Leadership Lessons from the Most Noted Orthodox Politician in US History

Photo: Kruter Photography

The highest-ranking Orthodox (he preferred the term “observant”) Jew in the country’s political history, Joseph Lieberman was arguably the most-visible Jew of any part of American Jewry in politics when he became Al Gore’s running mate in the 2000 presidential election. Having served as a senator for four terms, Lieberman often noted how his political views and his personal conduct were shaped by Torah study, and by the Orthodox figures who taught him and influenced him. 

Below are some of the lessons I learned from observing the senator’s remarkable career: 

Take the high road: 
During an early race for the House of Representatives, which he lost, his opponent ran negative ads against Lieberman—who did not do the same. “I never responded to my opponent’s negative attacks on me,” he said afterwards. And while his future campaigns featured attacks critical of his opponents’ political actions, he avoided personal, ad hominem responses. 

Eschew honors: 
Lieberman praised the “simplicity” of Menachem Begin, who did not enrich himself during his political career, who, after the death of his wife, needed to have friends raise money for an apartment where he could live, and who requested that he not be buried on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, “where most of Israel’s great leaders have been buried.” Instead, Begin wanted to be buried on the Mount of Olives, next to the graves of his wife and of “Irgun comrades” who had lost their lives fighting for Israel in the War of Independence.  

Set aside regular time for Torah study: 
During his senatorial career, he studied Torah—first the Talmud tractate Berachot, then the weekly parashah—with Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO, OU Kosher, every Friday.  

Guard your tongue and your words: 
Michael Lewan, the senator’s first chief-of-staff, says he and fellow aides never heard Lieberman, even during times of great stress, raise his voice or use foul language. 

Be true to your values: 
Following the death of his mother, Marcia, at age ninety in 2005, Lieberman did not shave for thirty days, in accordance with the Jewish law about mourning. He appeared in the Senate, and on media reports, with visible stubble on his face.  

Be grateful for even bad news: 
When he received a phone call informing him—incorrectly, it turned out—that Al Gore had picked Senator John Edwards, not him, to be his running mate in 2000, he called his family together, opened up a bottle of wine, and asked them to drink a l’chaim to “an America that could provide the mere chance of considering the first Jewish vice president.” 


Steve Lipman is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action 

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