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Is Joe Lieberman Too Jewish?

A new explanation of his bizarre health-care flip-flops

Marc Tracy
December 15, 2009
Sen. Lieberman at a committee meeting in November.(Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images)
Sen. Lieberman at a committee meeting in November.(Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images)

Yesterday, one (Jewish) writer accused Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut), perhaps the Senate’s most famous Semite, of possessing an un-Jewish lack of intelligence. Since then, Lieberman has proved himself, if not smart, then at least influential: his objections to certain progressive features of the U.S. Senate health-care reform bill—albeit features he supported only a few months ago—led the Democratic leadership to remove them. Now, today, another writer (also Jewish) offers yet another explanation for Lieberman’s seemingly nonsensical policy flip-flops: he’s not un-Jewish, he’s too Jewish! So says cultural critic Lee Siegel in The Daily Beast:

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.

When applied to politics, this fundamentalist perspective, Siegel argues, enables Lieberman to comfortably espouse substantive policy decisions based on nothing more than the irrational feeling that he is right: “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.” Thus, what felt right in September can feel wrong in December, and that’s not inconsistent (even though, objectively, it is).

Siegel further points out that, actually, the detached irony required to extract Jewish morality—a commitment to social justice, say—from Jewish religion is, in its own way, Jewish as well. So Lieberman is un-Jewish, too Jewish, or not Jewish enough. Or maybe all three? Or perhaps the incoherent saga of Joe Lieberman’s health-care positions has nothing to do with his Jewishness at all. Perhaps Lieberman is, simply and typically, a petty politician hopelessly in thrall to his own worst traits and to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Connecticut’s formidable insurance industry has so generously given him. Just saying.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.