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The Joe Lieberman Debate: Good Jew or Bad Jew?

5 years ago
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Sen. Joseph Lieberman's cold shower announcement that he will filibuster just about any version of health care reform with a public option or Medicare expansion has set off sharp political debates about whether a reform bill can pass and whether the Democrats -- with whom the Dem-turned-Independent Lieberman caucuses -- should punish the mercurial (that's the kindest cut) pol from Connecticut.

But it has also launched an intense discussion of almost Talmudic complexity about Lieberman's Jewish bona fides.

Jewish organizations in the United States have been among the strongest supporters of health care reform of the kind that Lieberman's opposition may scuttle. They say that reflects the largely liberal and Democratic tendencies of their community, but also the longstanding tenets of Jewish tradition and teaching--as they see it.

"Senator Lieberman is looking at the same Jewish texts that we are, and reaching opposite conclusions," Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, told The Forward, a leading Jewish weekly. "I've spent a lot of time in talks with Senator Lieberman, and he is not an easy person to sway."Not that Jewish leaders and lobbies aren't trying. As we reported last month, several rabbis in Lieberman's home state -- some of whom had not spoken out before on political issues -- have been pressuring Lieberman with prayer vigils and public petitions.

"Because he invokes his Jewish identity and Jewish values so frequently, we, as a community, should speak to what he is saying," Rabbi Ron Fish from Congregation Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Norwalk, said about his decision to pen an open letter to Lieberman calling him out on his opposition to the health care bills.

But The Forward reports that local rabbis are also using quiet diplomacy, trying to get 25 of the state's 50 pulpit rabbis to sign on to a private letter to Lieberman to convince him to change his stand. The more liberal rabbis--Lieberman himself is Orthodox--apparently prefer a more confrontational approach. "There is a good cop, bad cop routine," one of them told the paper. "On the one hand, there are demonstrations outside his home; on the other, there are people trying to reach out behind the scenes."

Just like his foes, Lieberman sees his opposition as grounded in Jewish ethics, arguing that the health care proposals on the table would hurt America and would not help those who need i t-- although, as The Washington Post reported, his varying explanations of his varying positions have left various observers scratching their heads over his real reasons.

Whatever the motives, Lieberman is so committed to his political views and his religious traditions that he walked more than four miles to Capitol Hill from his Georgetown synagogue on a recent frigid Saturday to take part in a rare weekend health care debate -- one of just two dozen or so times during his senate career that he has made that trek on the Sabbath, when strictly observant Jews do not drive. "I have a responsibility to my constituents, really to my conscience, to be here on something as important as healthcare reform," he told The Hill.

Such high-minded talk grates on many Jewish leaders, who see passing health care reform as integral to the Jewish principal of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, which undergirds much of Judaism's longstanding tradition of social and political activism, mainly of the liberal variety.

Other factors are at play as well: Jews are immigrants whose history of persecution and constant exile have made them especially sensitive to the plight of the marginalized, and as a minority they know that liberal social policies that protect the weak from the strong can help them, too; Jews also tend to be better educated and wealthier than most Americans, both markers of socially progressive views. (And something that makes the fierce band of neo-con Jews like Norman Podhoretz, author of the recent "Why Are Jews Liberal," even more furious than Lieberman's liberal critics.)

But Lieberman himself held up tikkun olam as the guiding principle for his political life, as he explained in his autobiography In Praise of Public Life:
"The summary of our aspirations was in the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, which is translated 'to improve the world' or 'to complete God's Creation.' It presumes the inherent but unfulfilled goodness of people and requires action for the benefit of the community. These beliefs were a powerful force in my upbringing and seem even more profound and true to me today. The ideal of service [is] fundamental to my religious faith."
At his SpiritualPolitics blog, Trinity College's Mark Silk cites the excerpt above and then notes that in 2000 and as recently as three months ago Lieberman advocated letting those as young as 55 buy into Medicare as a way to fix the health care system. But now that such a proposal is part of the reform package Lieberman is invoking it as a reason he will filibuster the bill. "What's the opposite of tikkun olam, Joe?" Silk asks.

So what explains Lieberman's seemingly contrarian stance not only on politics--his constituents as well as his co-religionists strongly support health care reform with a public option--but also on Jewish teaching? Some cite Lieberman's connections to the insurance industry in Connecticut, others think it's about paybacks for the Democrats dissing him during his reelection bid.

Writing in The New Republic, Jonathan Chait doesn't think it's all that complicated:
"I think one answer here is that Lieberman isn't actually all that smart. He speaks, and seems to think, exclusively in terms of generalities and broad statements of principle. But there's little evidence that he's a sharp or clear thinker, and certainly no evidence that he knows or cares about the details of health care reform."
Chait -- he's Jewish, too, so he can say this -- actually thinks Lieberman's upfront Jewishness has obscured the better question about his intellectual chops:
"I suspect that Lieberman is the beneficiary, or possibly the victim, of a cultural stereotype that Jews are smart and good with numbers. Trust me, it's not true. If Senator Smith from Idaho was angering Democrats by spewing uninformed platitudes, most liberals would deride him as an idiot. With Lieberman, we all suspect it's part of a plan. I think he just has no idea what he's talking about and doesn't care to learn."
In the end, it's unclear exactly what influence Lieberman's Judaism, or his fellow Jews, could have on his political decisions. These days, arguments over the good or bad faith in a pol's position are often associated with Roman Catholicism. But Judaism has no eucharist to withhold, no effective way to excommunicate an adherent, no real hierarchy to lay down the law -- and no widespread desire to implement any of those mechanisms. In fact, a hallmark of Judaism is disputation, so in a sense the arguments between Lieberman and his critics are only cementing their claims to being members of the tribe. Whether those debates seal the fate of health care reform will ultimately be decided on the floor of the Congress.

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