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Jewish Cultural Leaders Quibble About Epochal Moment

But liberal and conservative alike see Joseph Lieberman's candidacy as a chance for increased awareness.

August 11, 2000|LYNN SMITH and MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As Joseph Lieberman became a household name this week, the Jewish community swelled with pride that a Jew, and Orthodox at that, had been chosen for the first time to run on a presidential ticket. Politicians admired the savvy-ness of the move. Men and women on the street were abuzz.

Now Jewish cultural leaders are sorting out what it all means: Lieberman is clearly a symbol of barriers broken and hope for immigrants and minorities. He's a sign that Jews have made the United States a home, not just a haven. He's a living educational tool to teach non-Jews about the practice of his faith.

Meanwhile, the quibbling begins. Some Orthodox think he's too modern. Some Reform Jews worry that he's too traditional. The older generation is anxious that he's too visible and may become a lightning rod for vestigial prejudice. Conseratives think he's not strong enough to affect change among Democrats. Democrats fear he's betrayed their liberal tradition.

"There's a struggle going on inside everyone," said Michael Lerner, publisher of San Francisco-based Tikkun, a Jewish cultural magazine. "On one hand, we're so excited he was nominated and so grateful to the American people for that being possible. On the other hand, is it good for the country and is it good for the Jews that the person being put forward as 'The Jewish Politician' is someone who plays the role of pulling discourse further away from social justice issues?"

Overwhelmingly, however, writers, artists, humorists and pundits said the mere selection of Lieberman trumps almost every other issue.

No matter what the outcome of the election in November, Jewish cultural leaders say, the Democratic senator from Connecticut will have long-lasting cultural impact.

The significance of the choice can hardly be overstated, said Martin Peretz, editor of the New Republic magazine. "This is a moment of great historic passage for American Jewry," he said, "and for other groups who have been excluded. It will hasten the day of women presidents, African American presidents."

Equally important is the fact that both presidential candidate Al Gore and Lieberman filter their political positions through moral philosophy, said Peretz, who was Gore's social studies professor at Harvard University.

Noah benShea, philosopher and author from Santa Barbara, said Lieberman's Jewish faith indicates he will be a far-sighted, inclusive leader. "The difference between a politician and a leader is that a politician thinks about the next election and a leader thinks about the next generation. In Lieberman, you have a leader. The Talmud reminds us that it is a great mitzvah to plant a tree you will never eat the fruit of--not acting for your own aggrandizement. Lieberman is well steeped in conducting himself like that."

Indeed, Lieberman has written a book about the honor of public service, "In Praise of Public Life" (Simon & Schuster, 2000).

BenShea compares Lieberman to the 19th century British statesman Benjamin Disraeli, the son of an Anglicized Jew and longtime rival of William Gladstone. "A tale told in 19th century England was when you went to dinner at court and sat next to Prime Minister Gladstone, you came away thinking you had dined with the wisest man in the empire. When you went to dinner at court and dined with Disraeli, you came away thinking you were the wisest person in the empire.

"That's what Joseph Lieberman does. He is about the enhancement of others."

Quibbles From All Quarters

Yet others worry that the nation is in for a severe public scolding--at least over the next three months.

"The Democrats weren't going to be out-moralized by the Republicans," said Los Angeles humorist Harry Shearer. "We've all been bad. Especially Hollywood."

The sudden ascent of Lieberman, who has aligned himself with moral conservative Bill Bennett, favors public prayer and was the first Democratic senator to condemn infidelity in the Oval Office, sends a definite message: "The old Puritanism is alive and well," said Shearer, host of public-radio station KCRW's "Le Show." "Let me put it this way: When you're getting your politics from preachers and your morality from politicians, the world is upside down."

But for Jewish conservatives like comedian Jackie Mason, Lieberman isn't strong enough. "This administration has behaved so disgustingly corrupt, that even an Orthodox Jew couldn't clean up Gore's act. Only God could help," Mason said.

A few voices have dared suggest that Lieberman's religion makes no difference at all. But nearly all proclaim his selection to be an event with lasting repercussions.

American-born novelist Nathan Englander, 29, raised Orthodox in New York and now living "completely secular" in Jerusalem, said in Israel, "They called him 'shomer mitzvot' in the newspaper, which is a [Hebrew] phrase I personally like. It means, basically, someone who follows the religious commandments--humble and simple."

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