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Joseph Lieberman

by Rabbi David Zauderer     
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

In the early part of the 1900's, Jews typically were not so "clued in" to world news.

Having come from years of persecution and pogroms in a Europe which was more often than not hostile to Jews, the main question most Jews had regarding developing news was one thing - is it good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?

But what was actually going on on the world scene that didn't directly affect us as Jews here in America or in Israel was nobody's business!

It reminds me of the old joke: Sophie leans out of the fourth floor window of her Lower East Side tenement building and yells to her neighbor, "Hey, Rosie, what do you think about Red China?"

To which Rosie responds, "I think it would look great on a yellow tablecloth!"

Well, we Jews have certainly come a long way. Yet, to a certain extent, something inside us still compels us to analyze breaking news - and especially something as shocking as having an Orthodox Jew nominated for vice-president - in a similar way. Is it good for us as American Jews to have a high-profile Jew in the White House or not?

I will leave that question for the expert Jewish news analysts in the synagogues on Saturday morning or at the health club or wherever else Jews tend to congregate.

I would like to address a different, yet equally important, point which, I believe, cannot be ignored: There are some of our coreligionists out there who are downplaying the entire Lieberman nomination, saying that this is really nothing new in American (or world) politics.

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a Professor of Humanities at New York University, notes that we have already had a Jewish prime minister in England, Benjamin Disraeli (okay, so he was brought up as a Christian!), as well as in France, Leon Blum in the 1930's.

What's more, he points out, in this country Henry Kissinger, a German-born Jew, held far greater sway than any vice president.

Other prominent Jews have made similar points since the nomination this past Monday. The move by the Democrats, they said, is less a breakthrough than an affirmation of the relative security that Jews now enjoy.

"There's less Jewish pride," said Norman Podhoretz, editor at large of Commentary magazine, "than confirmation of the feeling that has become more and more widespread, which is that Jews have found a home in America to a degree they never have in any other country during 2,000 years of the Diaspora."

And to these prominent Jewish thinkers I say - true, we have enjoyed a relative security and mass acceptance into the greater American culture - but at what cost has that security come?

How many Jews literally threw their Tefillin (phylacteries) and other religious articles into the East River of New York City as soon as they spotted land - the "goldene medina"?

How many aspiring Jewish businessmen had to break with the 3,000-year-old traditions of our people in order to finally "make it" in the companies in which they worked?

How many "yarmulkes" had to be hidden from the view of the gentile boss in order for the Jewish professional to climb the corporate ladder, only to be brought out of hibernation for the occasiona l Bar-Mitzvah or wedding?

No, Rabbi Hertzberg and Mr. Podhoretz, et al, Joe Lieberman's nomination to the vice-presidency in spite of the fact that he is a high-profile Orthodox Jew who keeps the Sabbath and lets everyone know it, is not an affirmation and a natural continuum of the American Jew's acceptance into the mostly gentile world that he lives in. Because that acceptance which the Jew in the Diaspora so desperately craved came at the expense of his long-standing and glorious Jewish religion and traditions, whereas Joe Lieberman has risen to prominence and yet has remained true to his Jewish roots.

If anything, Joe Lieberman's nomination is a reversal of that unfortunate trend, but an affirmation of a different Jewish tradition.



In Parshat Vaetchanan Moses warns the Jewish nation: "See, I have taught you 'decrees' and 'ordinances', as G-d, my G-d, has commanded me, to do so in the midst of the Land in which you come, to possess it. You shall safeguard and perform them, for it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these 'decrees' and who shall say, "Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation!" (Deuteronomy 4:5-6)

Now, to me, this is a troubling verse.

I understand how the "ordinances", which are the laws that govern our relationship with our fellow man, can make a good impression on the nations around us. When a Jewish Senator from Connecticut speaks out against the immoral behavior of the President, the gentile world cannot help but be to be impressed.

But how can "decrees", such as observing the Sabbath and keeping kosher, etc., show us to be "wise" and " discerning" among the nations?

When was the last time an observant Jew, walking on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn on the holiday of Sukkos clutching his Lulav(palm frond) and Esrog(citron), was approached by a gentile who said to him, "Wow, you Jews are really wise for doing those rituals!"

I remember when, as a child, I used to go to ball games at Yankee Stadium during Chol Ha'moed(the Intermediate Days of Passover) with my Matzah and butter and cheese sandwich, which would crumble into a million pieces as soon as I bit into it. Not once did an Italian come over to me, chomping on a sausage, and say "Hey, Jew, what a smart idea! I gotta try that!"

So what exactly does the Torah mean when it says that other nations will see us observing the Torah's decrees, and will be impressed with our wisdom?

Maybe the Torah is telling us that in addition to being a good person, which is at the very core of the Torah's commandments, it is when we choose to place the "decrees" of the Torah, those commandments which are not so easily understood yet which reflect our submission to a Higher Authority, at the top of our priority list, that we gain the most respect.

Imagine the powerful statement that Sandy Koufax made when he refused to pitch on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year! What he showed the world was, that even when you are on top of the world - when you are a Jew who has finally "made it" - there is still something even more important than all that, something which even baseball can't hold a candle to.

And when Joe Lieberman is on top of his game, he has reached the second highest political post in the country, and all we hear about in the media (and in the chat rooms) is how he plans to keep the holy Sabbath at all costs, (short of a national emergency, of course), one cannot help but to be impressed at the discernment and wisdom and good sense of priorities that this Jew and all Jews who do likewise must have.

The message Joe Lieberman's choice of lifestyle sends out each day is that G-d and our connection to Him is the most important thing; everything else is just commentary. And that's a very wise message.

As Joe Lieberman's own rabbi in Georgetown, Rabbi Barry Freundel, put it, "[Joe's] not afraid to put life's most important things in front of politics."

