In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Senator Joe Lieberman – politician, lobbyist, and attorney – about the gift of Shabbos.
Joe Lieberman lives a life in the public eye as an observant Jew. This exemplary dedication to his values is admirable and gives Joe a unique perspective on the benefits of Shabbos.
Tune in to hear a conversation about the gift of Shabbos.
In the Driver’s Seat by Jenna Weissman Joselit
Half Shabbos is No Shabbos by Jonathan Rosenblum
Is Half Shabbos Really No Shabbos? By Rabbi Shalom Baum
Shabbos: The Political Significance of Jewish Law by Avi Garelick
Everything Is for Sale Now. Even Us. by Dr. Ruth Whippman
America the Anxious by Dr. Ruth Whippman
The Gift of Rest by Joe Lieberman
The 39 Avoth Melacha of Shabbath by Baruch Chait
Senator Joe Lieberman is a politician, lobbyist, and attorney, who served as a senator from Connecticut from 1989 to 2013, and was the nominee for Vice President of the United States in the 2000 election. Senator Lieberman is an observant Jew, and his thoughtful book The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath is a fascinating look into the spiritual journey from within the halls of power. Above all else, Joe Lieberman’s kindness, humility, and dedication to living a life of service are powerful lessons for all of us who spend our days on Netflix and nights on Youtube. The senator joins us to talk Shabbos, spirituality, and living a life of dedication and balance.
Hello, and welcome to the 18Forty podcast, where each month, we explore different topics balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless, Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month, we’re exploring Shabbos. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy, Jewish ideas. So be sure to check out 18Forty.org, where you can find videos, articles, and recommended readings.
It’s always a little bit of a struggle to figure out what topics we should address on the 18Forty podcast, and in some ways, the selection of the topic of Shabbos is a little bit strange. This is not a Halacha or educational podcast in the traditional sense where we’re looking to teach people the rules and regulations of observance. We really try to go to those areas where there’s an element of dissonance between our lives and our experiences, and those ideals that we try to integrate into our lives. So Shabbos, in many ways, seems like a strange, maybe more conservative or traditional choice, so why exactly did we choose this? I think, in many ways, a consideration of Shabbos, particularly in the modern era, is a touchstone of everything that we are trying to do and everything that we are trying to address. Because I think in many ways, the history of modernity, the history of the United States of America, can be told through the contention and negotiation of the Jewish community, and how to preserve and integrate Shabbos observance in our lives.
I’m not sure if it’s a uniquely American experience, though it certainly came to a fore and kind of bubbled up in many ways, the notion of being able to observe and have and create, so to speak, a Shabbos in America. One of the earliest recordings that we have of a European rabbi addressing Jews in America is in fact the Munkatcher Rebbe, who, in Yiddish, we have a video of him pleading and asking American Jewry to preserve and hold onto Shabbos.
Now at that point in early American history, the struggle of Shabbos really surrounded with people being able to take off from work. I know myself, I grew up knowing my zaide, who lived in North Adams, Massachusetts, and it was almost unheard of at that time for people to get off from work on Shabbos. People contended with so many other issues related to Shabbos observance as modernity began to evolve. There were questions about the uses of refrigerators on Shabbos. How do you create a Shabbos environment in our homes? There was just that famous Wall Street Journal article that spoke about the use of the Shabbos mode oven, so to speak, which we are not going to get to in-depth, but I got a chuckle out of the fact that the Wall Street Journal did a story of frustrated non-Jews realizing that their oven accidentally slipped into Shabbos mode, and called up the company, thinking that they were broken.
I think the article that really elaborates on the struggle that we often take for granted was the fight in the 1950s that mostly involved the conservative movement, but if you think that it didn’t also affect the Orthodox movement and really all denominations within Jewry, was the question of the use of cars on Shabbos. There’s an absolutely wonderful article that tells the history, the story, as it took place in history, of the struggle of how do we deal with this new luxury that modernity has provided? The ability to kind of travel unencumbered, and how that’s going to be integrated on Shabbos. The article’s from Professor Jenna Weissman Joselit, and it’s called In the Driver’s Seat: Rabbinic Authority in Post-War America. It’s a wonderful article, a, because I think it’s a really sharp read of the history. It’s also wonderful because she weaves in so many absolutely wonderful puns as it is related to Shabbos.
She talks about the struggle that conservative rabbis had from the fact that most of their communities were, in fact, driving on Shabbos, and the struggle was whether or not to acknowledge that reality, and have rabbinic guidance kind of go down to the practice of the people, or to keep that ideal intact even though it would create this widening gulf between the laity of the conservative movement and the rabbis. This was a struggle within the movement, and she concludes her article with kind of a lament that it didn’t really work.
She writes, “But their efforts,” referring to the conservative rabbis who had hoped that this issue, if they made this allowance, would continue to preserve Shabbos in America, she writes, “But their efforts fell wide of the mark, giving rise to mounting frustration, and what Max Rutenberg, the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, called helplessness and depression. We minister to people, most of whom fully believe that they are wiser than we, better than we, certainly richer than we.”
And part of what this story is about, and it’s not often told, is not just the Halachic discussion, but also the growing economic divide between homes in the 1950s that had access to cars, and the rabbinic leadership, where having an automobile, just even that ownership in many ways was considered a luxury that not all rabbis had. One rabbi that she quotes at the end of the article, Rabbi Myer Kripke, says, “You will permit the man to go to the golf course. He is already there.” And there was this sense of helplessness in early 1950s, 1960s America that I know my own zaide and his entire community experienced, that felt that Shabbos is simply not going to be tenable in America.
