Lieberman & Beyond: Is there Jewish communal responsibility for ethical behavior by Jewish public figures?

As I write (December 22), 1950 Jews, including more than 150 rabbis and cantors, have signed the Open Jewish Letter to Senator Joseph Lieberman.

Also among the signers are many 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.

We are still welcoming the names of signers, and will add them to those we have sent the Senator. Wevwelcome sharring this letter snd report with others.

To sign, click here.
(If this is all new to you: The entire letter is posted on our Home Page.)

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 were 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 original 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. The ‘Redwood Rabbis,” The Shalom Center, and after a cautious delay the Reform rabbinate and COEJL pressed him to return to Jewish values. In the other case, the New York UJA prepared to name as its president the head of a major tobacco corporation. Henry Everett (may the memory of this tzaddik continue to be a blessing) and Edith Everett,   a philanthropic couple deeply committed to social justice and to recognizing that cigarettes were a lethal violation of Jewish law to save life, led a campaign to prevent the tobacco baron’s  being honored in this way.

For more details on these cases, click to "Redwoods, Tobacco, & Torah" 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 communal responsibility in a new kind of Jewish world.


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