Beyond Senator Lieberman: Jewish Communal Responsibility

This past week, The Shalom Center invited our members and subscribers to join in signing an Open Jewish Letter to Senator Joseph Lieberman, calling him to account as an "observant Jew" for failing to uphold two cardinal commands of Torah: pekuach nefesh, "saving life" – which in rabbinic teaching transcends almost every other command of Torah, including observance of Shabbat; and tzedek tzedek tirdof, "Justice justice shall you pursue."

Both, said the letter, were at stake in the health-care bill before the Senate, which Lieberman was holding at ransom for stripping out several key provisions to make health insurance affordable for everyone. Otherwise, he announced, he would block the will of the majority of the Senate and the public by joining 40 other Senators to filibuster the bill. (The Senate leadership did drop these two provisions, and Lieberman then gave the 59th vote to prevent a filibuster. One more Senator also agreed to a deal on a different issue, and provided the 60th.)

Thousands had already died, the Shalom Center letter said, and every day more people died, because they could not afford health insurance. So Lieberman's actions broke both commands of Torah.

As I write (December 22), 1950 Jews, including rabbis and other Jewish clergy, have signed their names. Many others are full-time Jewish-community professionals or Jewish-studies professors. Many signers wrote additional notes about how outraged they are by Lieberman's behavior and how ashamed they are as Jews by what he has done.

The letter was not based on any personal hostility to Lieberman. Indeed, it began by noting that many of the signers had been proud in 2000, when he was nominated for Vice-President, that an "observant Jew" would be carrying Jewish values to new heights in American public life.

Some Jews have, of course, objected to the letter. We received fewer than a dozen letters or comments criticizing the basic approach. Half of those would have liked slightly gentler language, but agreed with the main argument.

Among the few others, there have been three lines of objection:

1. That observance of such mitzvot as Shabbat, to which Lieberman has made publicly clear his commitment even by walking miles on Shabbat to be able to cast his vote in the Senate, is the key definition of Jewish "observance" and that political actions are debatable, and don’t bear on Jewish observance.

2. That religious standards of any sort, even those of an official's own religious community, should never be used by anyone, even other members of his/ her religious community, for judging the behavior of someone who is functioning as a public official.

3. That the Jewish community should never invoke a public judgment of a Jew, or at least of a Jewish public figure, for allegedly failing to live up to Torah or Jewish values.

These questions are not new. The American Jewish community had to face them when major contributors to institutions like the Jewish Theological Seminary turned out to have made the money for their vast donations through fraud and theft. (JTS took the name of one such donor off the building he had paid for.)

In Jewish communities before the modern era, the Jewish response to such behavior was in Jewish hands, and punishment for whatever the ghetto authorities thought reprehensible was easy to impose. Fines, even excommunication, could be invoked. And since the lives of Jews were carried on inside a Jewish framework, adherence to "Jewish values" was quite enforceable.

Even in the early generations of Jewish immigration to America, when the ghetto was gone but most Jews still lived in close-knit communities that were urgent to protect themselves against non-Jewish contempt, there were ways to enforce Jewish standards. In my childhood, for example, I occasionally heard the epithet "chillul hashem" used to rebuke a Jew who had behaved in ways the majority of non-Jews would find reprehensible.

The phrase literally means "hollowing out the Name," or "shaming God." It came to mean shaming the Jewish people. In days when Jews felt vulnerable, the accusation of that kind of shaming was enough to keep many would-be sinners in line.

But the great majority of American Jews today are glad to have shattered the ghetto walls, and the fear of contempt from non-Jews has withered, almost vanished. And what of Jews who are acting in ways that many non-Jews would not mind, but to many Jews feel like a violation not of the sensibilities of the broader society, but indeed of what they understand Judaism and the God of Torah demands? After all, Senator Lieberman was not acting any different from 40 other Senators when he threatened to filibuster against health care. Perhaps that kind of behavior is "chillul hashem" in the sense of shaming God indeed, even if not damaging the public image of the jewish people?

A decade ago, these issues arose in regard to two major corporate owners who were also major donors to various segments of the Jewish community.

One owned a corporation that was logging two-thousand-year old redwoods in Northern California – the last privately owned redwood forest in the country. A group that called itself the "Redwood Rabbis" from the nearby towns purchased an ad in his hometown Jewish paper in Houston on the eve of Yom Kippur to condemn the logging.

Then they invited Jews and others to take part in a Tu B"Shvat celebration of the rebirthing of trees by walking onto the corporate turf without permission, to plant new redwood seedlings where the magnificent trees had been destroyed.

The Shalom Center joined in that effort, and also appeared with a proxy stockholders vote at the next corporate meeting to condemn as a violation of Jewish values the destruction of the trees, and to urge the stockholders to insist the company end its redwood logging. Since the owner and his family held a majority of the stock, the motion was defeated.

But during the next several years, the association of Reform rabbis formally denounced the logging, and the growing furor and pressure from the Jewish and other communities finally resulted in the corporation's agreeing to sell its redwood holdings to Federal and state land trusts that would hold them sacred. .

In the other case, the social-justice-committed philanthropic couple Henry Everett (may the memory of the tzaddik be a blessing) and his wife Edith undertook a campaign against the acceptance of cigarette ads by Jewish newspapers. Many publishers agreed to refuse such ads, and many in the community came to understand that the sale of cigarettes contradicted Jewish commitments to protect life.

Then the New York UJA prepared to name as its president the head of a major tobacco corporation. The Everetts undertook a campaign to prevent his election on the grounds that the sale of lethal cigarettes was a violation of Jewish law and values, and should not be rewarded with a post of honor in the Jewish community. Their campaign failed; he was elected; but the campaign helped renew a sense of Jewish honor and commitment.

For more details on these cases, click here.

Step by step, case by case, there is emerging a pattern of effort by Jewish communities living in an open society to honor those Jews who pursue Jewish values and to rebuke those who do not. No doubt there will be disagreements among Jews as to which persons fit in one or the other category; but over time, the process will be strengthened as experience shapes the boundaries of particular choices. The Lieberman Letter is another step forward in renewing Jewish responsibility in a new kind of Jewish world.


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