And she of course concludes with a wonderful pun: “Spinning its wheels, the conservative rabbinate was ultimately forced to temper, or at the very least, to modulate, its fidelity to Jewish law and seek out an alternative, more American source of moral authority. Public speaking, say, or institution building, scholarship, or pastoral skill. In the end, these qualities would do far more to bind the conservative rabbi to his congregants, to make for success, than sensitivity to Halacha.”
So this was a parting of the ways, in many ways, of an entire movement, and their relationship to Jewish law. There is probably no area of Jewish law that can feel to an outside observer, somebody who’s not initiated to this world in a natural rhythmic sense, than the observants of Shabbos. If it’s presented as just these disparate laws of what you cannot do, then so much of the sanctity, so much of the joy and interiority, and that joyous rhythm that emerges from the observance of Shabbos does get lost.
But the battle did not in any way end over cars. It kind of reemerged, not in the conservative community, but in the Orthodox community. In 2012, there was a major issue that was described as half Shabbos. Half Shabbos was the description, I believe it was coined by Professor Alan Brill, who spoke about this notion that became more and more common among teenagers, who even those who came from Shabbos observant homes, according to Orthodox interpretations of Halacha, in terms of Orthodox Jewish law, even those teens, and it was primarily focused on teens, would continue to use their phones on Shabbos. This type of observance became known as half Shabbos. I observe everything but I do continue to use the phone on Shabbos.
There was a really fastening discourse, and it’s almost 10 years old by now, but I think it bears repeating in many ways, in the pages of Jewish Action, the quarterly magazine of the Orthodox Union, which I am proud to be on the editorial board of. And in this discourse, there was an article that was written by Jonathan Rosenblum, who happens to also be a past guest on 18Forty, when we spoke about censorship, and he contributed an article to Jewish Action in the spring 2012 issue that was entitled Half Shabbos is No Shabbos.
Essentially what he argues for is that we need to draw a very, very strong line explaining how continuing to use your phones or play around with electronics is not a Shabbos experience at all. He writes, “But no matter how many mitigating factors we can find to minimize the revelations about teens texting on Shabbos, the phenomenon will not allow us to remain complacent. At the very least, it is a wake up call to all parents to reexamine our own attitudes towards Shabbos, and to contemplate how successful we are in conveying our own positive feelings, and how we can improve.”
I think that’s something quite profound, that so much of a child’s relationship to Shabbos emerges from what they see reflected not in the particularities or the commitment to the law itself, but do their parents love Shabbos? Did you grow up in a home where you felt your parents loved Shabbos? I think in many ways, a home that observes Shabbos, but hates it, can be more deleterious, can have more of a negative effect than growing up without Shabbos altogether. Because a home like that, where we have Shabbos, but it is just frustrating, suffocating, difficult, that is going to shape a child’s relationship to Shabbos, rather than a home where Shabbos just simply doesn’t exist, and the child needs to figure out a way to formulate and create it, and you can actually hope for the best.
But this article did not pass without some very strong back and forth, and a letter that was written by Rabbi Shalom Baum, who I know well, and I think we’re close to almost becoming friends, but we’re not quite there yet. We’re getting there. We’re on an email, text basis. We’re getting there, slowly but surely. We’ve been postponing a lunch together for, I think we’re running on half a decade now, almost five years. But we will get there. But he wrote a very important letter following up to Jonathan Rosenblum’s article. The letter, which was almost an article unto itself, was Is Half Shabbos Really No Shabbos?
He writes quite bluntly, “I found Jonathan Rosenblum’s article, Half Shabbos is No Shabbos, to be problematic on both Halachic and educational grounds.” And what he really calls for is a little bit more sensitivity with the contemporary struggle of what Shabbos is. Not a moving of the lines that was seen in the 1950s in Conservative American Jewry, but what he writes is, “We need to treat teenagers in the Orthodox community with the same sensitivity that we treat potential baalei teshuva, those who come from outside of the Orthodox community. While we should always strive more maximum observance, and never concede to Halachic compromise, we should not ignore what the Maharal writes, of what he calls the sechar pisiyut, the reward that you get for every step that you take. A more balanced perspective and embracing approach could enhance the entire Shabbos experience for our community.”
I think you learn so much about not just Shabbos, but even more so about the economic, financial, and psychological makeup of different Orthodox communities, different Jewish communities, from what they are negotiating with in Shabbos. You can tell the story of American Jewry through the lens of Shabbos itself. It is how we primarily, it is the litmus test, it is the canary in the coalmine, for how we negotiate, so to speak, with modernity itself.
I actually heard a lecture from somebody who, again, I’m not quite certain if he identifies as Orthodox. He’s certainly religious, and he came from Orthodox institutions, and he associates as a religious socialist. I assume an economic identity that not all necessarily identify with, and certainly doesn’t resonate with many in this increasingly polarized society. However, he gave a lecture that I found absolutely fascinating and important. He was speaking to his fellow comrades on the left wing, people who identify as socialists. He gave a lecture, only 10 minutes – you can find it on YouTube, called Shabbos: The Political Significance of Jewish Law – where he calls almost on his friends, mostly in the non-Orthodox world, to embrace this notion or appreciate this Shabbos consciousness as a time where our labor, our day-to-day work, no matter what social class you are in, we’re allowed to step away from it, and still acknowledge that we have a self-worth and dignity. And insisting, and scheduling, whether it’s scheduling conferences, we spoke a little bit on the phone of where he came from in this lecture. But scheduling conferences and not allowing people to embrace the Shabbos of their choosing in many ways undermines so many of the progressive ideals and the economic freedoms that socialists in his community are very much looking to cultivate.
I found that to be extraordinarily profound, to think of Shabbos as a cause for that internal human dignity that we’re conditioned to think can only come through work and labor and promotions, and all the things that we do, and Shabbos as this celebration of our self-wroth and dignity divorced or unencumbered by what our output is in society. In many ways, it reminded me of an article that I found extraordinarily moving and important that was published in 2018 by Ruth Whippman. The article’s published in the opinion section of the New York Times, and it says, “Everything is for sale, even us.”