I therefore suspect that Joe Lieberman is more Sandy Koufax than Henry Kissinger.

And if the non-Jewish world is (or, at least, should be)impressed by this display of proper priorities on the part of Joe Lieberman, we Jews should certainly follow his lead.

We, too, can proudly wear our Judaism out in the open. We, too, can regularly attend synagogue on Saturdays (and if the future V.P. can walk it, then so can we!). And even if we sometimes think that by wearing a "yarmulke" out in public, people will be staring at us (and they will, especially in the South), we should remember that, ultimately, we will make an very strong impression on those watching us. We will be conveying to them the "Joe Lieberman message" - that there are some things in life that are more important to us, such as our Judaism, than the occasional looks we might get from the neighbors.

Truth to tell, Joe Lieberman is only continuing what has been the tradition of our people since time immemorial - to put G-d and His Torah first - before politics, before our families, before even life itself - as the following story illustrates.



It was the end of 1939, and the Nazis had begun to sweep through Poland, spreading fear and terror wherever they went.

After entering the thousand-year-old city of Krakow, the Nazis began a systematic roundup of all the Jews. They were to be shot in the forests, and their money and prized possessions were to be confiscated by the Nazi beast.

On the morning of the second day of the Nazis' military action in the various Jewish neighborhoods of Krakow, they focused on Miodowa Street, where numerous synagogues, a well-known Reform temple, and some large apartment houses abutted a spacious square.

The Nazis ordered all the Jewish men to empty the synagogues of their holy scrolls, the ornaments, the heavy silver crowns, and the priceless candelabra.

An area of the square was designated as the gathering point for the booty. There were already a few Torah scrolls there, some shining in beautifully embroidered white silk, others clothed in gold or purple velvet embellished with golden thread, others still adorned with silver crowns.

Now the Nazis dragged out little Yisrael, Srulik the barber. "Come on, dirty Jew!" they screamed. "Hurry up, you lazy swine, there's a lot of work to do. Gather all the silver and gold in one pile, the candelabra and candlesticks in another. They're nice and heavy. It took a lot of money to buy all these holy things, you filthy Jews, ha ha ha! Now put all the crowns in another pile."

Srulik obeyed.

"Now undress those fancy Torah scrolls. We can use the silk and velvet. You'll see they're not so holy after all; they'll strip off their clothes," the leading Nazi laughed sarcastically.

Srulik went to synagogue only on the High Holidays; a simple, hardworking man, he did not attend daily services. But he knew how to give respect to the Holy Torah. He knew the love and awe with which the worshippers took off its mantle and kissed the scroll before reading the weekly portion.

Srulik used to hear the worshippers in the synagogues on every side of his house singing and dancing on Simchas Torah, and he would go and join them in their ecstasy. It was then that he, too, got to hold the Holy Torah. He clutched her close to his heart; for those moments she was his, and he danced with her, rejoiced in her.

Now what did they want of him?

"Are you dreaming, you filthy Jew? Didn't you hear me?" the brute yelled. "Undress your holy scrolls."

Srulik stooped and picked up the one with the white silk mantle, prostrate in the dust, still dressed with majesty and glory for the High Holidays. He lifted the Torah to his heart, hands shaking, heart pounding; now she is all mine. He hugged her with all his strength, kissing her with awe and love.

"Now undress it and spit in its face!" the beast roared. "Do you hear me? Step on it; kick it!" Srulik was oblivious to the obscenities all around. He hugged his Torah closer and closer.

"Do as I command or I'll kill you!" the thug bellowed.

"How can you tell me to disgrace her, you stupid Nazi?

Don't you know us?" Srulik embraced his beloved Torah and danced with her. He hugged her with ever-increasing strength, leaping ever higher, whirling with joy. Closer, closer, faster, faster he jumped with his Torah. Hundreds of anxious eyes watched from the windows, hundreds of trembling hearts prayed for a miracle. He was good-hearted and simple, this Srulik, and everyone loved him.

Two shots pierced the air and the onlookers' hearts: one for Srulik the barber, another for his Torah. Still embracing, they fell atop the other holy scrolls, Srulik and his betrothed, united in an everlasting union of love.


This story comes from a phenomenal book about young Jewish girls who showed great faith and courage during their terrible ordeal in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. The book is called "To Vanquish the Dragon," written by Pearl Benisch, and published by Feldheim Publishers. It is available at your local Jewish bookstore or by calling toll-free 877-758-3242 or online at

Rabbi David Zauderer is a card-carrying member of the Atlanta Scholars Kollel.

  LEAP OF FAITH: More about Lieberman on Torah from Dixie
JOE LIEBERMAN: JUST ANOTHER HENRY KISSINGER?: Joseph Lieberman observes Shabbat, eats kosher, has impeccable moral character -- and is suddenly the new voice of American Jewry. Torah from Dixie contributing writer Rabbi David Zauderer explores the religious magnitude of nominating an Orthodox Jewish vice-president, taking an in-depth look at its effect on American society, all the while tying it together beautifully with a thought from the Torah portion.
IN HIS OWN WORDS: LIEBERMAN ON LIEBERMAN: Read a transcript of Senator Joseph Lieberman's speech at Agudath Israel of America's 75th anniversary dinner on June 1, 1997. In his speech, he tells a story of the time when Al Gore was once his "Shabbos Goy" and helped Lieberman keep Shabbat.
THE CHOSEN: LESSONS FROM LIEBERMAN: Eytan Kobre explains why Lieberman was chosen "because" of his Judaism and not "in spite" of it.
NOT YOUR AVERAGE JOE: OF MASHIACH AND LIEBERMAN: Torah from Dixie contributing writer Levi Graiser takes a look at the miraculous nature of Lieberman's nomination.

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