Joe Lieberman’s Love of Shabbat 

Former Senator Joe Lieberman was renowned for his religious principles and commitment, in particular his dedication to keeping Shabbat, despite the challenges of doing so while serving as a United States senator. When asked how he could keep Shabbat with his career, he would answer that he couldn’t imagine his career without it. He was fond of quoting Achad Ha’am’s adage, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” In other words, Shabbat was not an impediment to his Senate career but was what gave him the strength to continue and stay connected to his family, his community, and his G-d.   

Joe’s father Henry was not from an observant background—Henry’s mother had died during the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918 and he was placed in an orphanage; he did not receive any Jewish education and did not even have a bar mitzvah. However, Lieberman’s mother Marcia was from an observant home and she educated her husband and family about Judaism and instilled in her son the value of Shabbat. Throughout her son’s career she always remained especially proud of his Shabbat observance.  

His commitment to Shabbat—Lieberman was known to walk for miles if he had to attend a vote on Shabbat—was also admired by his Senate colleagues. When he was chosen as Al Gore’s running mate, Lieberman spent a Shabbat with the Gores. When Tipper Gore heard that he did not use his phone at all on Shabbat, she was so impressed she convinced her husband to try it themselves—and found that turning off their phones created a day of serenity and joy. While Shabbat has a specifically Jewish aspect, it also has a universal appeal, which others were able to appreciate through Lieberman’s example.  

John McCain, Lieberman’s close friend and colleague, loved to complain about having to take Sabbath elevators which stopped on every floor, as well as other accommodations his friendship with Lieberman demanded from him. Once Senator McCain gave a speech in which he said that he was going to become a Jew, because he had all the restrictions of Judaism with none of the benefits. On the spot, Joe reminded him of one requirement of conversion, and thus put the idea to rest—circumcision.  

When Lieberman decided to write a book about Shabbat, I suggested the title to him: The Gift of Rest. This was based on the Gemara (Shabbat 10b): “The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Moses: I have a good gift in My treasure house and Shabbat is its name, and I seek to give it to Israel. Go inform them about it.” He experienced Shabbat as a true gift, and his book succeeded in informing many people of its beauty. After the book was published, I sent copies to OU-certified companies to help them understand what the OU stands for. One woman responded that the book resonated strongly with her because although she was not Jewish, her maternal grandmother always lit Shabbat candles. I didn’t break the news to her.  

Senator Lieberman at the tomb of King Mohammed IV in Morocco. From left: CEO of OU Kosher Rabbi Menachem Genack, Sarah Genack, Hadassah Lieberman and Joseph Lieberman.

Lieberman’s book on Shabbat, like his life, transmitted a dimension of Judaism which could be appreciated by all. The same was true with his second book published by OU Press, With Liberty and Justice: The Fifty-Day Journey from Egypt to Sinai. In this book, his goal was to convey his love for the underappreciated holiday of Shavuot, which is a celebration of G-d’s law. As a legislator, he understood that the activity of politics was not merely a transactional and sometimes sordid one, but a means of realizing the loftiest ideals of Judaism and of American democracy. In the book he recounts the impact he felt upon meeting Martin Luther King Jr., another figure whose commitment to religious principles powerfully shaped America’s laws. Joe felt that the idea of law itself, which was so integral to him as a Jew and as a legislator, was gravely misunderstood, and he wanted to share his appreciation with others. 

For many years, Joe and I studied Torah together on Fridays, and he told me he viewed it as part of his Shabbat preparation. We studied together on the last Friday of his life and made plans to do so again the next Friday. Instead, the next Friday I attended his funeral. Many of his Senate colleagues invoked the same word to summarize his principles, decency, values, and integrity—Joe Lieberman was the consummate “mentsch.” However, there is another image which comes to mind. Just as Friday serves as the bridge between Shabbat and the week, Lieberman’s life, which was a bridge to convey the meaning and purpose of Judaism to the wider world, was an extended erev Shabbat. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik distinguished between Shabbat-observant Jews, who merely keep the laws of Shabbat, and the “erev Shabbat Jews, who go out to greet the Shabbat with beating hearts and pulsating souls.” Perhaps the best way to sum up Joe Lieberman is that he was an authentic erev Shabbat Jew 

Rabbi Menachem Genack is CEO, OU Kosher.  

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