|FAITH AND POLITICS|
August 9, 2000
After a background report, three experts discuss what it means to be an orthodox Jew and a politician.
JIM LEHRER: More now from Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel, the Washington synagogue Senator Lieberman attends. He's also an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University. Samuel Freedman, a writer and professor at Columbia University's graduate school of journalism. His new book is "Jew Versus Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry." And Kenneth Wald, a professor of political science and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Florida. Rabbi is there a short definition of what an orthodox Jew believes?
RABBI BARRY FREUNDEL, Kesher Israel Synagogue: If you talk sociologically there is a short definition. It is a member of an orthodox synagogue. If you try to get into belief, it is a little more complicated. An orthodox Jew believes, at least theoretically, that the Bible and its laws are divine and binding, that rabbinic laws, the laws of the Talmud and even the post Talmudic laws that come from the rabbis are authoritative and binding in all places and at all times. And that means that there is a real structure to one's life - that everything that you do from when you gets up in the morning till when you go to bed at night is structured.
JIM LEHRER: For instance?
RABBI BARRY FREUNDEL: Well, for example, the first law in the code of Jewish law written a long time before we understood anything about disease and germs is you have to get up and wash your hands in the morning when you wake up. That goes all the way through to the prayers that you have to recite before you go to sleep. It controls what is you eat and what you can't eat. It controls your interpersonal relationships, how you speak to someone. It controls your business --
JIM LEHRER: For instance, how does it control how you speak to someone?
RABBI BARRY FREUNDEL: Well, for example, there are prohibitions against gossip; there are prohibitions against talking about people; there are prohibitions about speaking in ways that will offend people or hurt people -- using harsh language and that kind of thing; all of that is covered by Jewish law.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Senator Lieberman said that he didn't believe any of these views or any of these beliefs would interfere with being Vice President of the United States. Do you agree?
RABBI BARRY FREUNDEL: Yes, I do agree. He's worked this out in large measure, while he's been a Senator, and frankly probably before this. The reality is that public policy, important public policy touches people's lives. It affects their health, it affects their well-being and it affects whether they are in poverty or not in poverty. Those are the kinds of concerns for which Jewish law says that's priority number one. There are very few things that can ever take precedence over that. And, therefore, it gives him the leeway because of the requirements of Jewish law to respond to those needs in ways that are appropriate and necessary.
JIM LEHRER: So, it is okay to be a Vice President of the United States, but it is not okay to campaign as a candidate for Vice President of the United States on the Sabbath?
RABBI BARRY FREUNDEL: Unless you think that saves somebody's life to hear a campaign speech, then I guess would you be able to campaign.
JIM LEHRER: But, I mean, is that real, in other words, no orthodox Jew could campaign for political office on a Sabbath?
RABBI BARRY FREUNDEL: I don't see how. And there was a wonderful story. When he was first nominated as Senator at his nominating convention the acceptance speech was supposed to be Friday night. He didn't give it in person. He taped it and they played it for the convention; he didn't go.
JIM LEHRER: Now, these rules, is there a discipline connected with rules? I mean, if he -- not he, Senator Lieberman, but he, an orthodox Jew, fails to live up to something, who knows and who cares and what happens?
RABBI BARRY FREUNDEL: Well, who knows, depends on how publicly you violate it. Who cares? People may be concerned, but ultimately, it is between you and God. There is no synod; there's no disciplinary court; there's none of those kinds of things that function at this point in time.
JIM LEHRER: You can't be kicked out of the orthodox Jewry?
RABBI BARRY FREUNDEL: I don't know kicked out. If you are in serious violation of some egregious kind of thing, I suppose you might get to a point in time where people would say don't come. But it is not for the kind of violations you're talking about.
JIM LEHRER: Has that ever happened in your experience?
RABBI BARRY FREUNDEL: The only kinds of things I know, technically, is, for example, you'll have a man who refuses to give a divorce, a religious divorce to his wife, so people will put sanctions on them. They won't allow them to come to services or they won't allow them to get an honor at services or they'll even announce their name publicly that this is a person who is recalcitrant and against the wishes of the rabbinic court and is refusing to free his wife. That's the kind of example.
