What are the challenges that religious Jews in the upper echelons of government face? In the pages ahead, Senator Joseph Lieberman, the most high-profile Shabbat-observant Jew in the United States, and Yehuda Avner, the former ambassador and advisor to Israeli prime ministers, speak candidly about how one maintains loyalty to one’s faith while managing the affairs of state.
In The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath, Senator Joseph Lieberman’s newest book to be released this August, the senator shares his experiences of and reflections on this life-enriching aspect of Judaism. In the following exclusive excerpt from the book, published by OU Press and Howard Books, Senator Lieberman (I-Conn) discusses some of the conflicts he experienced between his Shabbat observance and the pressing needs of public office.
By honoring the Sabbath, we celebrate God’s creation. It would make no sense if honoring the Sabbath stopped us from taking action to protect God’s creation. In the choice between life and religious law, God-given life must triumph, because its sanctification is the overriding purpose of the religious laws. Very often when I have to make a decision about whether to act on the Sabbath, I don’t know to what extent life, security, or community well-being are on the line. So I have to make a judgment call that minimizes the risk. That is what Jewish tradition teaches me. When a Sabbath-observant doctor gets in his car on the Sabbath to drive to the hospital to help a patient, he doesn’t know whether he will be successful in saving the patient’s life. He knows that he must go and try, and that effort—even more than his Sabbath observance—honors God and His creation.
You can imagine many obvious scenarios where people who are not doctors would not hesitate to break the Sabbath. I know plenty of Sabbath-observant people who, when faced with a medical emergency, have jumped into the car or an ambulance to rush a sick child or a woman in labor to the hospital. Situations like these require no special discernment to make that judgment call.
When I began my political career as a state senator in the early 1970s, I developed broad personal guidelines for the Sabbath based on my understanding of religious law. I would not do “politics,” but I would carry out time-sensitive governmental responsibilities that no one else could do. In other words, I distinguished between politics and government. A lot of political events occur on Friday night and Saturday, particularly when you are campaigning in an election year. But, even when you’re not, there are always testimonial dinners, community meetings, and social events on the Sabbath that I would normally attend during the week. At first, people were puzzled and some were even angry when I didn’t show up at their events. But when they realized I was not attending for religious reasons and that I was following this practice consistently on Friday evenings and Saturdays, they accepted, respected, and often said they admired, my Sabbath observance. I hope that sends a message of encouragement to young religiously observant people of any faith that their observance will not be a problem in American politics. It also says much to all of us about the values of the American people.
For that, I must “blame” my parents and rabbis.
Here’s a story that illustrates my point. In the State Senate, I had a Democratic colleague and friend named Con O’Leary, who later became the Senate majority leader. One day in 1988, during my first run for the US Senate, against the incumbent Republican senator Lowell Weicker, Con called and said to me, “Joe, I think you’re going to win this election.”
“That’s great, Con,” I said, knowing most people felt otherwise, “Why?”
“I went to visit my mother yesterday,” he explained, “and three of her lady friends were with her having afternoon tea. So you had four silver-haired Catholic ladies there. I asked them who they planned to vote for in the presidential race. They said they were going to vote Republican—for Bush, not Dukakis. I argued with them, but I finally gave up and said, ‘What about the Senate—Weicker or Lieberman?’ And my mother said, ‘That’s easy, I’m voting for Lieberman.’ All the other women said, ‘Yes, we’re voting for Lieberman.’”
“Why is that such an easy choice?” O’Leary asked his mother.
And Mrs. O’Leary said, “I like the fact that Joe Lieberman is a religious man and keeps his Sabbath.” “And,” Con concluded, “the three other silver- haired heads nodded.”
Thank you Mrs. O’Leary.
Practical problems of Sabbath observance were few during my State Senate and attorney general service, though when they did come up there was usually no need to resort to breaking the Sabbath. In my very first session in the State Senate in 1971, when I was only twenty-seven years old, the Senate was divided closely between Democrats and Republicans, nineteen to seventeen, so literally every vote counted. There was a Republican governor and a Republican lieutenant governor, so in a tie vote, the lieutenant governor would break the tie. We generally had long debates about the budget, and that year, it was a particularly tough situation. Finally, there was an agreement on the budget late on Friday night—and I had already gone home for the Sabbath. The majority leader, Ed Caldwell, understood that I couldn’t come back after sundown—so they sent someone down to the house in New Haven to tell me what happened and that I should be ready to come back after sundown on Saturday. I did and the budget passed. The Bridgeport Post told the story with the brilliant headline: “Butch Caldwell and the Sundown Kid.”
When I served as state attorney general, my deputies were under instructions to contact me in the event of an emergency on the Sabbath. But they and I can’t remember a time they had to. One Saturday, an occasion arose involving the state police. My staff consulted with each other by phone and decided they could handle it without involving me. Because we had discussed similar situations, they knew what I would do and did it. At responsible levels of government, decisions like these can be handled through prior planning. Perhaps one part of God’s purpose in giving us the Sabbath was to cultivate precisely these qualities of forethought in us.
The most public time my Sabbath observance was a factor in my Connecticut political life was in 1988 when I was running for the US Senate. Going into the Convention, I knew I had enough votes to win the Democratic nomination, but I couldn’t go to the Convention because it was—as had always been the case—on a Saturday. So I pre-taped my acceptance speech. On the day after, the front page of many of the state’s newspapers showed me on the big screen at the convention in a photograph of the video we had taped. The headline noted that I had accepted the nomination by a prerecorded speech because I was observing the Sabbath.
