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


Rabbi Genack downplayed the book’s outreach to Christians.

“He really wants Jews to read it; he wants to bring the beauty of Shabbos to his own constituency,” Rabbi Genack told JTA. “But that message and that beauty has a universal theme as well.”

Lieberman’s growth as an observant Jew and his frustrations and triumphs as a politician weave through the book. His Sabbath observance appears to be inextricable from his public career: He withdrew from observance at Yale University, writing in the book that he continued to lay tefillin because it was a private act, but Sabbath observance seemed too public for him.

It “interrupted the weekend social flow of college life,” he writes. 

The death of his beloved maternal grandmother in 1967 returned him to the Sabbath observance of his upbringing. Within three years, at age 28 and with the campaigning skills of his Yale Law buddy Bill Clinton assisting him, he won his first elected office, Connecticut state senator.

“I began to see myself in the larger context of history,” Lieberman said. “I came back step by step to observance.”

In the book, he says his Sabbath observance “has made it easier for me to be different in my political life when being different is where my beliefs have taken me.”

He writes vividly of how his beliefs influenced his decision in 1998 to chastise Clinton from the Senate floor for his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. He recalls discussing with his family whether to be the first major Democrat to speak out. His four children said he should; Hadassah, his wife, was torn; his mother, who adored Clinton, urged him to keep silent.

In the end, his rebuke that the president’s behavior was “immoral” and “harmful” and “too consequential for us to walk away from” made history.

This break with the Democratic consensus helped lead Gore to choose him as a running mate in 2000; Lieberman represented a clean break with the scandals that had dogged Clinton.

Bittersweet Reflections

Many of these episodes seem bittersweet. He writes of the celebratory Sabbath he shared with Al and Tipper Gore on Dec. 7, 2000, when the Florida Supreme Court ruled in favor of a recount that almost certainly would have propelled Gore to the presidency and Lieberman to the vice presidency. The Liebermans rushed to the Naval Observatory, the vice president’s residence, just in time for Shabbat candle lighting, and after dinner the two couples walked the mile or so back to the Lieberman home in Georgetown.

“It was a night when we felt at the door of history and also very close to these two fine people,” he writes, and stops there. It’s as if he can’t bring himself to the denouement: The door that history opened was not to occupancy of the Naval Observatory but to a U.S. Supreme Court decision overruling the Florida court that would put George W. Bush in the White House.

The same bittersweet sense borne of lost opportunity informs another recounting in the book of a failed vice presidential bid. Staff for the McCain-Palin campaign urged Lieberman to give then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin a pep talk at a low point in the campaign, when she seemed unable to absorb the briefing material for her vice presidential debate with Joe Biden.

Lieberman talked of how the biblical Esther’s fate as a Jew differed from her destiny as a savior of Jews. The former was a covenant thrust upon her, while the latter was a covenant that handed her a choice. Palin, like Esther, now had a moment of choice: “The covenant of destiny is what we make of ourselves.”

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