JointMedia News Service spoke with U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, boxer Dmitriy Salita, and former NFL offensive lineman Alan Veingrad about the choices faced by Sabbath observers with demanding professional lives.
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As the most prominent Sabbath observer on Capitol Hill, many of U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman’s toughest decisions have gone beyond the scope of legislation.
In 2010, the Connecticut Democrat broke Shabbat to speak on the phone with U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and try to dissuade him from withdrawing support for the American Energy Act. On a Saturday in 1991, he fully participated in the debate and vote on a resolution authorizing the war against Saddam Hussein. Yet, in 1988, Lieberman pre-taped his acceptance speech for a Democratic U.S. Senate nomination, rather than traveling to the convention on the day of rest.
Lieberman describes these conflicts and others in his new book, The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath. In a telephone interview with JointMedia News Service, Lieberman said “some of the decisions I’ve been asked to make are unique.”
“The specifics are unique,” he said. “So, probably no one else ever had to decide whether to pick up Lindsey Graham’s phone call on Shabbat about the climate change legislation.”
That much is true, but broadly speaking, Lieberman isn’t alone when it comes to Orthodox Jews who have needed to make difficult Shabbat-related decisions in high-profile professional lives. JointMedia News Service spoke with two athletes, boxer Dmitriy Salita and former National Football League offensive lineman Alan
“Shlomo” Veingrad, who along with Lieberman reflected on the intersection of Shabbat and lofty career ambitions.
When Shabbat enters the field (or ring) of play
Salita, a 29-year-old welterweight sporting a 33-1-1 professional record, hearkened back to a time when he was a 17-year-old amateur debating whether to box on Shabbat at the U.S. Championships in Mississippi, which began on a Monday and were scheduled to end with the final round on a Saturday afternoon. Salita consulted a rabbi, who advised him not to fight on Shabbat if he reached the championship stage.
“I said ‘Rabbi, you know, the schedules for these boxing tournaments are made way in advance, no one knows who I am, no one is going to listen to me, how can you ask them if it’s possible [to move the Saturday afternoon fight],’” Salita recalled in a telephone interview.
After pulling off an upset victory in the semifinals, Salita said that, “basically, in my mind, I kind of lived with the fact that it’s very possible that I might be disqualified and I might be out of this thing.” However, USA boxing agreed to move Salita’s fight to after sundown, allowing him to compete—and win the tournament.
From that point on, it was stipulated in Salita’s contract that his bouts on Shabbat must be rescheduled.
Veingrad, who won a Super Bowl Championship with the Dallas Cowboys in 1993 and now tours the country speaking about his personal transformation (he embraced the Chabad-Lubavitch Hassidic movement), didn’t begin observing Shabbat until after his playing days but said he has given the prospect of being Orthodox in the NFL “a tremendous amount of thought.”
“I don’t think it would be a possible thing for me to say to the coaching staff or the ownership of the team that I am shomer Shabbos and therefore I can’t make the team meetings on Friday because I have to travel Friday and I can’t travel with the team on Saturday and keep Shabbos,” Veingrad said in a telephone interview. “I think if I took that approach, I would no longer be in the National Football League.”
However, Veingrad said that if “you’re one of the greatest players to play in the game,” the team and ownership “would make certain exceptions for you, as you’re the franchise and you’re the guy, and if they wouldn’t, there’d be some other team to make those exceptions, and I think it’s black and white like that.”
Resolving the conflicts
Lieberman, who stood on the doorstep of the vice presidency in 2000, would be the equivalent of what Veingrad calls “the franchise” or “the guy” in politics. By balancing Shabbat observance with a U.S. Senate career, he said he was “breaking new ground.”
“I’d go back now and say that I’d rather not have to make those decisions in the sense that I’d rather be observing Shabbat with my family in the traditional way,” Lieberman said. “But I understand that the privileges I’ve been given to be in public office also involve responsibilities that also sometimes conflict with Shabbat, so I’ve got to do the best I can to reconcile those conflicts.”
Rather than receiving a psak, or ruling, on when he could violate Shabbat for professional reasons, Lieberman writes that he consulted with Rabbi Barry Freundel of the Kesher Israel congregation in Washington, DC, for guidelines on “the considerations I should take into account when faced with a decision.”
Freundel suggested a “hierarchy of ways” of getting to Capitol Hill on Shabbat based on “the urgency and consequences” of Lieberman’s participating in legislative activity. The hierarchy included walking (thereby not violating Shabbat), using a pre-purchased train ticket, having a non-Jewish staff member drive Lieberman, or Lieberman driving himself if “there was no alternative and the consequence of not going to the Capitol would greatly affect human life or national security,” the senator writes.
Lieberman told JointMedia News Service that, “These are not easy calls, and I don’t make them with any sense of self-righteousness, but I overall feel that I’ve been in this position [as a senator], that I’ve got to err on the side of fulfilling my responsibility to the community.”
