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Q & A with… Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman: New book reflects on gift that is Shabbat

Jewish Ledger | 9-2-11

By Judie Jacobson ~

WASHINGTON, D.C. – As a busy U.S. Senator, Joe Lieberman knows how hectic life can be; as an observant Jew, he knows that the Sabbath is a gift that has anchored and inspired him over many decades. In his new book “The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath, Lieberman describes how keeping the Sabbath can enhance the lives of men and women of all faiths.
Co-written with David Klinghoffer, an author and a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, “The Gift of Rest” serves as a personal and political memoir that combines religious reflection with practical suggestions for introducing the Sabbath into one’s own life.
Lieberman will discuss his new book when he opens the Mandell JCC’s 2011-2012 Jewish Book Festival series on Tuesday, Nov. 15 at 7:30 p.m.
Recently, the Ledger spoke with Connecticut’s senior Senator about his new book.

Do you think that writing this book is part of the introspection that comes with ending a chapter in your life, given that you will be retiring from the Senate at the end of this term? 
A: There’s probably some connection. It’s something I’ve thought about doing for a long time because of how important the Sabbath has been to me. I do view it as a gift and I think it’s important for everybody to think about adding more Sabbath to their lives, because we’re all so busy all day with our electronics.
I think I did it now for two immediate reasons: one is a particular rabbi, Rabbi Menachem Genack from New York and New Jersey, whom I study with regularly.  I told him once I wanted to do this and he kept nudging me, so ultimately I did it. The second reason is even more practical:  I announced in January that I’m not running again. There were a couple of years before that, though I hadn’t yet decided I wasn’t running, that I wasn’t doing some of the things that one would do if one were running that take a lot of time – like running around the country raising money for a campaign.  It gave me a lot of extra time to work on the book.

You mentioned that you’ve been studying with Rabbi Genack.  Have you always been engaged in some sort of Jewish study?
A: Well, I try to. I try every morning after prayers to study a little something –whether it’s the Torah portion of the week or reading from some scholar or sometimes reading from Jewish history.  And, of course, on Shabbat itself there’s also a lot of studying that goes on in the synagogue that I belong to.  Rabbi Genack and I got to know each other about 10 years ago and I said I’d really like to learn with you. So we’ve been doing it over the phone, usually on Friday, and it’s been very helpful to me.

You call the book a “rediscovery” of Shabbat.  What makes it a “rediscovery” for people who’ve never observed Shabbat before?
A:  I hope the book will lead individuals – but also in some ways I’m thinking about the country – to rediscover the beauty and the importance of the Sabbath.  When I grew up in Stamford most of the stores were closed on Sunday, because the Blue Laws were in effect, and most of my friends were Christian. They were expected to go to church with their families and then be home for the Sabbath meal.  It was just a different day, and I say that in a positive way.  So I hope people will see that I’m writing the book not just for Jewish readers but for readers of any other faith, or of no faith at all.  The book is really an invitation to the reader to come with me through a typical Sabbath according to traditional Jewish practice.
At the end of every chapter I have a page or sometimes a little more that I call “Simple Beginnings,” and it’s suggestions to the reader of steps they can take, some of them religious some of them not religious, to bring step-by-step a little more of the Sabbath into their lives.  For example, one of the religious ones is something traditional Jews do every Friday night – and it’s really something beautiful – to bless their children with the traditional priestly benediction.  And other ways that are very nonreligious but that have become customs of Sabbath observance – like the custom in observant Jewish families for the husband to bring flowers home on Friday; or how important it is to turn off your cell phone or your ipad. For me, as I say in the book, that’s probably the hardest thing I have to do on Friday.  I admit I’m addicted to the BlackBerry, but once I do it’s really liberating. So I urge people to do that.  I myself don’t wear a watch on Shabbat – that’s my own custom just to make a difference from every other day of the week.

Were you always a Sabbath observer?
A:  I was raised in a Sabbath observant family. When I went to college, as I describe in the book, I did something that was probably according to script – I stopped observing. Then, in my last year of law school my grandmother died – my mother’s mother. She lived with us and was a very important person in my life and I think part of what happened was that I felt my grandmother – whom I called Baba – was my link to the history of Judaism – she was a link in the chain of historic Judaism and now that she was gone I really had a choice to make as to whether I wanted to be a strong link in the chain.  I did. And so I started to come back to Sabbath observance. By the time I got into public life, elected to my first office as a state senator in 1970, I was observing Shabbat and trying to combine my public life with my observance. I talk a lot about that in the book.

