Senator Lieberman and the Sabbath

Sermon given September 8, 2000, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

The first Jewish President invites his mother to come to Washington for Rosh Hashanah. “But how will I get there,” she moans, “It’s such a long trip.”

With frustration, the President replies: “Don’t worry, mother, I’ll send a limousine to get you in Brooklyn, Air Force One will fly you to down here, and then a helicopter will bring you from the Air Force Base right to the lawn of the White House.”

The truth is, she doesn’t want to go, so she tries to think of more excuses. “You’re so busy; what will I do after services, when you’re talking to all those generals and senators?”

The President, now exasperated, replies childishly: “Look, mother, you’ve gone to my brother’s house every year since I’ve been in office. I want you to come here for Rosh Hashanah this year. I promise, barring national emergency, that I will take the whole day off to be with you and the family.”

Finally, mother relents. She will go to the White House for Rosh Hashanah. A week before the holiday, one of her friends asks her about her plans for the holiday. “I’m going to be with my son and his family,” she says.

“Which one?,” her friend asks eagerly. “The doctor?”

“No,” she sighs, “the other one.”

The joke suggests that we Jews are more proud of Jewish doctors than we would be to have a Jewish President of the United States. It’s funny; but I don’t think it’s true. We are thrilled at the actual possibility of a Jewish President, or even of a Jewish Vice-President. Since the nomination of Senator Joseph Lieberman as the Democratic Party’s candidate for Vice-President, I have heard reactions of delight, from Jews of every political stripe.

Hopefully, none of us would vote for a candidate solely because he is Jewish, just as we hope that Baptists don’t vote only for Baptists or that Catholics would choose a Catholic candidate, exclusively on the basis of sharing that person’s religion. Indeed, I have heard excitement at the prospect of a Jewish Vice-President from Jews who definitely plan to vote for the Republican ticket. All of us can take pride that “one of our own” is on a major national party’s Presidential ticket. We are proud to be citizens of a nation that respects our faith and embraces our Jewish people as full members of American society. We are heartened by the message of hope this nomination brings for the future of American diversity and tolerance, not just for Jews, but for Americans of all races and religions.

Many of us have also been fascinated by the onslaught of media coverage of our Jewish religious practices, inspired by discussion of Senator Lieberman’s Orthodox Judaism. In particular, the press has closely examined the requirements of Sabbath rest, the mitzvah which enjoins Jews to refrain from any form of servile labor from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday. The media ask: What would a Vice-President – or even a President – Lieberman do and not do to fulfill his official duties on Shabbat? Thankfully, Lieberman seems to have put any fears to rest, by virtue of his actions as a Senator. He does not campaign on Shabbat, even for Vice- President. However, when necessary, Senator Lieberman has participated in Senate decision-making on Shabbat. He concedes that voting in the Senate is “work,” but says that this particular form of labor overrides the Sabbath, because it serves the welfare of other human beings. He doesn’t drive to the Capitol, and he votes by voice or hand, rather than using an electronic voting device, because both of those activities are tantamount to lighting a fire, which is prohibited on the Sabbath.

If he were Vice-President or President, we may extrapolate that Lieberman would carry out necessary official duties that day, but would not engage in non-essential work. He would also look for methods of accomplishing his tasks in ways that would involve minimum violation of the Sabbath. This practice would allow him to carry out the duties of his office faithfully, while remaining true to his Orthodox observance of Judaism.

So we can be comfortable, as Americans, and as Jews, that Judaism would not prevent our potential Vice-President, an Orthodox Jew, from fulfilling the duties of his office.

I wonder, though, if we are equally comfortable as Reform Jews, considering our Sabbath observance, compared to that of Senator Lieberman. Certainly, some among us take the Sabbath very seriously. We may share a Shabbat dinner, together with the blessings over candles, wine, and the children at our tables. Many of us attend worship. We may even study Torah. Several of us observe the rituals of Havdalah, at least occasionally. Only a very few, I think, refrain from any work-related activities on Shabbat, by not going shopping on Saturdays, for example. Jews are enjoined to desist from any form of servile labor on this day. This ordinance has been at the center of discussion of Senator Lieberman’s Sabbath, but is generally absent from our own.

