The Gospel According to Joe

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Joseph Lieberman, the most senior member of Connecticut’s congressional delegation, is nearing the end of his third, and what he has said is his final, term in the U.S. Senate. Elected twice as a Democrat, in his last race, in 2006, Sen. Lieberman lost his bid for re-election in the Democratic primary. Less than a month after that stinging defeat, his campaign officially filed paperwork allowing the former 2000 Democratic nominee for vice president to collect signatures under the “Connecticut for Lieberman” Party.

Critics contend Old Joe is really a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and that his vocal support of the Iraq war, endorsement of Sen. John McCain for president in 2008 and countless appearances on conservative media shows belie his membership in the Democratic Party — from which he never resigned, even while running as a third-party candidate.

Through it all, one of the Senate’s more affable members has remained consistent on at least one thing: Being shomer Shabbat, or Sabbath observant.

In his most recent book, The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath, (Howard Books /Simon & Schuster; $26; 236 pp), Lieberman lays out the case for why observing Shabbat isn’t as much about recharging one’s batteries as it is recharging one’s soul. As arguably the country’s most famous observer of this commandment, the senator details the refuge he and his wife Hadassah retreat to after candle lighting on Fridays — “Shabbatland” — and how people of all faiths can draw strength by withdrawing from life’s frenetic pace, if only for a day.

Given the criticism Lieberman has endured throughout the last decade of his political life — from friend and foe alike — it stands to reason why Shabbatland is such a refuge.

RT: After authoring half a dozen books, we’re surprised you didn’t pen this sooner. Was there a reason you waited until now to spread the gospel of Shabbat?

JL: This is something that has been building in me for years. Actually, about three or four years ago, I said to my dear friend Rabbi Menachem Ganack, “I would really like to write a book about Shabbat because it means so much to me, and I want to convey that to people.” And I think it has broader applications because people are working so hard regardless of their religion.

RT: Many people, including many Jews, can’t fathom “going dark” for 25 hours by disconnecting from technology. What are those who have yet to try it missing out on?

JL: Well, this is part of the problem because in the electronic information age, our work never leaves us. It’s always as close as the cell phone, Blackberry or the iPad, and the danger is that everybody is always working, not stopping to get perspective on what they’re doing and renewing themselves to do it better in the days ahead.
It also has the salutary and humbling effect of making clear to me that the world actually can get by without me for 24 hours a week and, if the world really needs me, it will find me.

RT: You’re an FFB (frum from birth); was there ever a period where you questioned keeping Shabbat?

JL: When I went to college, I stopped observing Shabbat, but I came back to it after I got married and started raising a family and haven’t left it since. I consider it to be a gift. The original donor of the “gift of rest” was God, but the immediate donors were my parents, of blessed memory, who put me on this track.

RT: Why is the notion of an observant Jew seemingly so novel to the chattering class while little attention is paid by many to the born-again GOP’s near requisite demand to give it up for Jesus?

JL: The reality is that observant Jews are still a minority in the Jewish community. For a long time, observant Jews tended not to be involved in politics as much. But I think this will now change, that increasing numbers of observant Jews will become involved in every phase of American life, including government.

RT: There was some kibitzing in the press when, in your book, you touch upon the notion of the “double mitzvah,” or the precept of knowing your wife, biblically, on Shabbat. Are we (the press) just a bunch of horny eighth-graders?

JL: I hope that one of the accomplishments of the book is that the reader becomes my “guest” and travels with me through a Sabbath day. I hope that one of the things people discover is that Sabbath is not just a somber day of prayer but is full of joy, family gatherings and food and wine. And, according to rabbinic tradition, it’s a wonderful time for couples to be together sexually.

RT: Do you think Eric Cantor would accommodate your request to help make a minyan?

JL: Well, Eric Cantor and I are friends, and I’m sure that if I asked him to come to a minyan, he would come.

RT: How long after you break-the-fast does Hadassah get on you to put up the sukkah?

JL: Almost immediately! But usually action is taken by the next day.

RT: Lastly, would we find you at “Kiddush club” during the Haftorah reading?

JL: No more. I’ve repented, and I delay the Kiddush until after the service is fully done.

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