The sensation surrounding the elevation of Senator Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, to a national ticket lies less in the noun than in the adjective: Jews in American public life are old news; Orthodox Jews are not.
Had Al Gore chosen, say, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin or Senator Dianne Feinstein, there would have been a stir about a barrier broken. But just a stir. It would not have been much of a barrier. After all, how much of a fuss was there about Jewishness when Richard Nixon made Henry Kissinger Secretary of State?
Secular Jews, for whom Jewishness is little more than a form of ethnicity, identity or perhaps just racial memory, have long been accepted in the American mainstream. Why, Jerry Seinfeld--the quintessential nominal Jew who quite cheerfully acknowledges his Jewishness but finds it so devoid of meaning that it plays no role whatsoever in his life--became the most popular figure in American popular culture. The embrace of Jews is so thorough that Irving Kristol once noted wryly regarding the alarming rates of Jewish assimilation, "The problem is that they don't want to persecute us, they want to marry us."
This embrace of the secularized Jew has not, however, extended to the Orthodox. Orthodox Jews tend still to be seen by the mainstream as eccentric, even alien. Ironically, this cultural allergy is particularly acute among nominal Jews like Woody Allen, in whose films the Orthodox Jew is invariably a bearded, black-hatted buffoon.
Enter Joe Lieberman: beardless, hatless, witty, worldly, thoroughly modern, almost hip. This is Orthodox? Yes. And because it is, his ascension to the national stage will effect a demystification of Jewishness.
What will he do if a war breaks out on the Sabbath? the comedians asked. The answer is simple: he will break every ritual prohibition he needs to. Jewish law, the comedians and others are learning, not only permits it. Jewish law requires it.
They will learn that the rabbis seized upon an otherwise innocuous passage in Leviticus--God instructing the Israelites to observe his commandments and "live by them"--as an injunction not to die by them, and thus a subordination of all ritual to the higher value of preserving life.
This realization undermines the centuries-old myth of Judaism as severe and unforgiving, a slave of Pharisaic ritual, as opposed to the grace and charity of its progeny religion. Lieberman will not dethrone Shylock, still the single most influential Jewish figure in Western culture, for whom the law is pitiless law. But Lieberman's prominence and practice will illuminate the little-appreciated fact that Rabbinic Judaism is an attempt to take a very stark document--the Bible--and, by interpretation and adaptation, make it habitable for fallible human beings.
The most famous example concerns the death penalty. It appears rather promiscuously in the Bible. The Talmud, however, constructs such difficult evidentiary requirements and such extraordinary protections against miscarried justice that the rabbis termed a high court that executes one person in seven years "tyrannical." Another authority, continues the Talmud, says one person in 70 years.