It was written by this author who just came out with this book, America the Anxious: Why Our Search for Happiness is Driving Us Crazy and How to Find it Real. But her article was really more about the pushing that we need to do online to sell our products, so to speak, to sell ourselves. She writes, “As a writer, I am part of the 35% of the American workforce that now works freelance in some capacity, either as a main source of income, or some kind of side hustle. This number is growing constantly. 94% of the new jobs created in the last decade or so were freelance or contract based. This is the gig economy that we learn so much about, and I think in many ways it is altering our very relationship with work itself.” As she writes, “In this cutthroat human marketplace, we are worth only as much as the sum of our metrics. So checking those metrics can become obsessive. What’s my Amazon ranking? How many likes? How many retweets? How many followers? Of course, a fair chunk of this mass selling frenzy is motivated by money, with a collapsing middle class, as well as close to zero job security, and none of the benefits associated with it. Self-marketing has become for many a necessity in order to eat.”
But she actually points to something even more essential in this growing trend of where this gig economy, side hustles, and those things are headed. Which have only been accelerated over the past two years or so because of Coronavirus. We have people who are working more than one full-time job, the Wall Street Journal actually reported on in the last few months. But she points to something even more essential than just the economic pressures that people place on themselves.
She writes, “This is the future, and research suggests that it’s a rat race that is already taking a severe toll on our psyches. A 2017 study suggests that this trend toward increasingly market driven human interaction is making us paranoid, jittery, self-critical, and judgmental. Analyzing data from the multidimensional perfectionism scale, from 1989 to 2016, the study’s authors found a surprisingly large increase over this period in three distinct types of perfectionism: self-oriented perfectionism, whereby we hold ourselves to increasingly unrealistic standards, and judge ourselves harshly when we fail to meet them. Then there’s socially prescribed perfectionism, in which we are convinced that other people judge us harshly. And then other oriented perfectionism, in which we get our revenge by judging them just as harshly. These elements of perfectionism positively correlate with mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, and even suicide, which are also on the rise. The authors describe this new normal mindset as a sense of self overwhelmed by pathological worry and a fear of negative social evaluation.”
I identify with this a great deal. I check my Amazon rankings. I check my retweets, my likes. I am nervous over how things that I write are going to be received. I’m worried about episodes that we publish on 18Forty that follow really successful ones, and the next one’s not going to get the same type of great feedback. All of this is a type of perfectionism that I am quite familiar with, and place on myself. For me, and the way I think about my own personal history with Shabbos, which I wrote a little bit about, and you can check on the 18Forty website, of course, for me, what Shabbos really is, is an exercise and practice in self-acceptance. It is the entering a world where you are not able to do, but you need instead to embrace and to be. It is a world, in my opinion, that very much is a product and reflection of your own personal relationship to modernity and to all of the pressures that this world places on you. The question is, in the quiet of Shabbos, in the serenity of Shabbos, are you left with angst and anxiety, or are you able to cultivate an ethic of wholeness and peacefulness?
I’m mentioning this for two reasons. Number one, I want to be absolutely clear, I’m not saying that Shabbos is just about a day of unplugging. I think it’s so much more than that, and that so much of the reason why we have so many of the laws of Shabbos, we’re preserving far more than just unplugging, and it’s far more than family time. I think it’s entering a world of perfection where we have to act as if the world was perfect, and thereby embrace and find a way to discover and appreciate our own imperfections. It is an exercise, in many ways, in embracing imperfection. Ask anyone who’s entered into Shabbos and missed a spot on their neck while shaving. I need to spend the next 25 hours with one of those neck beards. Lord knows, especially in the summertime, that has happened to me.
But I think this notion of Shabbos as an exercise in the acceptance of imperfection by acting as if the world was perfect is something that we will return to over and over again, but flies in the face of the very nature of what modernity in this world tells us. If you see something broken, our whole mission in this world, what we’re conditioned to do is find those market imperfections and fix it and make it better, and profit off of it, and get retweets off of it, and get likes from it. But instead, what Shabbos allows us to do is withdraw and see how we as human beings relate to a universe that’s just about us and our relationship to God and each other. A world that ostensibly should feel perfect, and if it doesn’t in many ways, it’s a reflection that we’re too integrated, too interwoven with that world of doing and not that world of being.
It’s why in many ways I tweeted, and it was a little controversial. I know people didn’t like it, and I’m not sure that I still like it. But in December of 2014, which is before I was married. I was not in a good place in my life. I wrote, “I don’t like the phrase, ‘I broke Shabbos. My dear, Shabbos is not the one that’s broken.’” I still relate to this in many ways because I think the phrase, “I broke Shabbos,” makes it seem like Shabbos is this perfect entity that we come with a sledgehammer and just smash. But I really do believe that your relationship with Shabbos can very often be a reflection of your inner personal constitution and interiority. What is going on in your inner world that is making Shabbos so anxiety ridden, so difficult? Maybe it is not Shabbos that is broken, but in fact, it is you.
When I wrote this, let me be absolutely clear, I was writing to myself. I was writing to myself because I was in a place in my life where I didn’t really like or appreciate Shabbos. It made me feel lonely. It made me feel divorced from the world. It made me feel unsettled because I was so tethered to the modern conveniences of daily life and social gatherings. I didn’t yet have a family. I didn’t yet have a home of my own. Instead of reading this, “My dear, Shabbos is not the one that’s broken,” as a criticism, almost, I look at it as Shabbos as a reflection of who we are as individuals and who we are as people.
