While representing Connecticut on Capitol Hill, Sen. Joe Lieberman penned The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath, an earnest tribute and handy guide to keeping the seventh day of the week holy. Here, Lieberman offers recollections and advice in this politically innocuous but personal account of the sacred day—one he’d like elevated in the lives of people of all faiths.
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Lieberman spoke to us about the importance of the Sabbath in his life, the perils of the digital age and the sensuousness of Shabbat.What drove you to write this book?
The observance of the Sabbath has been a very important part of my life, a foundation and point of order and purpose. I experience it, as the title of the book says, as a gift. To some extent what I am trying to do is share the gift, and in doing so, I'm answering the questions that people over the years have asked me—why do you observe the Sabbath? What do you do? What is it like?
Another reason that I wrote the book might be called for reasons of advocacy—there's a certain missionary quality to it. And here's what I mean: we live such busy lives that are so demanding, particularly in the IT age, it is very hard to separate from work. What I'm saying is that everybody should think about adding a little bit of Sabbath to their lives. I don't mean in the observant Jewish way that I do it—but whatever your religion. It’s an appeal for people to come back to Sabbath observance in whatever way their religion or their personal value system expresses the idea of the Sabbath, which is to rest.What is that we lose in the Internet Age—and what is it that we gain by observing this day of rest?
I think what we lose when we're 24/7 is an appreciation of all we've been given, and an appreciation of non-work elements of our lives, both in the natural world, which is what the creation is about and also [in] the human world…our family and our friends.
I talk a lot in the book of reminding yourself it’s a stepping back from the day-to-day hassle to get a larger perspective…On the Sabbath, you have a distance from your six days of work, and sometimes it gives you the perception or distance to come up with some new ideas and insights, even about your work, as you look back at the six days that preceded it.In the book you fondly recall the foods associated with the Sabbath meal. Is that what initially drew you in?
There's no question that part of what I'm trying to do is take the reader through what we call “Shabbat land,” beginning with the preparations of Friday to the whole day Saturday until sundown. Part of it is a mix of the theological underpinnings of the Sabbath, but part of it is to say, as I experience it, that the Sabbath, as opposed to being an enforced time of detachment and a somber time, it's actually a sensuous time. That's part of enjoying God’s creation, too. There's food, there's some drinking, there's a lot of socializing within the family, within the marriage and within the community.
I'm sure a part of my devotion to the Sabbath began not just theologically but in that personal way, because I had such fond memories from my childhood—the wonderful smell of the kitchen, the companionship with the family around the table Friday night and Saturday, the interaction at the synagogue with the religious community. All of that was really part of it.What is the biggest challenge being observant and on Capitol Hill?
I've always tried to separate between the political and the governmental, I don’t really do political stuff on Friday nights and Saturday, and people overall have respected that. But I always feel that when I have a governmental responsibility that my constituents depend on me, and I can't delegate it, that I have to balance it against the normal observances and prohibitions of the Sabbath.
If, as I believe, the Sabbath is about honoring God’s creation, then if you are in a position in your own life to honor and protect God’s creation is in one of several ways—major decisions of war and peace, or homeland security. Or a different kind of decision, which is voting on a budget that may affect whether people have adequate health care or environmental protection.
Then it wouldn’t make much sense to me, if the prohibition from work on the Sabbath meant that you stopped yourself from doing something to honor and protect God's creation. Very often I try to anticipate when there are votes on Friday night or Saturday so I make provisions to stay at the capital, and provisions to walk home. Other times, when I've been surprised, I just say, you know I've got to go there. But I always try to err on the side of fulfilling my responsibility, or achieving a purpose that is consistent with the basic purpose of the Sabbath.
Do you think it’s possible to keep a separation of synagogue and state?
I'm one of those who feels that the First Amendment to the Constitution says there should not be the establishment of an official religion in America, but everyone is free to observe their own religion. To put it another way, when we talk separation of church and state or synagogue and state, it doesn’t mean that America promises freedom from religion. It means that America promises freedom of religion. Religion in its various expressions, particularly the majority's expression of Christianity, has been a beating heart of American history. American history has shown you can have a healthy intermixing without compromising any one’s individual freedom of religion.