During the course of your political career have you had any issues with observance – did you have to violate at any time the Sabbath because of the demands of your office?
A: When I first started out as state senator and people would invite me to things on Friday night or Saturday night and I would say I couldn’t come they would either be puzzled or sometimes get angry.  But when they saw that, one, I was doing it for religious reasons and, two, I was doing it consistently, people understood and have been very accepting and respectful.
I’ve always said that, from my own knowledge and reading of Jewish law about the Sabbath, and my own set of values about what the Sabbath means, I would not be involved in political activity on the Sabbath. So when the conventions were on Saturday I haven’t gone. But I would never fail to carry out a responsibility on the Sabbath that I couldn’t delegate to someone else. In the book I devote a whole chapter on when I had to make the choice. There are times that really effect people’s lives – such as the important budget debates that took place on a Saturday, or sometimes a debate about a war or national security – when ultimately I believe it’s my religious obligation to make an exception to my normal Sabbath practice. Because the Sabbath to me is all about honoring God’s creation and, therefore, honoring life, and if I’m in a position to protect the well-being of the community that I serve and I don’t do it because of the Sabbath, then I would feel that I was doing something wrong.
In other words, when there’s a conflict between the protection and betterment of life and the specific religious law or prohibition of the Sabbath then I give the benefit of the doubt to life, and I think that’s what both the Talmud and the Torah tell me to do.

Do you think it would have helped calm the waters in the recent battle over the debt ceiling if everyone took a Sabbath-type break?
A: Well, in a way people will laugh at the question, but my answer is “yes.”  The reason is, when Shabbat comes it creates a separation between the six days of work and the seventh day – it gives you time and space to be with your family, to be with God, to be within yourself, to get perspective. And that perspective can help you the other six days of the week when you’re dealing with a crisis like the debt ceiling.
The other reason is that one of the lessons that I’ve learned from my Sabbath observance is that the world can do without me for a day and if the world really needs me the world will find me and I’ll do what I have to do.  There’s a healthy dose of humility there that any member of Congress can use.  Maybe we would have done a better job with the debt ceiling then. Someone said to me last week that they thought it would be great if all political candidates, including Presidential candidates, took one day off a week because the country really needs a rest.

The book is geared for the non-observant. Do you think there’s a message here for Jews who are already Sabbath observant?
A: Observant Jews maybe will read it out of identity with me as an observant Jew, maybe as an affirmation; maybe to see how I have resolved some of the conflicts we all have between observance and other challenges. As for non-observant Jews or people of other faiths, I don’t expect anyone to read it and say ‘Okay, I’m taking the day off.’  I want people to know not only what I don’t do on Shabbat – that is, I don’t work – but also what observant Jews do do on Shabbat; that while the Sabbath has some serious parts to it – prayer, for example – there is also a lot of joy and relaxation on the Sabbath.  It’s a very happy day and people look forward to it.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you at least one political question. Can you comment on the current volatile situation unfolding along the border between Israel and Egypt, regarding Gaza?  Do you think the U.S. can or should step in? 
A: This is a very unsettling situation. To me – and I’m speaking now based on experience not on any intelligence that I’ve seen – the attack on Eilat and general activity from Hamas and Gaza is being stimulated by Iran, because Hamas has effectively become a client and a proxy of Iran. Given the changes that are occurring in the Arab world – particularly with Syria, Iran’s number one ally, where Asad seems to be on the ropes at least – I think Iran wants to create another front here and show that it still has power to create problems. The other problem is that while, in my opinion, none of this is being stimulated by the Egyptian military, the military is somewhat distracted because they’re both running the country and maintaining order within the country.
I think the most effective thing the U.S. can do, because we have pretty good relations between our military and the Egyptian military, is to urge them to acknowledge this threat on their northern border, Israel’s southern border – and they’ve begun to do this – and to work on their own and with Israel to improve security there. That’s a unique role that the U.S. can play. My impression is that, generally speaking, the two militaries of Israel and Egypt are continuing to talk with one another. Neither one wants to get into a fight over something that is essentially being started by enemies of both – Hamas. The good news is that Israel is strong, the U.S.. is strong, and hopefully the Egyptians will use their strength to protect stability and security in that very sensitive part of the world.

Tickets to Senator Lieberman’s talk at the Mandell JCC will go on sale beginning Sept. 6.   For tickets or more information call (860) 231-6316 or visit www.mandelljcc.org.

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