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Walking The Walk

Lieberman's faith has been so central to his life that even his political foes know to respect it

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It was almost exactly two years ago, at that moment in the Lewinsky matter when Bill Clinton was making his sweatiest dodges about "inappropriate" behavior, that Bill Bennett, the saturnine Republican, phoned Joe Lieberman, the deeply religious Democrat. For several years Lieberman had been Bennett's partner in a fight against Jerry Springer, blood-spurting video games, Marilyn Manson and the general run of rap lyrics. Now Bennett wanted Lieberman to speak to Clinton. "You need to tell him to resign," he said, "because you're Nathan."

Nathan? Bennett, a devout Roman Catholic, knew that Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew deeply immersed in the Bible, did not need to be reminded that Nathan was the prophet sent by God to upbraid King David for inappropriate behavior with Bathsheba. "I thought [Lieberman] was the closest thing in the Senate to an Old Testament prophet," says Bennett.

So does Al Gore. That's one reason Lieberman found himself in Nashville last week being introduced by Gore as his running mate. Quite a stretch from four years ago, when Lieberman spoke at the Democratic Convention but was wrongly introduced as a Senator from New Jersey. There's a funny political symmetry at work this year. The Republicans threw a Democratic Convention, all about compassion and tolerance and inclusiveness. Now the Democrats have a vice-presidential candidate who talks about God as eagerly as any evangelical Republican. Lieberman describes himself as an "observant Jew." Those are words that just begin to describe how thoroughly he tries to match his understandings of the world to his understandings of the Bible. Lieberman is not only the first Jewish vice-presidential candidate but also an Orthodox Jew--or "Modern Orthodox," to use the term that describes Jews steeped in biblical studies yet, more than the ultra-Orthodox, inclined to believe in living thoroughly in the here and now.

The world doesn't get more here and now than a presidential campaign. So the next few months will go beyond merely testing how well Lieberman can conduct a full campaign when he can't ride in a car or talk on a telephone on the Jewish Sabbath, which runs from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. What will really be tested is what happens to Gore's campaign with the addition of a man like Lieberman, a Democrat who was happy to mention God more than a dozen times in the first minute of that Nashville rally. Gore really did gamble in his choice of running mate. Simply because he's Jewish, Lieberman could be too Jewish for the anti-Semites. And simply because he's so fervently religious, he could be too religious for some parts of the Democratic vote.

"Religion is what drives the man," says Rabbi Barry Freundel, Lieberman's spiritual adviser in Washington. "His religious values shape the way he functions as a Senator." But if Lieberman possesses the tragic sense that's one of Judaism's hard-earned cultural gifts to Western civilization, he has managed to subordinate it to an all-American contentment. "I grew up in a multiethnic, multiracial, multireligious community, and I was lucky," Lieberman told TIME last week. "I cannot remember a single instance of anti-Semitism in my youth. That undoubtedly is why I'm so optimistic about the country and about people judging me fairly."

Lieberman's piety has made him so attractive to Christian conservative leaders that not even Jerry Falwell could find a bad word to say about him last week. Dan Coats, a former Republican Senator from Indiana and an evangelical Christian, has been a good friend of Lieberman's since the time in 1991 when the two men found themselves seated together as part of a congressional delegation on an overnight flight to Kuwait. When dawn broke, they discovered they shared similar morning rituals. Lieberman read from the Torah, Coats from the Psalms. "Our faith," says Coats, "is the common denominator to finding common ground."

Lieberman's easy resort to the language of faith does not go down so badly with some of the most liberal Democrats either. "We've conceded too much of the values debate," says Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone. "I think you move people based on their sense of right or wrong, and that gets back to core values. And that's Joe's strength." But some of the Democratic Party's big Hollywood donors, the ones who are expected to reopen their checkbooks at the convention in Los Angeles this week, are not so sure. It was Lieberman, after all, who with Bennett handed out "Silver Sewer" awards, booby prizes for the media companies that produced the skankiest cultural merchandise.

You don't have to be religious to hold Jerry Springer and Marilyn Manson in contempt, but it's especially easy to see how Lieberman's fight against them grows out of his religious scruples. It's harder sometimes to be sure how Lieberman decides which other issues are ones that his beliefs compel him to act upon. In his new book, In Praise of Public Life, he complains that society has gone too far in "normalizing" divorce. But his earlier marriage ended when his first two children were barely teens. And while he has said he believes life begins at conception, he remains pro-choice on abortion.

In an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal last week, Michael Medved, a conservative radio host and film critic who is an Orthodox Jew, denounced Lieberman for saying on Larry King Live that abortion is a "matter of personal judgment. And like everything else in Judaism, ultimately it's up to each of us to decide what we think is right." By no means, Medved said, and accused Lieberman of trying to adapt his Orthodox faith to the squishy moral relativism that he thinks is abroad in secular society. "On abortion, gay rights, integrated barracks for male and female soldiers, and a host of other issues," Medved wrote, "Lieberman's political positions undeniably diverge from Orthodox Jewish teaching."