That’s why I’m so excited to approach this topic on 18Forty, to really explore what Shabbos means and can mean in the modern era. I’m so excited to kick it off with our interview with former Senator Joe Lieberman, who did so much to bring the notion of Shabbos to the public consciousness, and in fact, who wrote an absolutely lovely book called The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath. But I love is what he did to bring on this public consciousness of Shabbos itself. I keep thinking back to this hilarious, somewhat irreverent clip on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and then at the time, Steve Carell, right after he announced his vice presidential campaign with Al Gore. Again, this is in the year 2000. It feels like centuries ago. It’s just decades ago.
Steve Carell, on The Daily Show, took out a book, which should be familiar to so many children who grew up being educated about Shabbos, and that is Rabbi Baruch Chait’s children series on the 39 Avos Melachos. On The Daily Show, on Comedy Central, they took out this book to kind of discuss, what would a vice president look like who is Shabbos observant? Listen to what they said.
All right, Steve. Well, how about the Democrats? Now, Joseph Lieberman, he’s an Orthodox Jew. What’s that going to mean to people?
Well, Jon, it’s hard to say. Judaism is a complicated faith. Take the bar mitzvah, for example. A rite of passage into manhood, during which a 13 year old boy reads from the Torah while walking backward over hot coals.
I don’t recall that happening. I actually had a bar mitzvah.
Well, Jon, that’s because you’re Reform. See, as an Orthodox Jew, Lieberman must follow a whole different set of rules. For instance, he must diligently observe the Sabbath, during which many activities are strictly forbidden. Talmudic scholars have compiled these activities into a sacred text entitled The 39 Avoth Melacha of Shabbath. Jon, if you can see, that’s from the Little Scholar series. The book details 39 forbidden acts, among them, if I could, would be winnowing, threshing, hitting with a hammer, and binding sheaves. Now, Jon, can our nation survive with a vice president who is restricted from binding sheaves on a Saturday?
I think we could. That’s never happened ever.
Really? The year was 1897. Garrett A. Hobart was serving as vice president under William McKinley. Not an easy thing to do. French emissaries brokering a trade deal with McKinley demanded sheaves, but those sheaves were delivered to the White House unbound. The fragile pact would have disintegrated if not for Hobart’s quick work. Jon, it was a Saturday.
See, that never happened. I don’t –
I guess you don’t.
So yes, they were a little irreverent, but I still believe that the work that he has done to show that Shabbos can exist in the highest halls of power, and I think the work of Avi Garelick and those like him, to talk about the importance of preserving a Shabbos, even in the most difficult economic situations, is something that makes the Shabbos experience so unique.
We’re in this kind of longterm uphill battle to make it possible for poor and working class Jews to participate, to bring them back into the fold. In order to do that, we need to create those institutions of solidarity and support for keeping Shabbos. This is actually, we’re doing worse within the kind of liberal or not ultra-Orthodox Jewish world because the Shabbos is generally seen as a matter of personal choice, so it’s therefore confined to that sphere. It’s not thought of as an obligation for Jews to take care of each other and to make it possible to observe Shabbos.
But Shabbos is more than a radical idea. It is an existing practice, and like any cultural tradition, it is a site of struggle between the reactionary elements of that culture and the forces of liberation. So whether you’re in the observant Jewish left, or whether you’re in the religious left more broadly, I invite you to take part in this struggle. Will the Shabbos of the future exist as a kind of oasis of privilege? Or can we build it as a kind of cross-class practice of solidarity that disrupts domination and capitalism?
Which is why I am so excited to introduce our conversation with Senator Joe Lieberman.
So I’m wondering if we can begin, you write eloquently about your own struggles with Shabbos when you were in Yale, and how the so to speak, the death of your bubbe, of your grandmother, is what brought you back. I’m wondering now, if you could reach back and talk to your former self, who was in Yale, who was kind of letting the details and the observance of Shabbos fall by the wayside, what would you tell yourself, that 20 something year old in college, who was struggling with Shabbos observance?
Yeah. So in a way, the advice is probably not going to work. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked for me. Very briefly, I’ll say, I grew up in a traditional, I would say modern Orthodox family in Stanford, Connecticut. Shabbos was very much part of my upbringing. Not a Haredi Shabbos. For instance, my family allowed me and my friends to go to the park and have a baseball catch or something on Saturday afternoon. But otherwise, really pretty frum, observant.
So when I got accepted to Yale, I went to college, I made excuses to myself. “Oy vey.” See, I fall immediately into Yiddish. Not very sophisticated Yiddish, but “Oh my, if I can’t work on Shabbat, I might flunk out,” and all that nonsense. But I really think as I look back to it, I view it as a kind of conformity. Or maybe it was a sort of liberation from home, and I wanted to do my own thing. Eventually I found out that it wasn’t worth it. But Shabbat, both in terms of studying on Shabbat, and in terms of occasionally going out a mile or two from campus and watching a football game, I did. I’m not proud of it, but it almost seems like a necessary step I had to go through. I will tell you, I think I write this in the book, that in ways that I can’t fully explain, even though I left strict Shabbat observance, I continued to put on my Tefillin every morning.
You did write that.
Yeah, even if all I did was say the Modeh Ani, the morning “Thank you, God, for restoring my soul to the body,” the Shema, the affirmation of faith, there was some spiritual, mystical hold, and of course, if this was all about conformity in the new world of Yale, putting on Tefillin was private except for my two roommates, neither of whom were Jewish.
So I guess if I could speak to myself at 18, when I went to Yale, I’d say, “Really, what are you gaining by not observing Shabbos? Why are you doing it?” But I think now as I look back, that it was almost a necessary step. Then, of course, when my bubbe passed away, in my third year at Yale Law, and I was expecting. My wife and I were expecting our first child later in the year. I had this sense that the generations were changing. My bubbe was my link to the old country, but really more than that, she was very spiritual. Very warm, loving. I loved her, really.
