu. We have here a Jew in high office who is extremely comfortable with his Judaism and the expectations it has of him, both in terms of his personal and public piety as well as how it should inform his political agenda. As he has said: "I can only be myself... My religion is important to me; I try my best to be faithful to, and strengthened by it. But I have never misunderstood the fact that I am a very imperfect being, so if I stumble, it's human." What does this all mean for us?

It seems that Lieberman's comfort has made some American Jews ill at ease. A fascinating phenomenon occurred just barely a month ago. Lieberman had often been quoted as praising God for his being able to serve the American people by running for the Senate and now the Vice Presidency. But, on a late August Sunday in Detroit, he spoke to the congregants of a (Black) church and said (among other things): "I hope it [his candidacy] will enable all people to talk about their faith and about their religion, and I hope it will reinforce a belief that I feel as strongly as anything else--that there must be a place for faith in America's public life." Now, remember he was speaking in a church! Why shouldn't he say such things? As Martin. E. Marty, the dean of American historians of religion recently wrote in response (nyt-20000815): "Nonevangelical Americans do not fear that orthodox Jews will try to convert them, or impose their beliefs on the nation."

Lieberman spoke about how his faith informed his life, not how his faith was better, nor how others should accept his faith, or even have faith. He said that people should feel free to talk about their faith and find a place for it in public life. This is that first (positive) kind of religious involvement in public life. And yet, a fascinating series of events then unfolded: First, the ADL strongly criticized Lieberman for injecting too much religion into the campaign. A flurry of Op-Ed pieces appeared in newspapers across the country. Spokespeople from the Christian Right (remember, the ones who want to Christianize America - that is impose a particular form of piety on others - wondered aloud why it had been OK for Lieberman to invoke God, but not them. Other commentators on the Right have come out in support of Lieberman's use of "God talk." On the "Left", The National Jewish Democratic Council (the Jewish wing of the Democratic party) stated (2000/08/29): "Candidates for high office have the right to speak openly about their faith and the effect it has had on their lives. But far more important than the language itself is the impact it will have on public policy...." When Debbie and I tried to find the text of the speech (we contacted the ADL and did extensive searches on the Web) we were unable to get it. The actual text had dropped off the radar screen and you rarely hear comments about Lieberman and his beliefs any more. It is almost as though no one wants you to know that it happened.

The flap between Lieberman and the ADL points out an interesting transformation among Jews in America. No more are the ethnically, but not religiously Jewish the "trend setters" for American Jewish life. I believe that Lieberman's candidacy points to an end to Jewish ethnicity in America. If you want to call yourself Jewish, you will have to act in religiously Jewish ways. Gustatory and "Just" Judaism (you know: "Oh, I'm just Jewish.") are on the way out. Thirty-five years ago, shortly after the Six Days War, the French sociologist Georges Friedman wrote a book called The End of the Jewish People. He expected that Jewish life in Israel would so transform its residents that they would no longer be (or consider themselves) ethnically Jews. He was wrong. The end of ethnic Jewish living is happening here in America, among us. In fact, it is up to you.

Don't just "Think Yiddish" which is what my old lapel button suggests. Do Jewish! Some of you heard me explain why more people don't participate with more regularity in the life of our little congregation: "they don't want to over-Jew it." To act Jewishly is becoming more acceptable. Actually, simply "showing Jewish" is already more common. Aside from various styles of kipot available and seen just about anywhere (OK, not in Ramona), Jewish words and images on campaign buttons have (not surprisingly) been more frequent this season than in any year for which I have buttons. I have an old (1940) Willkie button on which the letters that spell his name are written in Hebraized roman characters. There were Nixon, McCarthy, Carter, Reagan and Clinton buttons in Hebrew transliteration. But, new this year, are particularly Jewish references in the campaign materials. One bumpersticker suggests Gore/Lieberman 5761 and (what I've read is the hottest item of the campaign) reads: "Gore or Gornisht" (meaning Gore or nothing - but forming a bilingual pun of Gore and "not" Gore) under photos of Gore and Bush. Please note that I do not (cannot) endorse any candidate. Nonetheless, it is interesting that I have searched a number of times and (while I've found items in Spanish) I've found no "Jewish" items from the Bush campaign.

Those who identify as Jews but do not "do" Jewish, do not take seriously the religious civilization we have created will begin to feel uncomfortable. As expressed by R. Joshua Hammerman:...this "degree of discomfort will multiply each time a caddy comments: 'Say, isn't this your Sabbath?'" How can we go to our simple jobs or play our games of golf or tennis when we know that Senator Joe walked to the Hill on Shabbat to cast his vote by hand, and got off the Mississippi campaign riverboat to observe Shabbat in Shul, or, as reported in the electronic press:

He's in the tightest race for the White House since 1980, but when the sun sets Friday [that's now], Joe Lieberman will be nowhere near the campaign trail. Instead, the nation's first Jewish vice-presidential candidate will be in a synagogue in New Haven, Conn., wrapped in a prayer shawl [well, no, we don't wear our Tallitot tonight] and deep in reflection for the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year of 5761. It is probably the most publicized Jewish observance since 1965, when star Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax refused to pitch a World Series game against the Minnesota Twins because it fell on Yom Kippur, the most solemn Jewish holiday. Rosh Hashanah is not the only religious holiday that will keep Lieberman off the stump. Over the next four weeks, he plans to forgo campaigning for as many as six additional days. "I know of no precedent" for so many absences in the last weeks of a presidential campaign, University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles Jones says. "I don't see how it can help."

How it can help is not the issue to Lieberman (and I guess Gore as well). The core of the matter is that we are asked to take our faith seriously and apply it to our lives. The religious values that shaped our politics during the sixties are important. The religious actions that sustain those values are up to us to maintain and fulfill. May we see a renewed commitment to those values and actions in the year ahead.