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March 28th, 2024

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I was deeply saddened by Senator Joseph “Joe” Lieberman’s passing earlier this week. A colossus in American politics, Senator Lieberman exemplified the essence of principled leadership – itself a rare commodity in that realm. Yet, to define him merely as an outstanding politician scarcely captures the breadth of his remarkable journey.

As an observant Orthodox Jew, Senator Lieberman navigated the pinnacle of U.S. political power with an adherence to faith that was as commendable as it was extraordinary. For many, leading a life aligned with devout religious principles and the requirements of Jewish ritual law is more than challenging in the rough-and-tumble of an ordinary existence. But Senator Lieberman managed this feat in the high-stakes life and public scrutiny of the world’s most high-octane political stage, setting a profound example of integrity and character strength.

Born into an unobtrusive, humble Jewish family in Stamford, Connecticut, Senator Lieberman’s Orthodox Jewish faith guided him throughout his life and career. His dedication to the Jewish religion and to his Jewish heritage was evident in every aspect of his life – whether it was observing demanding Sabbath laws, or the strict requirements of a kosher diet.

In an address to students at Brigham University in 2011, Senator Lieberman explained his deep religious commitments: “My Jewish faith is central to my life, including my career in politics. My faith has provided me with a foundation, an order, and indeed a purpose, and has so much to do with the way I navigate through each day, both personally and professionally, in ways both large and small.”

At the same time, Senator Lieberman’s ability to integrate this profound personal identity into a universal message of tolerance, respect, and understanding truly set him apart. He was able to be a deeply committed Jew and an all-round American with an ease that truly showed how this ideal can be achieved.

During Senator Lieberman’s historic 2000 vice-presidential campaign, his Orthodox Jewish faith was thrust into the national spotlight, providing the American public with a vivid illustration of his devout adherence to Jewish religious principles. Perhaps the most symbolic of these moments occurred each Friday evening and throughout Saturday, when Senator Lieberman would abstain from the usual campaign activities, respecting the halakhic prohibition against traveling in a car and using communications devices.

But while Senator Lieberman’s devout Jewish practices and proud faith left a significant impression on the American public in 2000—so much so, that one Jewish leader, feeling self-conscious about his own lesser observance, publicly asked Senator Lieberman to “keep religion out of the presidential campaign”—these were not new or performative acts. Senator Lieberman’s commitment to his faith was a long-standing and sincere part of his life, not undertaken for public admiration.

Throughout his tenure in the U.S. Senate, Senator Lieberman was committed to participating in crucial votes, often staying late to ensure his voice was heard, even if it was a Friday night. However, in observance of Sabbath restrictions, he conscientiously refrained from using the Senate’s electronic voting system on Friday evenings. And then, following the vote, instead of opting to drive home, Senator Lieberman would embark on a 4.5-mile walk back to his apartment in Georgetown, Washington, DC.

Remarkably, considering the deeply divided political arena of 2024, Joe Lieberman’s political career was marked by a sensible, non-progressive liberalism emphasizing bipartisanship, moral clarity, and a deep commitment to democratic values that embraced consensus and eschewed partisan conflict. Throughout his tenure in the U.S. Senate, Senator Lieberman championed causes that reflected his moderate approach, always striving to find a middle ground in an increasingly polarized political landscape.

One of Senator Lieberman’s most defining political positions was his unwavering support for Israel and the importance of the US-Israel relationship. He viewed this bond not merely as a matter of foreign policy but as a deeply personal commitment, rooted in his faith and his understanding of the strategic importance of a strong bond between United States, the world’s most powerful democracy, and Israel, a tiny democracy in a region swamped by theocracies and corrupt dictatorships.

His advocacy for Israel’s security and prosperity, and his efforts to strengthen the ties between the country of his birth and the country of his religious heritage, were relentless and unyielding. As he explained, “Support for Israel is not just a matter of policy for me, it is a personal commitment that reflects the best of what America stands for.”

When Senator Lieberman visited our synagogue in Beverly Hills in 2015, he was the keynote speaker at a broadly attended public session about the future of Jewish education, titled: “How do we educate the children of this generation for a future we cannot yet envision?” His sensitivity to the aspirations and challenges faced by the next generation of Jews in particular, and Americans in general, was remarkable — showcasing a level of depth and compassion that surpassed the frequently superficial engagement characteristic of seasoned political figures.

Senator Lieberman’s legacy is not just in the laws he helped pass or the political battles he fought; it is in the example he set. His life demonstrated in real time, during our lifetimes, the power of living one’s values, of the possibility of unity in diversity, and of the enduring value of true religious faith in public life. Senator Lieberman showed us that it is possible to be devout in one’s personal beliefs while simultaneously serving a diverse and pluralistic society productively and with a broad-mindedness that enables and effects positive outcomes for all.

As we commemorate Senator Lieberman this week, I am reminded of a tradition in Jewish education where the first book of the Torah taught to young children is the third book of the Pentateuch: Vayikra (Leviticus)—which is currently being read in synagogues worldwide. This book, with its detailed focus on the rituals of the ancient Temple, is introduced early to instill the significance of Jewish faith rituals in the next generation before they delve into civil laws and the foundational stories of the Jewish people. This approach underscores a belief that once faith is firmly established, it naturally leads to moral behavior in everyday life and enables meaningful participation in broader society.

Senator Lieberman’s life, deeply rooted in the Orthodox Jewish tradition from his earliest days, exemplified this principle. His unwavering adherence to faith and its rituals equipped him to navigate the complexities of public life with a moral compass that was both steadfast and inclusive. He became the quintessential everyman politician, capable of representing individuals from all walks of life—old and young, left and right, privileged and underprivileged. His journey underscores the transformative power of faith to guide moral action and to foster broad societal engagement, serving as a perfect example for future generations to follow.

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