I thought, “Now I have a decision to make. Am I going to be the link that replaces my bubbe in the chain of Jewish history, or am I going to let it go?” It was compelling. I had to go back. So the first Shabbat after she passed away I went across the street. There was a shul there all along. I lived in that apartment for a year. Went across the street, and davened Shabbat morning. I just progressively came back over the years to full observance.
So I’m wondering if you could share a couple sentences about, you mentioned twice that that was a necessary step. I’ve often said that Shabbos looks different depending what age you are. Sometimes, what do you think you mean when you say it was a necessary step to kind of move away from observance for a little bit?
Yeah, I must say to you, David, that you have evoked that characterization for the first time. I never thought about it that way. Because you asked me, what would I say to myself? I would, as I said, try to convince myself, “You’re not being sensible, Joe.” But just, maybe I had to leave it to come back to it, and to really appreciate it. Of course, I’m so grateful that I did come back to it because it’s been a pillar of my life since.
So yeah, I think a lot of people have transitions like that. I think in my own life, I don’t know if I’ve ever characterized having left Shabbos observance altogether, but certainly Shabbos in my 20s looks different than Shabbos as it does now. Without a doubt, the world really became aware, not just of you, but almost of Shabbos observance at the same time. I remember Tim Russert asking you about Shabbos observance on Meet the Press. Potentially the inauguration would be on Saturday. I remember Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, if my memory serves me correctly, taking out the children’s lamed tes melachos book, the 39 rules, and poking a little bit of fun –
– wondering, what would a White House look like if the vice president was potentially Shabbos observant? I’m wondering, I think most of the questions were in good fun, and really honest inquiry into what this would be like. But I’m curious in those initial questions, when they approached you, was there a part of you that was frustrated that your Shabbos observance in particular was kind of put as this barrier of being a member of the United States government?
No, I’ll come back and tell you in the minute about a time of frustration like that, almost humor. But all those, I know Jon Stewart took the liberties that a Jew would take in making fun. Tim Russert was, again, I knew him pretty well. He was a pretty devout Irish Catholic. And what he did, his questions were very respectful, and really quite interested. I also put it in the context. Al Gore took a risk. I was the first Jewish American on a national ticket of a major party, and Al was convinced that the American people were ready.
I tell you briefly. I don’t tell this story in the Shabbat book, but I’ve told it. On the night that they told me that I was going to be his choice for vice president, they flew my family and me to Nashville. The announcement was going to be the next morning, and we were together on a wonderful social evening. And Vice President Gore said to me, “I decided a couple weeks ago that you were my choice, but I really felt it would be irresponsible if I didn’t ask some people I trusted, privately, did they think America was ready for a Jewish vice president? Or would it make it impossible for our ticket to win?”
He said it was fascinating because I asked some of my Jewish friends and counselors, and among them there was anxiety and uncertainty, and some actually said, “Don’t do it, Al. America’s not ready.” He said, by stark contrast, every Christian friend, counselor I asked about it, said, “Oh, don’t even worry about it. It’s not going to be a problem at all.” Then he told a little joke, which was, “Since I know that there are so many millions more Christians than Jews in America, I could make the choice that I wanted to make.”
But he understood that the reason for the difference was, of course, the history of discrimination against Jews, particularly Jews in prominent places, when the community suffered, and he also said to me something really insightful, Gore did. Which was, he said, “I realized there’s a difference between the fear of anti-Semitism and the reality of anti-Semitism.” He said, for good reasons, a lot of American Jews still fear anti-Semitism, but really, as far as I can tell, and polls have vindicated him, Christians or non-Jews in America are not anti-Semitic.
So I say all that to say that the reaction to my selection, people tell me, but I wasn’t on the internet, didn’t have time. There was a little flurry of anti-Semitic stuff on the internet, but I never in that campaign faced any overt anti-Semitism, and to rush to the end, because politics is like sports, where it’s numbers tell the story. The first time it was an American Jew on a national ticket, we got 545,000 more votes than the other ticket. I don’t want to relitigate the results. But it’s a wonderful thing that it says about America.
So I tell you quickly the one I was frustrated. So 2003, I announced for the Democratic nomination for president. I do it at my old high school in Stanford, Connecticut. We do a press availability at my mother’s house, which is a block away. My dad had passed away. So, and I opened for questions. And just classically, two Jewish reporters for major, one says, “Senator, you will be the first Jew in the White House as president if you win. Will you allow the Christmas tree?” Then another one, also Jewish, says, “Yes, and how about the Easter Egg hunt?” So I said – save me from my own people – so I said, “Well, the White House belongs to everybody, and if I am fortunate enough to be elected president, we will respect everybody’s religious traditions and rituals, because it’s America’s house. I would be living there as a tenet for four years.” But anyway, to me I thought, “Oh my God, why are they asking me such stupid questions.” But there you go.
One thing that I think is difficult, particularly among Jews, is that when we have somebody in the public sphere, we tend to project our own levels, whether it is kind of a lower level, or a higher level, whatever we’re doing is normal, and whatever anyone’s doing less is heresy, and more is fanaticism. I’m curious, writing a book in particular about Shabbos observance, when you did make fairly significant allowances in your own Shabbos observance, I’m wondering how you negotiated, or whether it ever bothered you that there were Jews who could potentially criticize you for making allowances that they, themselves, would say, “That’s not right. That’s not what he should be doing.” Because you’re here in the public sphere, and as you mentioned, people most critical sometimes are your own people. But how did you balance the notion of making Shabbos of your own with the notion that other Jews have this objective notion that you can’t really make any allowances when it comes to Shabbos, unless you speak to my rabbi.
