Wednesday, August 09, 2000

Two Jews, Three Opinions
On Joseph Lieberman, Ovadia Yosef, and Us

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, New York

It was only yesterday. But I can't remember exactly when it was that I started to cry.

I don't remember if it was when Senator Lieberman spoke about how hard his father worked, to give his children a better life, in a way which could have been describing... my grandfather. Or if it was when he spoke in almost mystical devotion about the openness, the goodness, the hope-as-wide-as-the-horizon expansiveness of the American Dream. Or if was when I looked down for a moment at my children, one asleep on the sofa, the other playing with his Thomas trains and oblivious to the fact that in the flashing electronic images of the television screen he was mercifully and miraculously ignoring, his life, and his brother's, were changed forever. This was just not a barrier I had ever given much thought to. I had never really felt it before. But today I feel light-headed and amazed. I feel the oppressive weight of that barrier's absence, now that it is so suddenly and surprisingly gone.

There are three thoughts that I have, almost gut reactions still, to the stunning news of Joe Lieberman's selection as the vice-presidential nominee of the Democratic party. They have to do with the Antisemitism factor, the Ambassador syndrome, and the American dream. They have to do with fear. And duty. And hope.

First, the fear. It is clear, and it is here, on our minds, and in our hearts. The perennial question, tucked away beneath our pride: "is this really good for the Jews." It seems to be. But what if? What if the reaction is severe? What if the fruitcakes and vipers come out of the closet? What if the peddlers of hate find their voice, find an audience, and find their target?

For they are making their presence felt already. America Online itself has noted and disposed of a sudden surge of garbage: hate messages aimed at the candidate. Conspiracy theorists and name-callers alike are having a field day. AOL, to its credit, is permanently banning purveyors of hate. And on Monday, the (soon to be past?) president of the Dallas chapter of the NAACP -- a distinguished, noble and honorable organization -- spoke of suspicion of "partnerships between the Jews at that kind of level because we
know that their interest primarily has to do with money and these kinds of things." He was roundly condemned, by other local and almost all national NAACP leaders, and seems to have been speaking for himself, not for his community.

It is unclear how to look at the glass. Is it half-empty, for the fact that such things are being said? Is it half-full, for the reaction of support and the fact that this nomination could happen at all? Or is it, as one of my colleagues who is also very active in black-Jewish relations said, the sound of a glass ceiling, breaking?

Or should we forget about the glass, and reach for the knife? For perhaps we have been given an opportunity, in this moment, that will be a long time in coming again. Yes, there is going to be an antisemitic backlash against this nomination. So let it come. Let it come out. Let the fact that a Jew is running for the second highest office in the land drive our enemies crazy enough to show themselves for what they are. Let it draw the venomous snake out of the corner in which it has been hiding, draw it out, so we may slay it! Even a short-term negative experience, the feeling of nervousness some of us express, may be a boon in the long-run. For well we know that the ugliest sore, a festering wound finally heals when exposed to the air, not when it is covered up. This, then, is an opportunity. To face our fear, and overcome it.

It is also a time of duty. Let me turn the table, to those of you who are reading these words. How many of you have, already, been asked about the Lieberman nomination by non-Jewish friends, or family, or neighbors? How many of you feel as if, somehow, we are all expected to have a standard answer? The same reaction?

Well, you know, that's just plain natural. It is, I think, well and good. It is like the time, in the middle of the Six Day war, when Muscovites not known for their great affinity with their Jewish citizens, just average Ivans in the street, approached their Jewish neighbors and said, with their first ever respect in their voices, "hey! You guys did a really good job." It is a reminder, as before in our history, that we are all in this together.  Like it or not, we are all ambassadors.

