A Modern-Day Mordecai

By Menachem Genack

Published February 20, 2004, issue of February 20, 2004.
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Senator Joe Lieberman would have made a wonderful leader for this country. He is an authentic American statesman, a brilliant craftsman of public policy (witness the primary role he played in drafting the Homeland Security Act) and a serious and loyal Jew.

Ruefully, support from the Jewish community, which should have been sustained and generous — as it was when he was a vice-presidential candidate — was lethargic. With Senator Lieberman’s withdrawal from the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, it may be a good idea for American Jews to consider whether they gave the senator a fair shake, or rather were paralyzed by reservations that may have been suited to certain times and places but were not appropriate to contemporary America.

Nobody doubted the senator’s integrity, his sense of purpose or his leadership ability. American Jews, rather, were anxious, and I believe misguidedly, about the very idea of a Jewish president. First, they feared a President Lieberman would have to bend over backwards to show folks both here and abroad that he was even-handed toward Israel. They feared that Americans would not take warmly to the idea of a Jewish president. And that, in turn, would be bad for America’s Jews.

These anxieties were unfounded on both counts. Senator Lieberman’s support of Israel has been steadfast and unwavering and would have remained that way through a presidential tenure. And there’s a simple explanation for this: His support does not stem from political calculation but from personal belief. His eloquence and his record reflect that longstanding, profound commitment. The notion that Senator Lieberman would adjust his views to please others is a dramatic underestimation of his character.

The idea that Americans are not ready for a Jewish president is also narrow-minded. Unfortunately, we see throughout the world a resurgence of antisemitism. But the United States remains an island of tolerance. America was built on concepts of liberty and equality, and it has lived up to those principles. The citizens of the United States are prepared to accept a Jewish president just as, 44 years ago, they were prepared to accept a Catholic president, John Kennedy.

There is, admittedly, a precedent in our tradition for the ambivalence shown by the senator’s co-religionists to the idea of a Jew in high public office. But that ambivalence is not applauded by our tradition.

In the course of the Book of Esther, the protagonists Mordecai and Esther convince King Ahasuerus to support the Jews in their effort to stand up to Haman’s barbaric decree to eliminate the Jews. With the king’s help (and Divine assistance), the Jews were able to survive a threat that surely would have otherwise wiped them out. Mordecai, well-established by story’s end in the king’s court, should be universally beloved by the Jews, right? Wrong.

The very last verse of the Megilla reads, “For Mordecai the Jew was next unto king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and accepted by the majority of his brethren; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all his seed.” The commentaries point out that while Mordecai’s public role was admired by most of his fellow Jews, a distinct minority of the members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court, harbored mixed feelings about his having made a career for himself outside of the study hall and the life of deliberating upon Torah. What place is it for a Jew, even so great a Jew, they argued, to be in the public eye?

Given the unambiguous role of Mordecai in saving the Jewish people and his continued role in protecting them from his post as the king’s prime minister, their reservation is astonishing.

But in the end history attests that Mordecai was Mordecai — a hero and a great leader whose courage, tenacity and wisdom saved the Jews from physical annihilation and spiritual peril. And Senator Lieberman, likewise, is Senator Lieberman. History has already shown that he is a man of wit, integrity and faith and, I believe, would have made a great president. As a community, we should be very proud of him.

Rabbi Menachem Genack is the rabbinic administrator of the Kashruth Division of the Orthodox Union and rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Englewood, N.J. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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