I was surprised to read David Gibson’s Column today in Politics Daily, it was entitled The Joe Lieberman Debate: Good Jew or Bad Jew? Or Not So Bright?, to be honest it feels a bit creepy when someone is trying to determine whether someone else is following their faith. It becomes much more creepy when the person is asking the question about a follower of my faith, and when the questioner is not, as they say, a member of the tribe.
Gibson uses Lieberman’s threats to filibuster the Senate health care bill as a bell weather to ascertain whether Lieberman is a good Jew or not. This shows how little the Catholic Gibson understands about the Jewish faith. Jews are taught to conduct business with honesty and morality, Lieberman’s honest disagreement with the public option and further fanning the deficit, it is his honest opinion which he is making because of his moral responsibility to the people of Connecticut and America. If Gibson believes Lieberman is making a decision for nefarious reasons like a bribe, well then it would call his morality in conducting business into question. But there is no verse in the Torah that reads, “Thou Shalt Support the Progressive Liberal position at all times.
….it has also launched an intense discussion of almost Talmudic complexity about Lieberman’s Jewish bona fides. Jewish organizations in the United States have been among the strongest supporters of health care reform of the kind that Lieberman’s opposition may scuttle. They say that reflects the largely liberal and Democratic tendencies of their community, but also the longstanding tenets of Jewish tradition and teaching–as they see it.
“Senator Lieberman is looking at the same Jewish texts that we are, and reaching opposite conclusions,” Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, told The Forward, a leading Jewish weekly. “I’ve spent a lot of time in talks with Senator Lieberman, and he is not an easy person to sway.”
Gibson’s use of Reform Judaism as the end all and be all for Jewish Law is kind of silly. Not only is the Reform Movement it is the most liberal of all forms of Judaism, but it is the least connected with Halacha (traditional Jewish law). Since Lieberman is Modern Orthodox, if Gibson wanted a religious opinion he probably should have asked an Orthodox Rabbi.
Nor is the Forward a barometer of mainstream Jewish Media. The Weekly Jewish newspaper the Forward is over 110 years old. But it really “cut its teeth” during the Great Depression in the 1930’s. Back then the Forward was a major DAILY news paper with a circulation of almost 300 thousand. The Forward’s editorial slant at the time was VERY SOCIALIST. In the ensuing 7+ decades, the Jewish Population as eased back into the mainstream…still mostly liberal but more centrist. The Forward, now a weekly is still living in the 1930’s still on the extreme Progressive side of liberalism.
Not that Jewish leaders and lobbies aren’t trying. As we reported last month, several rabbis in Lieberman’s home state — some of whom had not spoken out before on political issues — have been pressuring Lieberman with prayer vigils and public petitions.
“Because he invokes his Jewish identity and Jewish values so frequently, we, as a community, should speak to what he is saying,” Rabbi Ron Fish from Congregation Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Norwalk, said about his decision to pen an open letter to Lieberman calling him out on his opposition to the health care bills.
But The Forward reports that local rabbis are also using quiet diplomacy, trying to get 25 of the state’s 50 pulpit rabbis to sign on to a private letter to Lieberman to convince him to change his stand. The more liberal rabbis–Lieberman himself is Orthodox–apparently prefer a more confrontational approach. “There is a good cop, bad cop routine,” one of them told the paper. “On the one hand, there are demonstrations outside his home; on the other, there are people trying to reach out behind the scenes.”
I would be interested if any of those 25 are Orthodox Rabbis.
Just like his foes, Lieberman sees his opposition as grounded in Jewish ethics, arguing that the health care proposals on the table would hurt America and would not help those who need it– although, as The Washington Post reported, his varying explanations of his varying positions have left various observers scratching their heads over his real reasons.
Whatever the motives, Lieberman is so committed to his political views and his religious traditions that he walked more than four miles to Capitol Hill from his Georgetown synagogue on a recent frigid Saturday to take part in a rare weekend health care debate — one of just two dozen or so times during his senate career that he has made that trek on the Sabbath, when strictly observant Jews do not drive. “I have a responsibility to my constituents, really to my conscience, to be here on something as important as healthcare reform,” he told The Hill.
Such high-minded talk grates on many Jewish leaders, who see passing health care reform as integral to the Jewish principal of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, which undergirds much of Judaism’s longstanding tradition of social and political activism, mainly of the liberal variety.
It is true that Jews are taught to care of those less advantaged, and that is part of Tikun Olam. It is also true that Gibson gives part of Lieberman’s rationale is that health care proposals on the table would hurt America and would not help those who need it. Well Mr. Gibson, THAT is Tikun Olam.