Right, right. So that’s a great question. Look, I understood, both in Connecticut, when I accepted the nomination for senator in 1988, the conventions were always on Shabbat, on Saturdays. So I was reasonably confident I was going to get nominated. I prerecorded an acceptance speech, which was played at the convention, and the next day, in all the state newspapers, instead of the candidate holding up his hands, it showed the screen with me on it. The people of Connecticut, the Jewish population in Connecticut is probably two percent. But later on in the campaign, this is a longer story, I don’t want to take time. But I kept running into people who were Christians who said they really respected the fact that I took my faith so seriously that I didn’t do politics on Friday night and Saturday. All along the way, I think my willingness to be who I am, which is what my parents and my rabbis, as a kid, encouraged me to be, really ironically helped me.
I decided, when I wrote this book, because so many people said to me, “We’re so fascinated. Why do you do what you do?” I really love Shabbat, just as it says in the Talmud, and I quote it in the beginning. To me, it became, not always, not at college sometimes, not in high school. It’s a gift. People would say to me, “How can you be a senator and observe Shabbat?” I said, and I really meant it, “I don’t think I could be a senator and not observe Shabbat.” It’s that rooting, restful, refreshing, as it were, to me. So in the end, and maybe by the time I wrote this book, I was already not a kid. I had the confidence to say what I believed, and I knew that it would bother some Jewish people. Periodically, along the way, people who were more observant than I would criticize me for, “Why did you do this? Why did you do that?” So I said, “That was my choice.” I always talked to my rabbis. Actually, I always gave my rabbis an hour. I said, “I’m not asking you to pasken, Rabbi, but inform my decision, and then I’m going to take full responsibility for what I do.”
Overall, I think it’s worked. But I tell you a wonderful story, and it’s just sort of advance news. It’s not really that public yet. About a year ago, I got contacted out of the blue by a kiruv group in Israel called Shabbat Unplugged. That’s the English, obviously. It was funded originally by the Avi Chai Foundation. It now gets a lot of support from the government of Israel. But it’s aiming to encourage people who are either secular or more traditional, but not Orthodox or Haredi, to take part of Shabbat. It sounds very Chabad. Do one mitzvah, do two mitzvos.
Anyway, the woman who leads it says, “We love your Shabbat book. We want to publish it in Hebrew with your permission. We actually think that the group that we’re trying to appeal to will be more taken by reading about how you, as a non-rabbi, and involved in a public life, observed Shabbat, and why you love it, as opposed to having a rabbi tell them why they should love it.” So in October, and I’m going to be in Israel be’ezrat Hashem, where they’re going to launch the book in Hebrew, October 10th, with a reception at President Herzog’s house, and the next day an all day conference on Shabbat.
The mission is not only to bring more people into pieces of Shabbat observance, but to see, this is the group’s mission, and I’m proud to be part of it, whether Shabbat can become more a source of unity within Israel and hopefully within the world Jewish community than division, which certainly in Israel sometimes it has been. So long answer, but a really great question, and so I guess I’d say that by the time I got there, I thought I had to let it all hang out, and just talk about decisions I made, which were not easy. So I take a ride to the Capitol for a last minute urgent meeting that one of my colleagues has called me about. And I did. I did it twice in 24 years. Once it was a waste of time, but who knew anymore than a doctor goes to the hospital knows that he’ll be able, or she, to save the patient, help the patient. But the second time my presence was critical to something really important to the security of our country. So that’s the way it goes.
So I’m curious. Did you make a decision whether or not to have Shabbos guests who were not familiar with Shabbos in your home, either for Friday night or Shabbos day? I know in my community, the rabbi does not generally have guests on Friday night, so he could transition away from that. What was your approach to having guests? Guests both Jewish, non-observant, and non-Jewish. Obviously you have guests that kind of know the rhythm. And what changed if anything when you would have such guests at your Shabbos table?
So another really good question. So I mean, for this, I have to pay tribute where it’s deserved to my wife, Hadassah, my eishet chayil, my woman of valor, who is my partner, obviously, in all of this Shabbat observance and life generally. I think we both, in a way we try to strike a balance. We feel like there is a mission we can achieve to kind of ufaratzta, spreading out by inviting Jews to our table, and non-Jews, who are curious, really, respectful. We’ve done it. The balance is that we need Shabbat. In other words, we need to be alone with each other or with our family. So we tend not to entertain all the time.
But what happens, and we had great guests. Al Gore and Tipper came to our house I think twice for Shabbat and were really interested, wonderful questions. Very involved. I had one memorable Shabbat, and he turned out to be Jewish. A lot of people didn’t know it then. The great American diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, we invited with his wife, Kati Marton. That was fascinating. I’ve invited other non-Jews along the way. So when non-Jews are there, it does become, as my wife would say, show and tell. You want to explain things. But the explanations are wonderful. Sometimes when Jews are non-observant, you kind of want to explain things, but you hope they’ll get sort of a taste of a Shabbat, and that experience will be meaningful, and maybe they’ll want to pick up a couple of things themselves.
When you look back and someone would ask you, what is your most memorable Shabbos meal, is there a particular Shabbos meal that comes to mind?
Wow, that’s a tough one. Well, this is weird, and it’s not really fitting in… In 2000, on a Friday in December, after a lot of litigation, the Florida, it’s a wonderful story, and it’s very ecumenical. The Florida Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Gore Lieberman ticket. I don’t have to explain the litigation. It felt like we were going to win. Al Gore called me as soon as the decision came down. It was Friday afternoon. I said, “Oh, I’m thrilled. Thanks for calling me, and all the best.” Then two minutes later, he called me back, and he said, “Wait a second. You still have time to come over to my house? It’s Shabbat, right?”