And while Bennett may compare him to an Old Testament prophet, Lieberman could be a reluctant one, even during the Lewinsky matter. When he made his now famous speech on the Senate floor denouncing Clinton's behavior as immoral, he stopped short of calling for the President to resign. And when the issue of removing Clinton from office finally came before the Senate, Lieberman voted against it. Maybe he knew that the prophet Nathan, after condemning King David in the most ferocious terms, assured him that God would not take his crown or his life. Bennett shrugs. "[Lieberman] got as close as he could."

Though Lieberman's faith has deepened over the years, he was Orthodox from birth, the eldest of three children raised in a devout household in Stamford, Conn., where his father owned a liquor store. In high school, he was so observant that although his classmates voted him king of the prom, he wasn't there to take his throne beside the queen that night--the prom was held on the Jewish Sabbath.

Lieberman arrived at Yale in 1960, where he eventually became chief editor of the Yale Daily News. Three years later, while working as a summer intern in the Washington office of Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff, he met his first wife Betty. They had two children--Matt and Rebecca--but by 1981 their 16-year marriage was over. In his book Lieberman writes that while there was "no single reason" for the failure of the marriage, "some of it was related to the fact that I had become much more religiously observant ... And there is no doubt that some of it was caused by the demands my political career put on our private life."

His political career moved fast. Not long after he graduated from Yale Law School--student and then family deferments kept him out of the Vietnam draft--he decided, as everybody had always expected he would, to run for office. (At Yale they called him "Senator.") He was elected first to the Connecticut state legislature, which required him to knock off a maverick fellow Democrat in the primary. An early shot at Congress was a bust; he tried for it in 1980, when Ronald Reagan's coattails suffocated Democrats everywhere. But two years later he was elected state attorney general, which gave him the chance to make a name for himself on consumer issues. By 1988 he was ready for the Senate race, in which he beat Lowell Weicker, Connecticut's most famously independent Republican.

By that time he was five years into his second marriage, one that friends say confirmed him in his impulse to become more observant. Hadassah Lieberman's father was a rabbi in Czechoslovakia. Both her parents were Holocaust survivors. A graduate of Stern College, the women's school of Orthodox Yeshiva University in New York City, she helps raise money for women's health care in Israel and keeps a kosher household, with separate plates for meat and dairy dishes. The Liebermans met in a very old-fashioned Jewish way: through a matchmaker. "Religion centers me," Hadassah told TIME last week. "It makes me prioritize my life. I know there is something out there, and we feel humbled." All the same, just days into the campaign she is already wary of appearing too pious. "There are a lot of people who find their centering in various ways," she says. "I'm not suggesting it has to be through God. I'm saying that's what works for us. And we'll share that with the whole country."

If Lieberman is elected, his observance of the Sabbath would not have to interfere with government duties. Jewish law permits exceptions in some cases. He is prohibited from riding in cars on that day, and there are many stories of his walking long distances in Washington to cast important Senate votes on a Saturday. (He and Hadassah once walked miles in the rain to attend the wedding of his driver.) "If you have an opportunity to help people on the Sabbath, that overrides the normal prohibitions," he told TIME. "When I was [Connecticut] attorney general, they always knew on a holy day they could call me for decisions or ask me to sign papers."

But there's no dispensation for purely political events, so Sabbath campaign appearances are out. Lieberman was not present when Connecticut's state Democratic Party met on a Saturday in 1982 to nominate him for attorney general. His observance of the Sabbath may have cost him four years earlier, when he failed to attend the party convention, then lost in a contest to be nominated as lieutenant governor, a loss some say was due in part to his absence from the hall. The prize went to William O'Neill, who went on not only to be elected but also to assume the governorship when Ella Grasso died in office.

Early last Monday morning, soon after Lieberman and his wife heard on television that he had been chosen as Gore's running mate, they joined their daughter Hana and Lieberman's 85-year-old mother Marcia around the breakfast table. Lieberman offered a homemade prayer in Hebrew. "We thank God for this miracle upon us, through a wonderful person like Al Gore and through God's will." The family repeated the prayer in English, says Marcia, "just so we could hear it again. God was smiling on us." If the smiles keep coming and if the Gore-Lieberman ticket wins, it will be interesting to see how the new Vice President deals with the problem of his own Inauguration, which is required by the 20th Amendment to the Constitution to occur on Jan. 20. Next year, as it happens, that date falls on a Saturday. --Reported by Ann Blackman, Jay Branegan, Elaine Shannon and Karen Tumulty/Washington


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Cover Date: August 21, 2000

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