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Soul-Searching Over Lieberman

The Democrats' vice presidential candidate has put the spotlight on efforts to define what it is to be Jewish.


With the traditional blowing of the shofar, Jews around the world welcomed in the New Year on Friday--a year that, at least for American Jews, is being shaped by the vice presidential candidacy of Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

Ever since Lieberman became Al Gore's running mate on the Democratic ticket, his presence has been a cause for celebration among Jews. But his prominence has also renewed soul-searching for many over what it means to be Jewish.

Rosh Hashana begins a 10-day period of reflection and repentance that culminates on the holiest day of the Jewish year--Yom Kippur. During that period, as even Jews who seldom attend religious services gather together, many rabbis say that they expect the presence of an observant Jew running for the second-highest office in the land to prompt introspection by members of their congregations about how they express their faith.

"Lieberman is a harbinger of a fuller, more authentic, more religiously grounded Jewish identity," said Alan Mittleman, associate professor and head of the department of religion at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. "He is a Jew by design, rather than by default."

Already, youth advisors and religious school leaders say they are finding young people expressing new interest in how belief informs life.

"They say they're finding it much easier to engage people in the past two months on these issues. Before, the role models were rock stars and sports heroes," said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Now there's Lieberman.

Lieberman's high visibility as a religious Jew is part of a larger trend of American Jewry's redefining itself. The trend, Mittleman said, started about 10 years ago after a Jewish population survey warned that Jews had, in effect, become victims of their own success. American Jews were assimilating into the mainstream culture so well that there was a danger that the Jewish population would simply dwindle away, the survey appeared to warn.

As a result, many Jews--and not simply the Orthodox--are placing greater emphasis on religious roots.

"We're in a new phase now," said Rabbi Gilbert Cullen, president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and senior rabbi at the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. Lieberman's example can play a major role in that effort.

"It's no longer either maintain your tradition, keep kosher, observe the Sabbath or work in the public arena. . . . Lieberman says, 'I can do both. I don't have to compromise my religious faith in order to become a servant of the larger community.' "

Among those who agree is John Fischel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. In the next 10 to 15 years, he said, there will be even greater emphasis on Jewish tradition and spirituality. Already, he said, young adult Jews are studying Jewish tradition and sacred Scriptures in record numbers.

Of course, along with the celebration, Lieberman's candidacy has also created some tension.

On the secular side, some Jews have objected to Lieberman's public displays of religious belief. A few weeks ago, for example, the Anti-Defamation League released a letter saying Lieberman's frequent references on the campaign trail to God were "inappropriate and even unsettling."

"Jews in the past half-century have been guided by a vision of secular utopia," Mittleman said. "Now they come to realize it's not Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell. It's Joe Lieberman!"

On the religious side, some conservatives have objected to Lieberman's support for abortion rights. He has also come in for criticism from Orthodox and Conservative religious leaders for saying Judaism poses "no ban whatsoever" against intermarriage of Jews with people of other faiths.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B'Nai David-Judea Congregation, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles, said he and other rabbis were "mystified" by that remark. "There is a sense that he knows that we know that this isn't true," said Kanefsky.

Opposition to intermarriage "from a Jewish point of view is simply a matter of survival," he said.

Lieberman's sudden status as one of the best known Jews in America has also highlighted a long-standing tension between the Modern Orthodox stream of Judaism, to which Lieberman belongs, and the more tradition-bound Orthodoxy, exemplified by Hasidic groups.

"Lieberman breathes new life into Modern Orthodoxy. The right or fervently Orthodox fervently believed that [Modern Orthodoxy] was on the decline," Mittleman said. Lieberman "helps underwrite the legitimacy of Modern Orthodoxy in the public eye."

Such internal tensions, however, are seen by most as mere footnotes in the larger story of Lieberman's candidacy and what it portends for Jewish life in America.

Perhaps, Kanefsky notes, a candidacy like Lieberman's should not have come as any great surprise. After all, Jews have long since become part of the American mainstream.

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