I said, “It is.” He said, “Bring everything you need. Tell Hadassah, bring the candles, bring the kosher lamp, bring your own food. You’ll sit with us at the table. You should be here.” Because I could hear the noise at the back, everybody. So we went over. Secret Service took us over. It was quite a beautiful evening, and first it was a sort of party. As Tipper said, “You needed someplace to pray before sundown.” I said, “I do.” So she showed me in a room, and low and behold, there’s the Christmas tree, because it was December. But, okay, it wasn’t in the mizrach direction.
Then the crowd left, and we stayed for dinner, and it was really quite beautiful, because I remember Tipper saying, “Al, let’s observe part of Shabbat tonight with Joe and Hadassah, and I want to say that I don’t want anybody to use their Blackberries,” which in those days was the popular smartphone. And they didn’t. So it was a small group that stayed. Maybe 10, 12, and the rest went out to bars and restaurants in Washington. Then really magnificent, the evening was over, and Al said, “Well, we’ll walk you home.” I said, “Oh, no. Come on.”
“No, we’d love it. It’s a beautiful night.” We lived about a mile from the vice president’s residence. Amazingly, they came. We had Secret Service cars in the road watching us, and detachments, deployments in front and the back. Periodically as we walked down Wisconsin Avenue, people would recognize us, sort of be startled and shout or beep their horns, because DC is a democratic town. Anyway, they walked us to our door, and big hugs. It was a memorable night. Probably I have more Jewishly spiritual nights, but it was something unusual.
Of course, on the following Monday, the next day, the Supreme Court of the United States said it would take the case on appeal, it shocked all of us. I was at Shabbat lunch at my neighbor’s house, and my campaign manager came over and said, “The Vice President really would like you to be part of the discussions going on.” This goes back to after the election. I walk over, so we did, and were part of it. Anyway, the Supreme Court rules for the Republicans, and it’s all over. So the joy of that Shabbat, erev Shabbat and Shabbat, didn’t last very long. But it’s funny, when you asked the question I’ve had many beautiful, spiritual Shabbats with people I really respect. Chief Rabbi Sacks, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, Rabbi Steinsaltz, and countless shluchim of the Lubavitcher Rebbe around the world. But really, that one popped into my mind.
That’s very powerful. I wanted just to ask a brief question about the final stage, where you’re in now. Not the pre-public life, not the public life, but where you are now. It’s a two pronged question. One is, has Shabbos in any way changed now that you are no longer as centrally in the public eye? Though certainly you’re still thought of, but it’s not in the same way as it once was. Has the meaning of Shabbos for you changed at all? Then more broadly, I’m curious how you look at the discourse around religious, religion, and Shabbos observance in general. We just had a president who had family members who are Shabbos observant in different ways, on the other side of aisle. I’m curious how you, looking in more of a private life now, look at the way the public reacted to that, and if there’s any kind of message you would share with the Jewish community about how we consider Shabbos observance among public officials and public leadership?
Okay, that’s a lot of parts there. I would say that the meaning of Shabbos has not changed for me. In some ways, maybe just is my life has gone on, and I look back and appreciate how much Shabbos has meant to me and does. I have a deeper and deeper feeling. I quote in the book the bumper sticker I once saw on a car in New Haven: “Relax, Shabbat is coming.” There is something still to that.
We live in Riverdale, New York, now. We moved here because two of our four children live here, and five grandchildren. The others are in Atlanta and Yerushalayim. There’s a wonderful Jewish community here, and if being out of public life, I mean, I’m still quite active in a lot of ways, but I’m much more in control of my schedule, if I can put it that way. Therefore, I can’t think of a real challenge to, in the eight years I’ve been out of the Senate, to me and Hadassah’s, “Gee, should we do this in Shabbat?” Because we pretty much decided what we should do.
Like everything else, it’s become more partisan and ideological. But even now, I say this somewhat jokingly, if you put God on a poll in the United States, God polls way above any living or dead American politician. God is strong. That’s our nature. The truth is, we’re more divided as a country and more separated from the fundamental unity of the American people, which goes back to its source, which is in a way a Jewish source, which is the Declaration of Independence, says we’re all created equal. Not by the people that wrote the Declaration, or even by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, who were important then, but by our Creator, by God, by Hashem. That gives us the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and it’s for that reason the Declaration says that they’re forming their new government, declaring their independence. And that’s always been the ultimate source of our unity. I hope we can come back to it, and begin to look at each other more as fellow children of God, really. Which is what our vision is, what the Jewish vision is, what the vision of our founders was, and what our vision as Americans has been through most of our history.
So we’ll begin to, when we disagree about politics or anything else, it won’t be like we’re separate tribes. We’re part of the same family, the American family. We have a common father, if you will. Therefore, we should disagree, I’ve written some about this, that the whole ethic of a Talmudic debate and disputation, which is that it’s not bad. If it’s done right, it’s good. It gets the truth, it gets the moral improvements. We’ve got to learn again how to talk to each other with respect and have civility, to acknowledge that none of us has all the truth, and to be willing to compromise to improve our lives and the life of our country. And I think religion still has an extraordinary role to play in getting America back on track. Or, as we say among Jews, getting America back on the derech. And the derech begins with God.
I always close my interview with very rapid fire questions. If I could indulge you: What book would you say would you attribute to your religious identity more than anything else, when you think of a foundational book?
The most obvious, which is the Torah, the Hebrew Bible. Along the way, I’ve been influenced by a lot of commentators and writers, but –
Yeah, like a contemporary, is there a contemporary book?
Well, I tell you what. I’m very taken with the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory, of Rabbi Sacks of blessed memory. I study a lot of Rabbi Steinsaltz. So those were great teachers.
That’s a great list.
Helped me a lot, yep.
If somebody gave you an incredible deal of money and allowed you to take a sabbatical, a retirement, without any responsibilities, go back to school and write a PhD, what do you think the subject of that dissertation would be?
