article

12.14.09

Joe, Start Acting Jewish!

As Democrats give in to his health-care demands, Lee Siegel says Lieberman's position runs counter to his Jewish faith: he should stop stonewalling and be a mensch.

With Democrats forgoing a Medicare buy-in, Lieberman says he's " ready to vote for health-care reform." Lee Siegel on why the senator should stop stonewalling and start acting Jewish.

Joe Lieberman’s vow to vote against any health-care bill that includes the Medicare buy-in reminded me of a story once told me by a Jewish girl I dated in my teens.

A kind person, she had volunteered as a “candy-striper” in a hospital. One day, as she was pushing an elderly Orthodox Jewish man down the hospital corridor, he asked her if she was Jewish. Yes, I am, she said. Stop for a minute, he said. Come around and let me look at you. So she stopped pushing him and carefully locked the wheels. Then she stood in front of him. He took in her cute little candy-striper’s uniform and squinted at the top of her head, which happened to be uncovered, and he said, “You’re Jewish?” “Yes,” she said sweetly. He emitted a sound of disgust. “You’re not Jewish!” he said with repugnance, almost spitting the words out.

The advantage of a fundamentalist perspective is that you can clothe your basest motives in noble sentiments.

The strongest force driving Lieberman’s destructive contrariness is a religious fundamentalism that is fatally removed from moral sentiment. His absolute certainty that he is right makes him absolutely blind to what's wrong.

Benjamin Sarlin: How Joe Became a Holdout Sure, Lieberman’s heart has its other reasons. Most obviously there are his intimate ties to the insurance industry, based in his home state of Connecticut. Lieberman’s defenders like to say that he has “only” received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the insurance companies over the last few years. What they don’t say is that he has received more than twice as much from the real-estate industry. Since companies often have both real-estate and insurance divisions, it must be hard to distinguish what is coming from where. Make no mistake about it, Joe Lieberman is the insurance industry’s white knight. He has to be extra nice to them especially now, when Democratic opposition to any future political bids will be fiercer than ever. He’ll need a fortune to fight it. And watch as Lieberman makes stronger and stronger public statements in support of the war in Afghanistan and as he escalates his verbal attacks on Iran. Lieberman has to keep the Israel lobby money pouring in, too.

Add to the need for lucre Lieberman’s rage against the Democratic Party for abandoning him in his race for the Senate in 2006, and—above all—the ego-wound apparently inflicted on him by Harry Reid when Reid endorsed Lieberman’s opponent, Ned Lamont, for the Senate that year. Lieberman likes his revenge not cold but piping hot.

All these sound like plausible motives for turning against a feature of the health-care plan that Lieberman himself has said in the past he would support. But his amoral religiosity is what has truly deformed him.

During the past decade or so, there has been a rising panic over the growing influence of fundamentalist Christian precepts on modern American politics, but no one has said very much about Joe Lieberman’s fundamentalist Judaism. Although he prefers to call himself an “observant” rather than an “Orthodox” Jew, he is in fact an Orthodox Jew. His approach to modern life is just as uninflected as that of his Christian counterparts.

Sure, he has proved himself flexible on issues like gun-control, gay rights and abortion—all instances where he has taken a standard liberal position. But these aren’t subjects that arouse Lieberman’s passions. What really sends him soaring are issues—health care, Israel—that are, at the same time, loftily resonant with moral meaning and directly related to his material self-interest. The advantage of a fundamentalist perspective is that you can clothe your basest motives in noble sentiments.

So Lieberman, the Orthodox Jew who ostentatiously walks miles to Capitol Hill on the Sabbath because of the Jewish prohibition against operating machinery on the seventh day, has provided himself with some very pious blinders. An American war in Iraq will be futile, wasteful, and ultimately destabilizing? This rational skepticism cannot hold a candle to the feeling that it would be just. A public health-care option, or a Medicare buy-in will solve the problem of unaffordable health care in this country? The rational proposition sinks under the weight of the feeling that it will increase the deficit, and if it doesn’t add to the deficit, it will set us on the road to single-payer serfdom, and if it doesn’t do that, well, you feel it’s wrong.

You don’t doubt the morality of your feeling, because you have used your strict, self-sacrificing observance of Jewish law to prove to yourself that you are a good man. And you are not a hypocrite, because your observance proves that not only do you profess a belief in God, but you act on your belief. God on one side, your obedience to God on the other—the result is an ironclad conviction that what you do is absolutely right.

And if you get a big fat check from the insurance lobby on the one hand, and the Israel lobby on the other, well, this the tribute that reality pays to virtue. An impoverished man cannot work effectively against God’s enemies on earth. Any thought that trading a moral position for money might be wrong bends before the feeling that it is right. And if you’re doing well, you must be doing good.

Here is Lieberman on his intention to run against Ned Lamont as an independent candidate should he lose the Democratic primary: "I'm a loyal Democrat, but I have loyalties that are greater than those to my party, and that's my loyalty to my state and my country.” Lieberman on his decision to run as an independent after losing the primary: "For the sake of our state, our country, and my party, I cannot and will not let that result stand." This is Lieberman’s fundamentalist sickness in a nutshell. He has completely submerged his self-interest in a divine will that he has created in the image of his self-interest. “For the sake of God’s will…”—just fill in the blank with your favorite cause. And then wait for someone else to fill out the check.

The professional Jews will whine that I am being vulgar when I judge the Jewish Lieberman’s politics against his faith. But Lieberman is the one who professes his faith to be fundamental to his morality. I am just examining the effects of his faith on his psychology.

Let me appear to be even more vulgar. What makes Jews cringe about Lieberman’s sanctimonious opposition to the only clause in the health-care bill that actually is worth the name “reform” is that, to be blunt, it is so close to an anti-Semitic caricature. Lieberman is greedy, arrogant, venal, and vindictive. He recalls the New Testament’s vicious caricature of the ancient Jewish Pharisees—who were, in reality, rational, charitable and humane.

I grew up surrounded by non-religious Jews who were guided by the principle of rachmones, meaning “compassion.” They were guided by feeling, too, but it was not the absolute certitude of fundamentalist feeling. Rather, it was the feeling that life changes fast, and that people are vulnerable. They were gentle and ironic people. They liked this Yiddish saying: “God loves the poor, but helps the rich.” They probably lost more than they won in life, but they never fooled themselves into thinking that they were doing good when they were merely doing well.

Let the professional Jews quote the Talmud at me, but the way Lieberman has derived his political morality from his religious fundamentalism, and used both as fig leaves to cover his thralldom to money, is ritually unclean. Some people—for example, the sick and the crippled—might say that it is really not Jewish at all.

Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.