The Orthodox Jew and the Vice Presidency

Editor’s Note:Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., has been named Al Gore’s running mate. Earlier this year, Judith Shulevitz explained whether a “Shomer Shabbas” Jew could serve as vice president. 

Could an Orthodox Jew serve as president of the United States? The question isn’t strictly Talmudic anymore, since the name of an Orthodox Jew has cropped up on Democratic vice presidential candidate short-lists. Sen. Joseph Lieberman–who is clearly a long shot–is a Democrat from Connecticut whose presumed appeal for Gore lies in his right-of-center politics, his religious commitment (which makes him attractive to social conservatives), and his early condemnation of Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky (which would help Gore distance himself from the president’s perceived moral turpitude). But Lieberman is also what Jews call “Shomer Shabbas”–he observes the rules that say what a Jew can and can’t do between sunset Friday night and sunset Saturday night. Among the many things he can’t do: drive or be driven, turn lights on or off, talk on the telephone, operate anything powered by electricity, or write.

According to the Weekly Standard, Lieberman’s embrace of these religious restrictions would probably disqualify him from the vice presidency. At the very least, writes reporter Matthew Rees, they “would provoke questions about his ability to govern in the event he became president.” But if there are questions, there must be answers. Culturebox called her own rabbi, professors of Talmud at two leading Jewish universities, and Sen. Lieberman himself to find out what those questions and answers would be.

Let’s start at the beginning. Why are so many things forbidden on the Jewish Sabbath? The Sabbath is much more important in Judaism than is generally understood. You’d think the Sabbath would be a routine event, coming as it does every seventh day, but the Jews consider the Sabbath to be more sacred than any holiday except Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement. Also, contrary to popular belief, the Sabbath isn’t entirely a day of rest. All productivity must cease and all worldly pursuits must be set aside, but less for one’s personal restoration than for the active contemplation of the wonders of God’s creation–the chief wonders being, in Judaism, the family, the community, and Torah, or the Pentateuch and its commentaries. To ensure that the Sabbath finds Jews in the proper frame of mind, they are enjoined from doing or handling anything that might distract them from the higher purpose of honoring God and all he has made.

Given these restrictions, how has Lieberman been able to function as a senator? In his 11 years in the U.S. Senate, Lieberman told Culturebox, he has always voted when required to do so on Friday night or Saturday, and has also attended all emergency White House meetings held on the Sabbath. To do this, he walks to the Capitol or White House (which is to say, he does not accept a ride, which would be forbidden). Luckily for him, senators vote by voice, not by pushing a button (so that he doesn’t have to operate machinery).

No matter how many technical rules he obeys, he would appear to be violating the spirit of the Sabbath, according to which one must refrain from work. How does he get away with it? There are two answers to this: 1) In Judaism, as opposed to, say, Catholicism, there is no clear authority or doctrine. Jews are left to draw their own conclusions based on their readings of Jewish law, with help from their local rabbis. 2) In consultation with his rabbis, Lieberman has concluded that while it would be counter to the spirit of the Sabbath to engage in what he calls “politics”–i.e., photo ops or any other kind of campaigning–it is in keeping with the Sabbath to fulfill what he calls his “governmental or public responsibility.” He explains: “You come to a point where you have to decide whether your rigid observance of the ritual puts you in a position of failing to uphold an ethical value that is also central to your religion.”

But if he isn’t observing the Sabbath as strictly as he could be, should Sen. Lieberman still be considered an Orthodox Jew? According to two professors of Talmud at Yeshiva University, an Orthodox college, Lieberman’s choice to perform his duties as a government official on the Sabbath when he’s required to do so can be reconciled with the strictest construction of Jewish law. Lieberman is granted an exemption from the Sabbath’s enforced idleness on the basis of two concepts: pikuach nefesh, roughly translated from Hebrew as “regard for human life,” and tzorchei tzibbur, or “the needs of the community.”

Under pikuach nefesh, a Jew may profane the Sabbath if human life is at stake, as it may sometimes be in Senate legislation. Tzorchei tzibbur says that Jews are allowed to make decisions that affect the entire community on the Sabbath–they just can’t make ones that affect them or their family alone. Everything Lieberman allows himself to do, these rabbis say, is covered by one of those two concepts. (It should be noted that pikuach nefesh has traditionally been understood as pertaining only to Jewish life, but rabbinical rulings in the second half of this century have extended it to non-Jews, mainly on the grounds that to save only the lives of Jews under pikuach nefesh would get the goyim so upset that Jewish lives would be put at risk.)

So, is there anything he couldn’t do as vice president, or as a vice presidential candidate? Asked about his vice-presidential prospects, Lieberman was careful to issue “the standard disqualification, which is sincerely expressed,” that he didn’t expect to be named vice-president, nor was he seeking the position. However, he said, he wanted to clear up any misunderstanding about what a religiously observant person could or could not do in an executive office. Lieberman says that, as a hypothetical vice president, he would balance his duties with the demands of the Sabbath much as he has balanced them as senator: “I feel I’ve reached a conclusion on these questions that I’m comfortable with.” He would not campaign or perform any other strictly political duties. He would, however, vote in the Senate if he was needed to break a tie and he would meet with world leaders or members of the Cabinet–“I’d try to schedule them some other time, but if something needed to be done, I’d do it.”

What if he had to travel to meet them? “I’d try to avoid it, but if I had to ride, I’d ride.” 

And in the case of an emergency? Lieberman refused to speculate about anything as dire as a president’s incapacitation: “I’m so far down the chain of hypotheticals, I’m going to let you draw your own conclusion.” But presumably he would be allowed to do just about anything he had to under the rule of pikuach nefesh–including being sworn in as president should anything happen to the president and pushing the button to launch a nuclear attack.

What if something came up on the Sabbath which wasn’t a life-or-death emergency, but which he really ought to take care of then and there? Yeshiva professor of Talmud J. David Bleich says Lieberman would be allowed to delegate just about any urgent but non-lifesaving  task to a non-Jew, as long as it was also on behalf of non-Jews. A Jew is forbidden to ask a non-Jew to do something for him on the Sabbath that he wouldn’t do for himself (in other words, a Jew is not allowed to have a Shabbas goy, even though many do) but “to personally give directions to non-Jews for the benefit of non-Jews is permissible,” says Bleich. This rule would cover anything that could be construed as for the good of American citizens, since the majority of them are not Jewish.

Photograph of Joseph Lieberman by Tim Sloan/AFP. Photograph of Sen. Lieberman on Slate’s Table of Contents by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters.