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Nation can see Jewish wisdom, or grandstanding
By Rabbi Barry Freundel
August 27, 2000
The following is adapted from the sermon Public Service and Public Presence
delivered by Rabbi Barry Freundel on Aug. 12, 2000, the first Shabbat after Vice
President Al Gore picked Sen. Joseph Lieberman as his running mate. Lieberman
and his family were in attendance at Congregation Kesher Israel in Washington
when Freundel delivered his sermon.
WASHINGTONThe words of the Torah rang in my ears as I thought about the
breakthrough moment in which a very visible Jew, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, was
selected to run for the vice presidency of the United States of America on the
ticket of a major political party.
The monumental events respond to centuries of Jewish pain and fear at being
left out, discriminated against and reviled.
In response, I immediately thought of the words of Deuteronomy as spoken through
the mouth of Moses, behold I have taught you laws and statutes as the
Lord my God has commanded me, and you shall be observant of them and perform
them, for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, for
when they hear about all these statutes they will say, This is but a wise
and understanding people, referring to the Jews.
For this congregation to have been intimately connected to this moment in history
has created a euphoria that words are inadequate to describe. We have always
been honored and excited to have Sen. Lieberman as a valued member of Kesher
Israel, but this week we went far beyond those simple sentiments.
I think back to what I believe would have been the reaction of my father, may
he rest in peace. My father and his cronies refused to vote for Jacob Javits
precisely because he was a Jew. My father, who had left Germany in 1933 as the
Nazis began to consolidate their power with an eye, in part, towards completing
their final solution for the Jewish people, was convinced that if a Jewish senator
from the state of New York did well, that would be ignored. But, if he did poorly
that would create, if not a pogrom, at least a significant increase in overt
I am sure that he would have anticipated that the choice of an observant Jew
as a vice presidential candidate would evoke at best some very forced smiles
and some extremely difficult moments for many important officials as they struggled
to swallow a very bitter pill. In no way would he have expected it to be a plus
for anyones presidential candidacy or for the Jewish people.
Of course the opposite has been the case. For now, being an observant Jew is
in and, so far, apparently, many people are reacting by saying,
this is a wise and understanding nation, meaning that there is something
valuable in the observance and the Jewishness. In short we are seeing this verse
fulfilled in our day.
I want you all to know, and I say this with Sen. Lieberman present, that my
agenda has not been to advance the cause of the noble nominee from the Georgetown
Synagogue. Rather I think it critically important in my position that I present
Judaism in an authentic manner, but at the same time in a way that it not be
misunderstood so that it become an impediment.
For better or worse, whether it is fair or unfair, this is the test case. It
will be the model for a very long time as to whether an observant Jew can successfully
aspire to this type of success in the United States.
It seems to me we have struck an informal bargain with the rest of the American
public. We have asked of the American people that religion either not be a factor
or that it be seen as a positive quality in determining the qualifications of
Our side of the deal is that we not create any unnecessary problem that might
lead to a misunderstanding of what we are all about and how we function. If
we fail on our side of the deal then being observant can and will become a negative
or even a disqualifier. It requires us to be extremely careful as a community
and as a people in what we say and how we comport ourselves.
We of course need to be authentic, we cannot distort who we are and what we
believe, but we dont have to. If we present ourselves and our faith fairly
and in terms that are understandable to the rest of America there should be
no problem. It is only if we attempt to make headlines or grandstand, as some
have already done, that an issue may develop.
The verse with which I started speaks of the nations of the world looking at
our observance and saying that we are a wise and understanding people. There
is a second aspect that goes beyond our seeing the promise of the verse being
fulfilled at this historic moment and it is one we cannot ignore. It appears
to require us to do things and to explain our observance in a way that will
make the non-Jewish world, at all times, not just during a vice presidential
campaign, look to us as a wise and understanding people.
Rashi (1040-1105), our most important Biblical commentator, believed that there
would be a day, sometime in the dim future, when the Torahs promise that
observance would be taken as understanding and wisdom would indeed
come true. That belief is expressed in his commentary of this verse. He made
his comment despite living through the First Crusade when Jews were reviled
for their beliefs and observance. Therefore, we as Jews are impelled to make
such a day come to pass if we can, to help bring the promise of G-d and Torah
Ladies and gentlemen, we must recognize that for one of the few times in our
history such a moment is upon us. We must come to this moment bearing not only
the persecutions that our ancestors suffered precisely because they lived in
times and places where non-Jewish reaction to Jewish observance was decidedly
negative, but we also must bear the burden of their hopes and their faith that
a moment like this could one day be a reality and that the Jews around at that
miraculous time would make it work.
But unfortunately, something has already reared its ugly head in some of the
comments that have been made within the Jewish community. There is a danger,
it seems to me, that this moment of Jewish triumph could easily turn into triumphalism
and that a moment of pride can become a time of chauvinism.
For that to happen, even internally, would be a terrible tragedy. It would
be even worse if it became public. To respond to this event with a sense that
we are somehow superior, that somehow this is our divine right, that somehow
this is our guy and therefore he is better just simply because he is our guy
does not do anyone any good.
The candidate will suffer unfairly and the Jewish community will come off badly.
Even for the individual who feels good saying such things, she or he is guilty
of false pride and an abhorrent ethnic primitivism.
We must all make no mistake about this moment. For better or worse, fairly
or unfairly, Observant Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, modern Orthodox Judaism are
all being examined very closely here, and the question that is on the table
is will we be determined by others to be a nation of wisdom and understanding?
There is today, right now, an opportunity to actively promote and influence
others to say of us that we are wise and understanding. The quality of our speech
will go a long way towards the final judgment of who we are.
Sen. Lieberman, our good friend Joe, we wish you Godspeed, every good luck
and Gods protection on your journey. Congratulations to you, congratulations
to all of us and let us hope and pray we will all be equal to the task that
this moment has brought to us.
(The full text of Freundels sermon is available at www.kesher.org).
Reprinted with permission from JTA Inc.,
2000. May not be reproduced without written permission.