Davening with Joe
Michael Shurkin

I actually met him before I came to DC, when I lived in New Haven. I'm sure he doesn't remember. Nor do I pretend he knows who I am. He's Joe Lieberman, after all, U.S. Senator from Connecticut and soon-to-be-ex- candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency. I met him then in the same context I see him now: synagogue. Back in New Haven we davened ma'ariv together in someone's home. I think it was Passover. In Washington it's Kesher Israel, the Orthodox synagogue in Georgetown. I see him every Shabbat and yom tov, at least when he's not on the campaign trail or back in Connecticut, or I'm not attending another minyan.

I usually don't notice Joe. Living in Washington one quickly becomes accustomed to what would be considered extraordinary elsewhere. Like the Secret Service cars patrolling my neighborhood. The Humvee-mounted Stinger missile batteries here and there. When I do think about Joe, I find his presence at once reassuring and troubling. Reassuring because of what its says about the man, the religion, and even American democracy. Troubling because it suggests great danger.

Joe in shul behaves like everyone else. He comes with his family. He talks a lot. He stands when he should. He sits when he should. He says along with everyone else the same prayers for the United States (including the President and the Vice-President), the United States armed forces, and, yes, the State of Israel. Let it be safe and at peace. But he has no special seat, no place of privilege in any of the synagogue ritual. That's reserved for the rabbi and for Cohens and Levis, descendants of the high priest and the ancient aristocracy. Joe is just "israel," just a commoner. Occasionally a guest speaker feels the need to put the spotlight on him, to everyone else's annoyance.

The real star at Kesher is Rabbi Freundel, which is the way it should be in a Jewish community. When things go right, privilege goes to those who are learned in Torah, and wealth and power mean comparatively nothing. In fact, Rabbi Freundel's leadership, combined with Joe's low profile, remind me of what I like about traditional Judaism. Freundel is our leader not because he's charismatic, has a nice voice, can lead us all through 'spiritual' experiences,' or raise a lot of money. If anything he's gruff, blunt, and, well, a touch deficient in 'social skills.' Kesher, moreover, has no money. But Freundel is a heavyweight scholar and teacher. He knows Torah better than anyone else in the community and does his best both to teach us his Torah and motivate us to live by it. Although Judaism preserves vestigial tokens of respect for the aristocracy of old, our real princes since the fall of the Temple have been rabbis like Freundel. In this scenario, Joe is no prince. He's just another student of the rabbi.

Participating in rituals with Joe as equals also makes me feel good about American democracy. His campaign was an anticlimax - maybe we were supposed to really care about the first Jewish presidential candidate, but it just didn't seem like that big a deal, like Clark's Jewish father and Dean's Jewish wife. But, despite all that, Joe is a powerful man; had the 2000 election not been decided by the Supreme Court, he'd be Vice President right now. Yet seeing him regularly in person has made me appreciate how little distance there is in our society between people like me--powerless and penniless--and people like him. This "equality of conditions," as Tocqueville would put it, makes me believe that all that prevents me from being like Joe are factors of my own making or that result from my own personality. I don't have that kind of ambition or drive. My head and heart are elsewhere. But birth isn't holding me back. Nor is class or education - I've had some privilege, of course, but the opportunities I had were open to more people than in most countries. Of course, there are some, including some presidents, who owe their power to birth, privilege, and entitlement. But there are many others who are given the chance to earn it.

At the same time, Joe's political prominence also scares me. In a world where anti-Semitism thrives and is rapidly fusing with anti-Americanism, yielding a poison of unprecedented popularity and toxicity, Jews had best be careful. We shouldn't refrain from serving our country or taking office. But I can't help feeling that Joe must never become president. A Jew must never become president.

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Image: Movementarian.com

February 2004

God Likes New Things
Abraham Joshua Heschel

You are God in Drag
Jay Michaelson

Davening with Joe
Michael Shurkin

Josh almost gets cancer
Josh Ring

Abraham Mezrich

Shari Goldman-Gottlieb

Spam Poetry

Our 440 Back Pages

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From previous issues:

French Antisemitism
Michael Shurkin

The Red-Green Alliance
Dave Hyde

Four Israeli Intelligence Directors: The Yediot Interview