JIM LEHRER: It is not a case of somebody who did not observe the Sabbath correctly or whatever?
RABBI BARRY FREUNDEL: No.
|Orthodox, conservative and reform|
JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Freedman, help us understand now the greater picture of Jewry. How does orthodox Jewry compare then with conservative and reform?
SAMUEL FREEDMAN, Author, "Jew Versus Jew:" Well, Rabbi Freundel gave a good idea already; that the orthodox believe in divine revelation. They believe the Torah is a revealed word of God. That's right away not shared by the reform movement, which believes that the Torah is a set of worthwhile guidelines steeped in Jewish ritual or the conservative movement, which believes that Torah is mutable under circumstances. So right there, you have made your changes in how life is lived by conservative Jews and reform Jews. You also have to remember that roughly half of the Jewish population in America is unaffiliated and is essentially secular so it doesn't even make any kind of concession to religious authority. The other point though that's important about Senator Lieberman is that he, like Rabbi Freundel, is from a movement within orthodoxy called modern orthodox, which is very different from what may be the stereotypical version a lot of Americans, including a lot of Jews, have of the orthodox life which is that it is Hassidic; it's ultra orthodox, people with black hats and the fore locks the idea that Senator Lieberman is someone who is totally out in the world and who believes in this concept called Torah Umada which literally means studying Torah and also worldly knowledge but more broadly means it is an important value for an orthodox Jew to have dynamic engagement with secular society that example he sets is going to be extremely educational not only for a lot of non-Jews but for a lot of Jews as well.
JIM LEHRER: Why is that?
SAMUEL FREEDMAN: Because of the perception that to be orthodox is to be a medievalist - that it's to somehow be part of the past; that orthodoxy was terrific for your grandfather on the lower east side, your great grandfather back in the shtetl -- that it was something bound to wither and die in America. And of course the opposite has been true. There has been an orthodox renaissance not necessarily numerically in this country but in terms of its vitality, its visibility, and its self-confidence and the influence that it casts over the rest of Jewish life.
JIM LEHRER: There's been a suggestion since the Senator Lieberman announcement was made, that in some ways, orthodox Jews have more in common with say the fundamentalists of other religions and the Protestant faith and Catholic faiths than they do with reform Jews or what you would call secular Jews. Is that correct?
SAMUEL FREEDMAN: There is a strain of social conservatism that's part of orthodox life. It certainly has a lot of common ground with evangelical Christianity and parts of the Catholic spectrum. But the fact that Senator Lieberman, for instance, is in favor of abortion rights, in favor of gay rights also shows that there is lively debate just within orthodoxy as well; that you can't say there is an orthodox position, period, a single position on any given political issue. And also, it is true that in certain ways that gives him the common ground that say has let him be an ally with people on the Republican Party and on the Christian right, on certain issues like school vouchers, for instance. On the other hand, I think he's an important emblem of the fact that bringing religion into part of political discourse shouldn't be something that's conceded to people who are politically conservative and who are on the theological right wing as well; that one of the greatest moments for America and also one of the greatest moments for liberal American Judaism, the civil rights movement, was a movement that was steeped in the whole prophetic writings of the Old Testament and in the command that Jews should be part of heeling the world. So, I think that as a moderate, on a lot of issues, but a man also overtly religious, Senator Lieberman would be an important corrective to this idea that piety belongs to just one political party.
|Politics of orthodox Jews|
JIM LEHRER: Professor Wald, the politics of orthodox Jews, do you agree that it is impossible to say all orthodox Jews are liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat?
KENNETH WALD, University of Florida: Absolutely. Orthodox Jewry is very complex. There are lots of different positions within it. Collectively, orthodoxy is more politically conservative than the other major denominations. But you have to understand that the political spectrum within American Judaism is far to the left as it is to the general public. So I think that it would be wrong to infer his political positions would automatically be on the right across the spectrum. We simply know that's not the case.