Some may believe that the work prohibition does not apply to Reform Jews. After all, Senator Lieberman is Orthodox, and one may correctly assert that the Sabbath we have seen described in the press is the “Orthodox Shabbos,” not the Reform Shabbat.

Indeed, freedom from the strict limitations of an Orthodox Sabbath might have been among the greatest motivations for the growth of American Reform Judaism. Decades ago, in most parts of our country, one could not succeed in American business without working on Shabbat. People might have felt that they could not participate in American culture and social life if they would not drive or attend secular functions on Friday evenings or Saturdays.

Even today, we may judge our Saturday secular activities to be absolutely essential to our success and full integration in American life. When else will the kids play soccer? When else can the family go to the mall together? For some, the pressures of business remain. If I am in retail, shall I really eschew the most profitable day of the week? If most of my colleagues show up at the office on Saturday, won’t I appear to be lazy if I’m always in Temple instead? With a wedding on Saturday night, when else shall we hold a Rehearsal Dinner, if not on Friday evening? And, here in Texas, at this season, need I mention that high school football games are on Friday nights? Shall we really tell our kids that Shabbat takes precedence over high school football? We’re going to have enough trouble on September 29, when Rosh Hashanah is on Friday night, so most of us wouldn’t dream of fighting over Friday nights every single week.

After all, we are Reform, so Sabbath observance seems to be optional. Even for those of us who do sanctify every single Shabbat in positive ways, we may feel quite justified in choosing not to observe the prohibition against secular work-like activities. As responsible Reform Jews, we have studied; we have chosen; we will do what we please.

But don’t we squirm a bit, as we read about Senator Lieberman? Can we really claim that any of our secular tasks are more important than campaigning for Vice-President of the United States? When an observant Jew stands ready to become the second-highest official in our land, can we seriously argue that traditional Sabbath observance would stand in the way of our complete acceptance, success and integration in American life? As America learns about Jewish practice, how many of us have felt the need to defend our own Sabbath observance, or lack thereof, to our newly-educated Christian friends? As America admires Lieberman’s religious fidelity, what do we think of our own? As we consider the benefits, both religious and secular, of Lieberman’s practice of the Sabbath, shouldn’t we ask ourselves: “Are we missing out?” Doesn’t a day of true rest appeal to us? In the clamor of our busy lives, wouldn’t something be said for taking a full day away from the distractions of our secular lives?

Now, I am a Reform rabbi. I cherish the individual autonomy that characterizes Reform Judaism. I would never stand here and tell the congregation that everybody here should start walking to Temple and staying away from the malls on Saturdays. I certainly can see how observing the Sabbath strictly might actually detract from the beauty and holiness of a person’s life. One could become distracted by so many rules and prohibitions and frustrated by all that one could not do that day. Moreover, If I were to exhort you to observe as Joe Lieberman does, I would be a hypocrite, because I do not observe Shabbat that way myself. I do teach that every Jew should practice sanctification, worship, study, and rest on every Sabbath, but also that each of us must study the mitzvot with commitment and knowledge, make our own decisions, and live by them.

This fall, as the campaign rages, Judaism is a hot topic, the Sabbath is much discussed, and we approach the High Holy Days, let each of us reflect on our own Shabbat observance. May we consider developing our own Sabbath rest in the year ahead.

Shabbat is the holiest day of the Jewish year, the only holy day ordained in the Ten Commandments. Shabbat recalls creation, when God rested on the seventh day, so desisting from labor on the Sabbath is a path toward God’s holiness.

Shabbat also reminds us of the Exodus from Egyptian bondage. When we were slaves in Egypt, we were servants to Pharaoh, working seven days a week. When God liberated us from servitude, we were free. Shabbat asks us to remember that we owe our freedom, nay, our very existence, to God. God gives us six days to use at our own disposal, and asks only for one day each week. To the extent that we can give ourselves to God this day, we acknowledge and praise the gift of life, the blessing of freedom.

May we rejoice in our liberty, as human beings, as Americans, and as Jews. May we exercise our freedom by choosing to observe Shabbat in ways that will enhance our lives and honor God. May we, observant Reform Jews, be inspired by the example of Senator Joseph Lieberman, an observant Orthodox Jew, to live each Sabbath, indeed every day of our lives, with meaning, with integrity, and with faith.

Amen.