Lieberman stirs interest in holy days

Friday, September 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

As Rosh Hashana starts, many explore traditions

By Jeffrey Weiss / The Dallas Morning News

The Jewish High Holy Days haven't attracted this much attention in America since Sandy Koufax decided not to pitch.

Mr. Koufax, star pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, pulled himself from the rotation during the heat of the 1965 pennant race and again for a game of the World Series. Instead of playing baseball, he took time off for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year; and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 10 days later.

This year, the pitching is political and the "star" is the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Sen. Joe Lieberman. He'll take a two-day break from a neck-and-neck national campaign, starting with Friday's sundown start of Rosh Hashana. And he'll leave the battle again 10 days later for Yom Kippur.

Some non-Jews are asking questions about what these holidays represent and why they are so important. So are some Jews, inspired by the observant Mr. Lieberman into deeper exploration of their faith and its traditions. And some rabbis and educators are trying to figure out how to best use "the Lieberman bounce" to advance their own missions.

Rabbi Elon Sunshine of Congregation Shearith Israel in Dallas plans to mention Mr. Lieberman in his sermon Friday night.

"Here is somebody in the public eye who can take his Judaism seriously," he said of Mr. Lieberman. "The question for us is, how do we go about taking our own Judaism seriously?"

Mr. Lieberman is not only the first Jewish member of a major ticket, but he's a visibly observant Jew who finds ways to drop a mention of his faith into almost every campaign stop.

But Mr. Lieberman has evoked more than curiosity. He has been criticized by Jewish leaders and other groups for overemphasizing his faith, and even he is not comfortable being portrayed as the example of Jewish observance in America.

However, on balance, his insistence on practicing the rituals of traditional Judaism in the public eye has garnered more good reviews than bad.

His visibility has invited questions about Judaism from people who might not otherwise have been curious. Even the non-Jews who work with Dallas Kosher have found themselves explaining Jewish dietary laws to friends.

"They're so proud that they understand this," said Jeri Finkelstein, executive director of Dallas Kosher, an agency that supervises food production for more than 40 vendors in Texas.

Mr. Lieberman represents a growing percentage of American Jews who are more comfortable publicly expressing their faith, said Rabbi Tovia Singer, head of Outreach Judaism, with offices in New York and Texas. And the senator has inspired some Jews to seek out groups such as his own, which offers education for Jews and opposes Christian organizations such as Jews for Jesus that target Jews for conversion.

A Lieberman 'bounce'?

"When Jewish people came to this country, they wanted to be the best Americans they could be, and they decided to fulfill the commandment 'thou shalt melt,'" he said. Because of Mr. Lieberman's high profile, "I'm holding more classes and scheduling more seminars," he said.

Not everyone is seeing a boost in interest. An annual seminar on Rosh Hashana held by the Dallas Area Torah Association drew fewer than a dozen people Tuesday, the smallest turnout ever. Local rabbis report no jump in the number of people joining synagogues or seeking seats for High Holy Day services.

"I haven't seen a bounce," said Rabbi David Stern of Temple Emanu-el. "But High Holy Days are when people bounce anyway. It's a time of peak interest."

Others are betting the increased awareness is out there, even if they can't see it. The publisher of The Kosher Palate, a new gourmet kosher cookbook, said it is pitching its cookbook to a wider audience than it had planned to. And a company in Chicago is selling kippahs – skullcaps worn by some observant Jews – emblazoned with "Lieberman 2000."

But Mr. Lieberman's most valuable contribution to Judaism may be to inspire thinking about the meaning behind the rituals, said Rabbi Saul Berman, director of Edah, a New York-based organization that promotes modern Orthodox Judaism.

"What is interesting to me is the way people get stuck on the practices and need to get budged off the practices to the underlying values," he said.

Even beyond interest in Judaism specifically, "what could emerge is the awareness that religions are a reservoir of values that serve as a tremendous asset to the country. The nation needs to allow these values to emerge for consideration," he said.

Rituals' meanings

A national conference in February will focus more on the meanings of ritual behavior and the role of such behavior on public life because of Mr. Lieberman, Rabbi Berman said.

The rituals for the next 10 days will focus on the Jewish concepts of sin, judgement, forgiveness and atonement. The bare bones of High Holy Day activity are found in the Bible.

In Leviticus, God says to Moses: The first day of the seventh month shall be a day of rest. It is a sacred holiday for remembrance [and] sounding [of the ram's horn]. Do not do any service work [on that day].

Where does it say "Rosh Hashana" (literally "head of the year")? The answer: Nowhere. And how is it that the year starts with the seventh month, anyway? The answer: It's a tradition.

Jewish tradition holds that God dictated the Torah – the first five books of the Bible – on Mount Sinai. But tradition also teaches that God gave Moses an "oral law," just as authoritative, that explains some of the details left out of the written version.

Eventually, about 2,000 years ago, the oral law was written down in the Talmud. That's where the rabbis and sages explained that the first day of the seventh month is actually the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, as well as the day when God annually judges all of his creations.

The first month, in spring, starts with Passover, the anniversary of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The rabbis teach that Passover is the birthday of the Jewish people, while Rosh Hashana is the birthday of all humanity.

Leviticus offers a bit more detail about Yom Kippur:

The 10th of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement for you. It is a sacred holiday when you must fast and bring a fire offering to God. Do not do any work on this day; it is a day of atonement, when you gain atonement before God your Lord. If anyone does not fast on this day, he shall be cut off from his people.

Jews who visit the synagogue no other time of the year often will attend services for these holidays. Mr. Koufax, not known for his adherence to most Jewish rituals, made a point of observing these days. So it's hardly a surprise that Mr. Lieberman, already famous for taking every Sabbath off in keeping with Orthodox Jewish law, will do likewise.

By actively participating in the world while maintaining the visible emblems of his faith, Mr. Lieberman offers an example to others, said Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, director of leadership and communities for the New York-based National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His organization's mission is to educate lay leaders across the spectrum of Jewish belief.

"To the extent that Lieberman is a model of rich ritual practice and public responsibility, that would be magnificent," he said. "If you ever buy one with the price of the other, you're shortchanging both. That's the real gift of Lieberman. He shows that it's not either-or."