Oh my. Generally speaking, it would probably be, what I’d try to write in different ways is how to get America back on track, how to find our unity in greatness again. Jewishly, it would be, in a way, to expand from the Shabbat book, and urge Jews of all denominations to not turn down not only the gift of Shabbat, but the gift of Torah values and ethics. Because that’s the way I think to a happier and more constructive life.
I tell you something real quickly. Long ago, when I was davening at Young Israel in New Haven, there was, you may know the name, Shnayer Leiman, Sidney Liman. He was a graduate student at Yale davening. So I was walking home with him, we lived in the same, one Shabbat from shul, and I said, “Shnayer, somebody asked me this week, ‘What kind of Jew are you? I know you’re religious. Do you call yourself Orthodox?’” So I said, “How would you answer that question.” He gave me a fascinating answer. He said, “I would say that you’re observant. And I’d say observant instead of Orthodox because there are observant Jews who are not Orthodox, and they may not observe as much as we do, but they’re part of the broader people.”
So I started to give that answer. I wrote about it. Flash forward to 2000. I get nominated for vice president. A friend of mine, Michael Granoff, I give him credit. Afterward, he collected sermons that rabbis give on the yomim norayim, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, after I was selected. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform. I presume Reconstructionist. I was struck by how many of the Conservative, Reform, Restructionist rabbis said, “Lieberman says he’s an observant Jew. So are we.” I was so moved by that, and I give Rabbi Professor Leiman credit for that.
So that’s what I would try to do, to help Jews find the unity that is part of our faith, and to understand, as I say in the book, quoting an old friend of mine, Arthur Spiegel, from New Haven, now long gone. We used to go to shul in the morning, and then he’d probably go out to a restaurant, have some lunch, and maybe go to a movie. He told me, but he said, “I know it’s not what I should be doing, but I was raised to believe that everybody can make their own Shabbat.” So I said, “At least you came to shul, and from my point of view, the rest is up to you.” I think that’s the attitude we have to have for Jews or not as observant as we are.
That’s quite beautiful. I’m always interested, my final question, in people’s schedules. What time do you go to sleep and what time do you wake up in the morning?
I try to get six hours sleep. I aim for seven, usually get six. It’s interesting. Maybe this is common, maybe it’s physical. The older I’ve gotten, the later I’ve gone to sleep. Although when I was in college, and I worked on the newspaper, I would go to sleep about 5:00 A.M., and then sleep until about 10:00 or 11:00, then get up. I get up about 6:00, 7:00.
I know you were pressed for time, and the fact that you made time for this means a great deal to me and our listeners. So thank you so much.
Wishing you a gemar chasima tova.
Gemar chasima tova, and an early Shabbat Shalom.
As Senator Lieberman was campaigning for vice president, he had an appearance on Meet the Press with Tim Russert, where actually, on Meet the Press, Tim Russert asked him about his Shabbos observance.
Religion has been an issue, and talked about, when you invoked God and thanked God at your address in Tennessee. I talked to Bill Bennett about it on CNBC this weekend, and he had an interesting observation, which I want to roll for you and give you a chance to respond to it.
If he were a Catholic vice president, and invoked God as many times as Joe Lieberman did, and spoke about, even referred obliquely to Catholic faith, Catholic doctrine, I’m not sure you wouldn’t get a lot of criticism. There’s a way in which Catholic faith and the public enunciation of Catholic faith and doctrine is offensive to the media, and to others in a way that I think being a Jew is not.
Typically provocative Bill Bennett statement. Might be right, and of course it’s wrong that there’s that reaction, and I hope maybe in some small way, if more of us, not to impose. I mean, this is not a question of church and state separation. We’re all for that. It’s a question of whether a public official can feel comfortable, in a sense, in exercising his or her own right of religious freedom. My religion, as Al Gore’s, grounds our lives. At that moment in Nashville, standing there, feeling a sense of miracle that the vice president had asked me to be his running mate, I just felt so grateful that those words of prayer came out of me because that’s what I believe, that’s where it all comes from.
Let me show you what the Constitution says about the inauguration, and put it on the screen. The terms of the president, vice president shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of their successors shall then begin. Here’s January 2001, a Saturday.
If you are elected vice president of the United States, Joe Lieberman, on Saturday, you’ll have to take the oath of office, get in a motorcade, celebrate with inaugural balls. Can you do it as an observant Jew?
As my mother would say, Tim, if she were here, “Sweetheart, we should only have such a problem.” No, there’s no problem. As you know, I normally don’t ride or use electricity on the Sabbath because it’s the way to protect the Sabbath as a day to stop, to thank God for the fact that we’re alive, that the world was created.
But you’d make an exception for the inauguration?
Probably what I’d try to do, as I usually do when public service, or the public interest is not on the line, I’d probably stay down around the Capitol. I’d certainly participate. I’d do my prayers on my own, and then –
Walk rather than take the motorcade?
Then if the Secret Service says it’s okay, I’d take a walk, and be proud, and thrilled to take a walk from the Capitol to the White House to watch the parade.
I find it so moving the way he talks about religion grounding our lives. Talking about this in the public sphere. But I also had another takeaway from it, which is that when Yiddishkeit, religion, whatever it is really grounds your life, then as your life changes, evolves, then religion means different things to you as you grow up, as you mature, as you develop. I think that’s also very much true for Shabbos. At different points in our lives, Shabbos may mean different things to us. And perhaps our very commitment to Shabbos may oscillate, may change, may mature. There may be periods in our life where it feels cumbersome and difficult, and it’s important that at no point in our lives do we take our relationship to any one aspect of Yiddishkeit, whether it’s Shabbos or anything else, and assume that it is a either condemnation or a referendum on the quality or importance of that religious matter in our lives. It could very much be just that very normal oscillations, when religion really plays that intimate role in your life, that as your life matures and develops, then hopefully, religion and Shabbos will as well.
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