US Senator Joe Lieberman smiles as he describes why he is in Israel right now.
“I’m here for two things,” he says. “I came to see our daughter and her family and my oldest granddaughter who is a student here in Israel. The second reason is related to the book I wrote about Shabbat in 2013. The focus of my book is personal, why I love Shabbat and how I integrated it with my public life.”
A program called “Shabbat Unplugged,” run by an Israeli NGO Shearim, has translated Lieberman’s book into Hebrew and is launching it at a conference in Tel Aviv focusing on how Shabbat can be a source of unity among Israelis, rather than a source of division. They also plan to create a Shabbat Institute which will be supported by the Israeli government.
“The idea is to bring Shabbat into the center of Israeli life as a source of unity, and I think it’s a beautiful idea.”
He says that research shows that about half of Israeli Jews observe Shabbat in some way, whether lighting Shabbat candles, making kiddush, or having a special meal on Friday night. His book, The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath, was meant to appeal to both non-observant Jews and non-Jews. The book describes both Sen. Lieberman’s personal experiences with Shabbat and how observing the Sabbath (for Jews on Saturdays and Christians on Sundays) can lead to benefits like increased productivity and better health.
“I always felt I worked harder the other days of the week because I knew Shabbat was coming,” the senator says. “By the way, the fourth commandment doesn’t just say “observe Shabbat.” It says you’re supposed to work the other six days of the week. Years ago, I saw a bumper sticker in New Haven that said, “Relax, Shabbat is coming.” It’s a great idea.”
For example, he urges non-Jews to turn off their phones on Sundays and abstain from using technology the same way that observant Jews don’t use their phones or technology.
Lieberman was a Democratic senator from Connecticut who served in the Senate for 24 years, from 1988 to 2012. In 2000, he became the first Jewish candidate on a major American political party presidential ticket, when he ran as vice president alongside Al Gore. That election was perhaps the most contested in US history after the Gore-Lieberman ticket won more than 500,000 popular votes than the Bush-Cheney ticket. However, Bush-Cheney won the electoral college vote after a close race in Florida. Many Democrats continue to believe that the election was “stolen” and Joe Lieberman should have been vice president.
I ask the senator whether he often thinks about how his life might have been different if he had become vice president and he laughs.
“It’s my nature to go on but it’s hard not to go back to that,” he says.
“It was so bizarre, such an ending. People said you would have been President – I don’t think so, but to be Vice President would have been an honor and a thrill.”
He thinks Gore chose him partly because of his religious observance. Lieberman has always had close ties to Evangelical Christians, an important voting bloc. Gore was profoundly disturbed by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he says, which was not likely to recur with an Orthodox Jewish Vice President. He also says that he thinks American policy on several crucial issues including climate change, and the war in Iraq.
“I think Al and I would have done things so differently from Bush and Cheney on a lot of things – certainly on climate and environment,” he says. “People ask about Afghanistan and Iraq – my guess is that Al as commander-in-chief would have gone into Afghanistan. It would have been hard for anybody not to. But as much as I became identified with the Iraq war because I didn’t want us to retreat, I don’t think he would have gone into Iraq and I wouldn’t have urged him to at that point.”
Lieberman says he was born into an Orthodox family in Connecticut and enjoyed keeping Shabbat as a child and teenager, although he left observance during his college years at Yale University. Even when he was not fully observant, he put on tefillin every day, he says.
In his last year of law school, his grandmother, with whom he was close, passed away.
“She was part of my link to European Jewry, but she was also very religious,” he says. “I asked myself, “Am I going to step back in and fill this link in the chain of Jewish existence with Shabbat observance? I stepped back in, and it became a centerpiece of my life. People would say how can you be a senator and observe Shabbat? I would say paraphrasing Ahad Ha’am, “I don’t know how I could be a senator without Shabbat.”
There were certainly challenges, he relates, although it didn’t happen as often as you might expect. About 40 times during his 12 years in the Senate, he says, there were important votes on Shabbat. If it was a Friday night, he’d stay late at the Capitol and then walk the almost five miles home to Georgetown.
“My knees were better then,” he laughs.
He says an officer from the Capitol Police Force, often African-American, would walk with him. The police officer often knew the Bible well and they had great discussions, he remembers.
He says he consulted with his rabbi about how to balance Shabbat observance with his work in the Senate. The rabbi said that of course walking to the Capitol was the best option. Next would be buying a Metro-card in advance and taking the metro to the Capitol, an option he never took.
In two cases, he says, Democratic senators sent staff members to his home on Shabbat to ask him to return for votes, which he did in both cases. Once, he says, he doesn’t feel he made a difference, but on the second bill he believes his presence made a difference.
In Israel, of course, religion has often been a force with discord with frequent tensions between the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinic establishment and non-Orthodox Israelis. Shearim, which translated Lieberman’s book into Hebrew, says it aims to make Shabbat an “inclusive and main element of Jewish heritage, to be celebrated and enjoyed according to each Jew’s lifestyle.”
As Lieberman says, “Some people might choose to go to synagogue and others to the beach. The important thing is that Shabbat is somehow different and special.”