JIM LEHRER: Well, let's go through some obvious ones. Would it be safe to assume that an orthodox Jew would be, say, pro-Israel and anti-Arab?
KENNETH WALD: I think it is probably safe to assume that Senator Lieberman as an orthodox Jew regards the existence of the state of Israel as to some degree reflecting a divine commitment and that certainly is theologically very important. But that really doesn't address the policy issues.
JIM LEHRER: Divine commitment rather than a national commitment, rather than a governmental thing?
KENNETH WALD: Correct. That still leaves open the question of territory, of other policy issues on which orthodox Jew disagree among themselves.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Lieberman is to be specific, is anti-affirmative action in some respects. Is that consistent with orthodox Jewry positions?
KENNETH WALD: Well, affirmative action is probably the one issue among American Jews in general where they part company with their allies in the liberal coalition. For Jews pretty much across the religious spectrum, affirmative action evokes memories of quotas that were used to keep Jews out of universities, out of businesses, out of opportunities for social advancement. So, in being less than enthusiastic about affirmative action and quotas, he is, I think in some senses in the mainstream of Jewish opinion.
JIM LEHRER: What about his opposition to violence in music and movies and other media?
KENNETH WALD: Well I think there you have that strain of social conservatism within orthodox Judaism that Professor Freedman referred to. There is no question that on social and moral issues, there is a more conservative orientation among orthodox Jews and that, I think, position puts him slightly to the right of the rest of the Jewish community. The other issue where I think orthodoxy and the rest of the Jewish community have some differences have to do, of course with the question about abortion and some of those other social values.
|Religion and decision making|
JIM LEHRER: All right. Beginning with you, Rabbi, for those who are listening tonight, and who are not that familiar with orthodoxy, they are finding out now about orthodox Jewry because of Joe Lieberman. Is it safe for them to expect that when, if he becomes Vice President of the United States, that he's confronted with a governmental situation, that he would go first to Jewish law, or Jewish custom or his beliefs or his orthodox Jewish beliefs in making that decision?
RABBI BARRY FREUNDEL: I don't think. He doesn't function that way. He is an orthodox person and that structures his values. But, and I think that his orthodox training and interests shape him to a certain extent. But he starts with the idea of what's best for the United States, and how do I best represent my constituency. I have never gotten a call from him that goes, here is a public policy issue, how should I feel as an orthodox Jew? What does orthodox law on this? We sometimes have a conversation because he's interested in it but that's not where he starts at all. That's not him.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Freedman, would you read at this time same way?
SAMUEL FREEDMAN: I agree with what Rabbi Freundel said. I think the question you raise is the kind of -- reawakened that question that was asked of John Kennedy, at least covertly 40 years ago -- would he take the Pope's line on public policy issues. And it was I think a fairly nonsensical ill-grounded question then and it is a nonsensical and ill-grounded question now.
JIM LEHRER: You don't think a person's religious beliefs should be a factor at all in making a decision when voting?
SAMUEL FREEDMAN: I think that it is part of what makes Joe Lieberman a person. But it is also important to remember that he's been a political figure who represented a state that's largely non-Jewish and probably has a fly speck of orthodox Jewry in his constituency. He's not someone who represents a very small city council district or Congressional district where almost all of the population or a majority of the voting population is orthodox and you could win reelection by just addressing those narrow issues. He represents a very polyglot state -- a state that's WASPY, a state that has a lot of ethnic Catholics, a state that has a lot of suburbanized, secularized Jews. And so it is clear by the record he's put down already in Congress, that he's not just towing some orthodox line, as if one existed.
JIM LEHRER: Let me just go to Professor Wald, because we have to leave this. Do you agree then that nobody, whether they are a non-Jew or non-orthodox Jew should have any concerns at all about Senator Lieberman's religious views?
KENNETH WALD: Oh, I think there's no question that he's perfectly capable of being Vice President, and, if the circumstance demands it, being President. I think that his broad religious values -- compassion, social justice and so forth -- are a part of his makeup, but they don't really speak to specific policy questions. For those, I think he'll draw on a variety of sources.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Gentlemen, thank you all three very much.