Sometimes, I even think my Sabbath observance may actually have helped my political career, although of course, I did not become Sabbath observant because of a focus group or public opinion poll.
The move from state to national level politics came with new challenges. In the State Senate, votes on Friday night or Saturday were rare. In the US Senate, they are more common. When a US Senator votes, it may literally mean life or death to other people. The most obvious example of this is a Senate resolution to go to war, but there are many other votes that affect public health and safety, and the general welfare of the community.
So I have never hesitated to engage in meetings, debates, or votes or to take calls regarding national or homeland security on the Sabbath. That happened first in my US Senate career during the debate and vote in 1991 about whether to authorize President George H.W. Bush to go to war to push Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces out of occupied Kuwait. The debate and vote concluded on a Saturday afternoon. I walked into the Senate and fully participated in the debate and vote. Because most of the Senate Democrats were opposed or ambivalent about going to war against Saddam Hussein and I was strongly and publicly supportive, the Bush Administration had asked me to be the lead Democratic cosponsor of the authorizing resolution with my Republican colleague and friend, Senator John Warner of Virginia. It was a good and heated debate. In the end, the resolution passed, but only by five votes, fifty-two to forty-seven. Three senators voting differently would have altered history—in my opinion, greatly for the worse. I believed deeply that our national and economic security was on the line in that debate and vote, and I therefore believed my professional and moral responsibility to participate overrode traditional Sabbath restrictions.
When I arrived in Washington in 1989, my wife, Hadassah, and I joined the Georgetown Synagogue, whose rabbi, Barry Freundel, had also just recently arrived.
I met with Rabbi Freundel to discuss the intersection of my senatorial duties with my Sabbath observance. We agreed at the outset that I was not asking him to issue a rabbinical opinion for me on any particular Sabbath-related scenario. I was only seeking his general guidance, and that was what he himself wished to give. I wanted his knowledge of Jewish law, values, and history to inform the decisions I knew I would have to make myself. And they have.
Rabbi Freundel discussed with me the considerations I should take into account when faced with a decision. For instance, he gave me some guidelines for deciding how to get to the Capitol on the Sabbath or a festival. If I decide I must attend to my government responsibilities on the Sabbath, he suggested a hierarchy of ways to do so, based on the urgency and consequences of my participation. First, if possible, I should walk to the Capitol, which would not violate the Sabbath at all. Second, I could use a pre-purchased ticket for the Washington Metro and take the train, since it was going anyway. Third, I could ask a non-Jewish staff member to drive me. Fourth, I might decide to drive myself if there was no alternative and the consequences of not going to the Capitol would greatly affect human life or national security.
As it turned out, only twice in my senatorial career, thus far, have I felt I had to get into a car on the Sabbath to go to the Capitol. On all other occasions, I foresaw the problem and walked or stayed overnight at the Capitol.
When I ran for vice president in 2000 and for president in 2004, I followed my personal rule of no politics on the Sabbath, but during 2000, there were a lot of questions about what I could and could not do on Saturday if I ended up as vice president of the United States. Being a senator is one thing. Being a heartbeat away from the Oval Office is quite another. The Sabbath is intertwined with the history of the presidency. Many American presidents have observed the Sabbath in their way, but that was before modern weaponry, terrorism, and global economic realities made the decisions of the Chief Executive incomparably more time-sensitive, potentially down to the split second.
When Al Gore selected me as his running mate, some questioned my inability to campaign on the Sabbath. I laughed when former President Bill Clinton told me during that campaign to ignore anyone who doubted my capacity to help the campaign six days a week and, if elected, on the job everyday: “Just tell them to go straight to Hell!”
The issue of my observing the Sabbath if we won was understandable and got serious attention. Before I was even nominated, Matthew Rees in the Weekly Standard observed that the Sabbath laws “would provoke questions about [Lieberman’s] ability to govern in the event he became president.” In Slate magazine, Judith Shulevits explained the exemptions granted for protecting human life and attending to the needs of the community, and she concluded that, if elected, I would have no problem carrying out the duties of the vice president on the Sabbath.
The lesson I hope you will take away from this discussion is the priority Jewish law and tradition gives to the sacred mission of saving, protecting, and preserving life, even where the threat is not immediate or yet definitive. One is obligated to act even when the cost is temporarily overriding God’s holy Sabbath.
Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik (1853-1918), a revered Lithuanian rabbi and grandfather of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, was known for his leniency in permitting Jews who were feeling ill to eat on the solemn holiday of Yom Kippur. Normally the Day of Atonement is marked by fasting all day long, abstaining from all food and water. In theory, only a threat to life permits one to eat. Rabbi Soloveitchik was similarly lenient about giving permission to break the Sabbath rules for sick people. Someone asked him once why he did not treat Yom Kippur and the Sabbath more strictly, and Rabbi Soloveitchik responded,
“I am not lenient in regard to Yom Kippur or the Sabbath. I am stringent in the mitzvah [commandment] of guarding life.”
That is the standard I try to follow whenever my public responsibilities conflict with my Sabbath observance. To do otherwise, it seems to me, would be to put form over substance, to elevate the law above the values on which the law is based, and to forget that the Sabbath is primarily a day to affirm and uphold the life that God has given us.