But Lieberman himself held up tikkun olam as the guiding principle for his political life, as he explained in his autobiography In Praise of Public Life:
“The summary of our aspirations was in the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, which is translated ‘to improve the world’ or ‘to complete God’s Creation.’ It presumes the inherent but unfulfilled goodness of people and requires action for the benefit of the community. These beliefs were a powerful force in my upbringing and seem even more profound and true to me today. The ideal of service [is] fundamental to my religious faith.”
At his SpiritualPolitics blog, Trinity College’s Mark Silk cites the excerpt above and then notes that in 2000 and as recently as three months ago Lieberman advocated letting those as young as 55 buy into Medicare as a way to fix the health care system. But now that such a proposal is part of the reform package Lieberman is invoking it as a reason he will filibuster the bill. “What’s the opposite of tikkun olam, Joe?” Silk asks.
Gee, Mark since you are such the Talmud expert you tell me. At the time Lieberman advocated letting those as young as 55 buy into Medicare as a way to fix the health care system, it was in a vacuum, for example, congress wasn’t first going to take 500 billion out of the Medicare system as it is now.
So what explains Lieberman’s seemingly contrarian stance not only on politics–his constituents as well as his co-religionists strongly support health care reform with a public option–but also on Jewish teaching? Some cite Lieberman’s connections to the insurance industry in Connecticut, others think it’s about paybacks for the Democrats dissing him during his reelection bid.
Writing in The New Republic, Jonathan Chait doesn’t think it’s all that complicated:
“I think one answer here is that Lieberman isn’t actually all that smart. He speaks, and seems to think, exclusively in terms of generalities and broad statements of principle. But there’s little evidence that he’s a sharp or clear thinker, and certainly no evidence that he knows or cares about the details of health care reform.”
Chait — he’s Jewish, too, so he can say this — actually thinks Lieberman’s upfront Jewishness has obscured the better question about his intellectual chops:
“I suspect that Lieberman is the beneficiary, or possibly the victim, of a cultural stereotype that Jews are smart and good with numbers. Trust me, it’s not true. If Senator Smith from Idaho was angering Democrats by spewing uninformed platitudes, most liberals would deride him as an idiot. With Lieberman, we all suspect it’s part of a plan. I think he just has no idea what he’s talking about and doesn’t care to learn.”
In the end, it’s unclear exactly what influence Lieberman’s Judaism, or his fellow Jews, could have on his political decisions. These days, arguments over the good or bad faith in a pol’s position are often associated with Roman Catholicism. But Judaism has no eucharist to withhold, no effective way to excommunicate an adherent, no real hierarchy to lay down the law — and no widespread desire to implement any of those mechanisms. In fact, a hallmark of Judaism is disputation, so in a sense the arguments between Lieberman and his critics are only cementing their claims to being members of the tribe. Whether those debates seal the fate of health care reform will ultimately be decided on the floor of the Congress.
Gibson misses a matter of theology. From my admittedly limited knowledge of Christian Theology, man is born with Original Sin which is a tendency to do bad. That concept is very similar to classic Liberal philosophy which says man is basically bad and needs government to keep them on the straight and narrow.
Judaism teaches that Man is born neutral with both a yetzer hatov, a tendency towards goodness,and a yetzer hara, “the evil inclination”. Judaism teaches that all human beings are believed to have free will and we are to learn from it. Sin is not necessarily evil but “missing the mark” There is almost always a “way back” if a person wills it. The bottom line is traditional Jewish Theology teaches man is meant to have free will, which is closer to Conservative philosophy, which says that the government is supposed to stay out of our lives and let us make our decisions for ourselves even if it means we screw up once in a while. Part of Tikun Olam is repairing our own souls which can only be done via doing the right thing, when we are compelled to act. That’s the way our souls learn.
Most polls that I have seen reflects the fact that the more a Jew leans toward the Orthodox movement and traditional Jewish law, the more likely they are to be politically conservative.
So as far as Gibson’s original question, Is Lieberman a good or bad Jew, it is not a question that can be answered through the sources used in Gibson’s article. To be honest, those sources have “some chutzpa” to answer that question also. If people like Mark Pelavin, and Johnathan Chiat want to ask that question of others, they should first take the time to ask themselves that particular question, and fix their own souls through Tikun Olam. Maybe they should spend a little extra on the parts about Loshen Hora (evil talk), because whether or not Joe Lieberman is a good Jew or not is between him and his Rabbi, him and his family and most of all between and him and God. It is not something that should be judged by liberal pundits.