To be an ambassador means that people who are not Jewish will turn to us for "the Jewish point of view."  Like the expectation that you are the one who is going to bake the latkes and bring in dreidels and light a menorah for all the kids in kindergarten. And, like our annual patient, this-is-how-it-is-for-us stance which sustains us through many-a-December, as ambassadors, today, too, we are called upon to be teachers.
It is said that Senator Joseph Lieberman is a man of faith, and of family values. Well, that is true. But, you know, family values for a Jew may differ from family values for a Christian. Perhaps we view women
differently. Perhaps we view sexuality in a different way. What are Jewish values? How can he be pro-family values, and pro-choice? (Easy, if you know anything about Judaism. Incomprehensible, if you do not.) And Senator Lieberman is a traditional Jew. What is Orthodox Judaism? What are the differences amongst the various groups of Jews?

Sometimes even his sound-bite answers which are all that will make it on to the evening news are going to require amplification for our neighbors. In addressing the question of what he was willing to do on Shabbat, Senator Lieberman compared himself to doctors who get beeped, use the phone, and drive off from the synagogue to the hospital on Shabbat. Now, that's an explanation that makes perfect sense -- but only if you already know that electricity, telephones and automobiles are forbidden on the Sabbath. Without a background, someone could easily miss the entire point. And my guess is that the news commentators are not going to provide adequate background.

Guess what folks? Better brush up. Because whenever Senator Lieberman answers a question about Judaism or Jewish tradition, it is going to be up to us to fill in the blanks. To answer and amplify, to give details and backgrounds, and, of course, our own explanations of how we do things differently. Joe Lieberman was nominated. And your life will change. As it has been, you and I are the chosen ones, to represent our faith. And to teach those we come in contact with what it means, for you, for me, what it
means to us, to be a Jew.

And finally. As a Jew, and as an American, this is a time of hope, and pride, and joy.

It is an election year. And every election, politicians of all stripes are going to fight with each other to tell us that x, or y, or whatever, "that's what this election is all about." Being from Washington D.C., with
politics in my blood, there is much I find fascinating about campaigns and about governing, but this attempt to define us for us is one of the most interesting -- and truly important -- aspects of the entire political process. Sometimes it is blatant. Sometimes setting the agenda, defining the terms of debate, indeed, defining the time and seizing the future, sometimes this can actually be quite subtle. But in every election, there is
a titanic and often subterranean battle, between "uniters" and "dividers," between those who point to the sky, and those who point at each other.

I believe that it is not just as an election strategy, but it is the sacred responsibility of politicians to lift our sights, to focus our vision, to remind us of the greatness we can achieve, not the bitterness and rancor
and bile which can tear us apart. Sometimes it is the one who lifts our sight to greatness who wins the day. "It is morning in America." Or: we are no longer the Labor party. We are "One Israel."

This is a battle because unity does not always win the day. Dividers thrive because division works. The easiest, quickest -- and least healthy way -- to build yourself up, is to put someone else down. Just look at the flap in Israel the other day, when an aging and I hope-to-God senile, because that would excuse this a little bit, former Sephardic chief rabbi and power behind the throne of the Shas party, Ovadia Yosef, said that the victims of the Nazi Holocaust were the reincarnated souls... of sinful Jews. Probably nothing else he could possibly have said, about anything, ever, could have caused such pain. And probably nothing else could have gotten him so much attention.

What a contrast, in one week, between two Orthodox Jews. Yosef Lieberman, and Ovadia Yosef. Let us not run to think of Orthodox Judaism as owned by Ovadia Yosef. For if ever we are tempted to stereotype our own, remember... Lieberman, too, is an Orthodox Jew. And for me, a reminder, of perhaps the best that Orthodoxy can produce.

Which brings me back to the power of vision. It is expressed, in this country, in the language of the American Dream. It is not that in the game of life, the one who dies with the most toys wins. Not in my game, anyway.
For in the campaign of life, the one who expands our horizons, who lifts our spirits, who makes the soul soar to heights it never knew before, in the campaign of life the one who swells the heart wins. Maybe not an election. Not always. But wins the prize its all about. The prize which calls us to the goodness, and the greatness, that is there inside. Inside us, all along. 
In my heart this week there is no venom. There is only ambrosia. The mythical food of the gods. And the song in my heart, of the unity of all, the oneness at the heart of the world. The greatness and goodness of the one God, who can bring us together, and lift us all.

Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.
Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal God is One.