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Lieberman Scaled Political Heights, But Wants Shabbat To Be His Legacy


WASHINGTON – Call Joe Lieberman the unlikely evangelist. The Independent senator from Connecticut – and the best-known Orthodox Jew in American politics – is probably more cognizant than most of his Jewish congressional colleagues about rabbinical interdictions against encouraging non-Jews to mimic Jewish ritual.

Yet here he is, about to release a book advising Christians and others not to drive to church, to welcome their Sabbath in the evening, to cut off the wired world and to enjoy your significant other.

Meeting with Lieberman in his Senate offices last week, before the Aug. 16 release date of his new book, The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath, he laughed at the term evangelical. But he also embraced it.

“In a way it is” evangelical, he said.

Not that he wanted to convert anyone, Lieberman emphasized. 

“This gift, I wanted not only to share with Jews who are not experiencing it, who haven’t accepted it, but also in some measure to appeal to Christians to come back to their observance of their Sabbath on Sundays,” he said.

Lieberman does so in a surprisingly engaging read – surprisingly because books by politicians fronted by photos where they pose in studied, open-collared casualness are usually a recipe for a surfeit of encomiums packed with feel-goodness but bereft of intellectual nourishment.

Instead, melding an unlikely array of tales ranging from 16th-century Safed to tension-soaked Republican and Democratic back rooms, Lieberman makes the case for a structured day of rest that offers freedom within iron walls. 

The book also provides a glimpse into how religion shaped this most adamant of congressional centrists, whose stubborn hewing to his beliefs brought him within shouting distance of the vice presidency before propelling him toward the end of his political career (Lieberman will not seek reelection in 2012).

One potent example of Lieberman’s championing of freedom through restrictions is how the dictates of the holy day liberate him from his BlackBerry.

“Six days a week, I’m never without this little piece of plastic, chips and wires that miraculously connect me to the rest of the world and that I hope makes me more efficient, but clearly consumes a lot of my time and attention,” he writes. “If there were no Sabbath law to keep me from sending and receiving email all day as I normally do, do you think I would be able to resist the temptation on the Sabbath? Not a chance. Laws have this way of setting us free.”

As it turns out, this has been a book Lieberman has been considering for a while. He says the seeds of it reach as far back as his first run for state senator in 1970, when his Sabbath observance first created logistical problems for his campaign staff.

It emerged full force when Al Gore named him as his running mate in 2000. In Lacrosse, Wis., on a Saturday after the announcement, he found people coming out of their homes to greet him and wish him well as he walked to the local synagogue.

Conversations with Christians and their curiosity about his observance crystallized the idea for the book, he said.

“This is something I thought about doing for a long time,” Lieberman said, “because the Sabbath has meant so much for me. It’s really been a foundation for my life.”

The book is published by Simon & Schuster’s Howard imprint in conjunction with OU Press. Lieberman co-wrote it with David Klinghoffer, a politically conservative (and Orthodox Jewish) columnist and author, in consultation with Rabbi Menachem Genack, who runs the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division and with whom Lieberman takes a weekly telephone class.

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