Freundel said in a phone interview with JointMedia News Service that if Lieberman had asked him for a specific ruling on these matters, “then I think he’d feel bound by anything I said, and then you get to the rabbi sort of running the politician’s life, and he didn’t want that.”
Freundel called Lieberman’s decisions “a question of danger of life and death.”
“If we’re talking about going to war or something like that, that would be different than the healthcare bill, although both of them would be in the category of affecting people’s lives, even to the point of life and death,” Freundel said.
Due to his status, these decisions were far different for Lieberman than they would have been for an ordinary citizen, Freundel said.
“Government officials have a higher standard than an individual does, because a one in a million [risk], the risk for me is acceptable, but if I’m a government official, a one in a million risk, in America, would mean 300 people are dead,” he said.
Lieberman told JointMedia Service that if he had been elected vice president in 2000, the intersection of Shabbat and his professional life “would have been different.”
“I know that I would have, at a minimum, had to have a daily intelligence briefing,” Lieberman said.
The benefits of Shabbat
Lieberman, Salita and Veingrad agree that outside of presenting difficult decisions, Shabbat observance has benefited their careers. Salita said that, “Athletically, you’ve got to rest, and you’ve got to let your body recuperate.”
“If you don’t recuperate, you don’t progress,” he said.
Veingrad pointed out that while God says to get all your work done during the week and then rest on Shabbat, “I don’t know anybody who gets all their work done” in six days. Rather, Veingrad said “God is asking for effort. He wants the effort. Put the effort in.”
“Fortunately, we have the ability to just take that 25-hour break and to really refresh and to relax and to not have all the interactions, and being pulled in 20 different ways,” Veingrad said.
Lieberman writes in his book how “laws have this way of setting us free,” in particular, giving him a much-needed reprieve from his BlackBerry.
“Six days a week, I’m never without this little piece of plastic, chips, and wires that miraculously connects me to the rest of the world and that I hope makes me more efficient, but clearly consumes a lot of my time and attention,” he writes.
The benefits of Shabbat have sometimes been incidental for Lieberman. He writes that when a newspaper once surveyed members of Congress on “Do you ever buy your wife flowers?” and a reporter followed up by asking him “How often?” he answered “every week,” according to the Jewish tradition of having flowers on the Shabbat table. The ensuing article nominated Lieberman as one of the most romantic members of Congress.
For Salita’s trainer, Jimmy O’Pharrow, Shabbat even had superstitious significance. Salita recalled that Shabbat ended at 7 p.m. before one of his first televised fights, in Las Vegas, giving him just 20 minutes to change, get to the ring, and have his hands wrapped. There was no time for warming up, making O’Pharrow nervous, but Salita did make sure there was time for havdalah to usher out Shabbat. O’Pharrow held the candle, and during the fight Salita had a cold first round but scored a spectacular second-round knockout.
In the locker room, O’Pharrow said, “Whatever ritual you guys did with the candle, let’s do it every time,” recalled Salita, who lit a candle for his next fight—which was on a Thursday—but explained to O’Pharrow that havdalah only works on Saturday night.
What might have been for Joe Lieberman—and what comes next
Lieberman—who in the book quotes Talmud, his rabbinical mentors such as Menachem Genack of the Orthodox Union and Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Kingdom, and other Jewish sources—writes that his childhood rabbi in Stamford, Conn., Joe Ehrenkranz, “urged” him to become a rabbi himself.
Asked by JointMedia News Service if he ever seriously considered that option, Lieberman said “not for long.”
“I did think about it, I talked to my parents about it,” he said. “The truth is, at that stage of my life, and remember I was probably in 9th grade then, or heading into 9th grade, it was not just the thought of being a rabbi, but it was really going away from home and this community [in Stamford].”
“As I got older and I was particularly affected by president Kennedy’s election and presidency I became increasingly focused on public service as a life career,” Lieberman added.
Having recently announced his intention to retire, Lieberman said of his post-politics career, “I don’t have any clear idea at this point, and frankly I’m enjoying not having a clear idea of exactly what I’m going to do after I leave the Senate in January of 2013.” He did say he won’t be running again for public office, and that he expects “continued involvement in some of the public concerns that have been most important to me, like national security and foreign policy.”
“My whole life, really, my whole professional life has been devoted to public service, and obviously my whole life has been involved in Jewish life,” Lieberman said.
As for how Shabbat will play out after his time in the Senate, Lieberman said he’s looking forward to spending more time with children and grandchildren and doesn’t envision “similar public responsibilities that will intervene.” Lieberman’s book, therefore, puts a ribbon on this chapter of his life.
“For the non-observant Jews or non-Jews who are reading it, I wanted to make clear that Jewish law and tradition understands that it’s the underlying values of Shabbat [that matter]—remembering the Sabbath and to keep it holy because it was the day of creation, and honoring life, and that life ultimately comes ahead of law, if they come in conflict,” he said.
Jacob Kamaras is the Editor-in-Chief of JNS.