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Shomer Shabbos in the Senate: An interview with Senator Joseph Lieberman

Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) wrote six books before 2011, each almost completely political in content. In Praise of Public Life, for example, is his 2001 exposition of a public servant’s duties, and in 2007, he and his wife, Hadassah, published An Amazing Adventure, their notes on the senator’s 2000 Vice Presidential campaign. But his newest, seventh book, The Gift of Rest, while detailing many aspects of Senator Lieberman’s political life, instead explores the underlying spirituality of Senator Lieberman’s career, especially vis-à-vis his observance of Shabbat.

Senator Lieberman discussed his publication and other ideas in an exclusive interview with The Commentator. Excerpts from the conversation follow.

The Commentator: Do you have any concerns and/or hopes regarding how The Gift of Rest might impact people’s retrospective views, especially those of non-Jews, of your work as a senator?

Senator Joseph Lieberman: I do not know what the reactions will be. I found in the first round of discussions that people who are not Jewish focus just on the “rest” component of Shabbat, rather than its religious content. I hope people will use this as a reason to put away their BlackBerries, iPads, and phones on the Sabbath, because they feel dependent on, almost trapped by them. The benefits apply to everyone, and people should see that I work harder the other six days because I know Shabbat is coming.


TC: Your anecdotes throughout the book, many of which detail your communication of Jewish precepts to non-Jewish major political figures, are heartening. I’d like to know, however, about any less positive reactions you’ve received, either in Connecticut or Washington, to your Jewish practice. Have any political figures ever cited your Sabbath observance as a means of questioning your commitment, or simply looked upon your observance as bizarre or even inappropriate?


SJL: I must say that I’ve never had a negative reaction from another political figure to my religious observance. People would be puzzled when I said, for example, I can’t come to your testimony or group meeting, but I couldn’t. Sometimes they’d be angry, because I was letting them down. But when I explained it was for religious reasons, and especially when they came to see over the passage of time that I was observing this consistently, those feelings went away. I’ve never had a negative reaction from another political figure beyond that. I’ve had curiosity sometimes. But really, always, respect.

There are two larger points here: (1) America is a very religious country. There is a way in which religious people, for instance religious Christians, generally speaking, have an instinctive positive reaction to religious Jews. (2) I’ve made a personal observation about history. I think relations between Jews and Christians are today at a unique and unprecedented level of openness, mutual respect, and even a sense of shared future. Catholic doctrine, and the Christian evangelical movement, which feels tied to Jews by the Torah because they believe in the truth of the Torah, support Israel. There have been really historic changes in Christianity since I started politics in the ‘70s and its relationship to Judaism.

That’s not to say I’m in fantasy land – every now and then I get an anti-Semitic letter or phone call to my office, almost always unsigned. But I don’t ever remember one of those relating to my level of religious observance, just that I was Jewish.


TC: In your introduction, you write that one of your main motivations for authoring The Gift of Rest was to “share [the Sabbath] with everyone who reads [the] book,” whether Jewish or non-Jewish. I certainly understand its appeal to all different sorts of people. Orthodox Jews, however, are probably already familiar with most of the practices and concepts you discuss. I was wondering if you had in mind anything about your particular perspective on the Sabbath that you think Orthodox Jews might best take away from your book.


SJL: You are absolutely right: for Orthodox or observant Jews, what I describe as an invitation to the reader to go through Shabbat with me will not be new. Two things for those who are observant [to learn from The Gift of Rest]: (1) Personal stories that I tell about my journey through what we describe as Shabbatland over the course of my life, and the influences on my family. (2) The stories I tell about my combining my Shabbat observance with my public life and responsibilities.

For Orthodox Jews, this will be a familiar trip through Shabbatland, but the Orthodox reader may find some personal stories that are intriguing. But the larger point, particularly for young Orthodox Jews of your generation, is that a person can be very religiously observant and not have that come in conflict with his or her secular career goals in American society. To a degree that made me really unprecedented in Jewish history, outside of Israel, of course. I hope that will be of interest.

Also, in analyzing my religious life to write this book, I saw things that I don’t usually see. Because we practice certain rituals every Shabbat, I had stopped appreciating as much as I could. For example, it’s quite a religiously magnificent moment, I think, when we take the Torah out of the Aron Kodesh [Holy Ark]. Since we hold it up and walk it around the shul [synagogue], it is the recipient of great affection, respect, and awe. Trying to describe what’s happening and why to non-observant Jews greatly enhanced the experience for me.


TC: Could you please reflect on the importance of politics and political awareness in Jewish life?


SJL: I’m not going to do this justice. Right from the origins, particular from Har Sinai [Mount Sinai], the Jewish experience and narrative is all about taking the values of the Torah and bringing them into the world. We elevate ourselves through Halakha, but also try to elevate the world. The reality is that for much of our history, the destruction of the Temple and the defeat of the last Israeli government in the year 70, Jews have occupied positions of political importance…in countries that were not democratic. For a long time, in this country, the religious Orthodox community was not as involved in politics as I think they should have been. It’s changed in the last few decades. It’s consistent with what it means to be a Torah-observant Jew, and to be a good American. Now, we have these opportunities to be involved in the larger community: (1) Here, (2) Israel – we have a Jewish state! We are an extraordinarily blessed nation because of these two realities. I think it’s really important that more and more religious people throw themselves into those realities.


In the book’s introduction, Senator Lieberman writes, “The Sabbath is an old but beautiful idea that, in our frantically harried and meaning-starved culture, cries out to be rediscovered and enjoyed by people of all faiths.” His assertion that the Sabbath would be beneficial to Jews and non-Jews alike—no matter which day of the week it is observed—highlights his focus on some of the most basic mentalities of the Shabbat observer, so fundamental that they apply to, and might enhance, the lives of anyone. Senator Lieberman identifies numerous underlying principles and purposes of Shabbat which, as Orthodox Jews, often get lost in our comparatively greater attention to finer details. Revisiting these principles as a reader may empower, or repower, your Sabbath observance with new vigor.

That such basic sabbatical precepts may actually apply, even appeal, to people of all religions is encouragingly demonstrated by many of the senator’s stories, in which he helps other major political figures through difficult times via religious lessons. For example, during the protracted Gore-Lieberman campaign in 2000, Senator Lieberman and Hadassah were invited to the Gore residence to celebrate the Florida Supreme Court’s ordering a recount of votes, late on a frenetic Friday afternoon. The Liebermans made it to the Gores’ just before Shabbat, and sat down for dinner with Al, Tipper, and few leaders of the campaign. According to Senator Lieberman, the Gores “asked us what we normally do at home on Friday night and said they hoped we would let them experience it with us; and so we led our friends through the blessings and songs of a Shabbat dinner.”

This example of spreading the joy of Shabbat is quite motivating already, but the Liebermans’ presentation was even more successful; at Tipper’s suggestion, the Gores decided they would turn off all of their electronics for that Sabbath, in need of a mental break from the pressures of constant campaigning. The Gores even insisted on walking the Liebermans the few miles back to their home (surrounded by Secret Service personnel) in honor of Shabbat. Other political figures to whom Senator Lieberman spread his religious thought include John McCain and Sarah Palin. The broad relevance of Shabbat to all people’s lives is made powerfully clear.

Senator Lieberman believes resolutely in the power of Shabbat to strengthen one’s work ethic throughout the rest of the week. He writes, “We leave Shabbat, knowing it is our responsibility to be as creative and purposeful for the next six days as God was in creating the Heaven and Earth.” His book, embodying this sentiment of focus and determination, can drive readers to pursue weekday fulfillment through Shabbat observance.