Commentary Magazine

The Sabbath Keeper

The Gift of Rest:
Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath
By Joseph I. Lieberman with David Klinghoffer
Howard Books, 230 pages 

Joseph I. Lieberman has had a notable political career that has seen him rise from the Connecticut legislature to the United States Senate, where he is currently finishing out his fourth term. There he has carved out a unique niche as the last of the Scoop Jackson Democrats, combining strong stands on national defense with more traditional liberal positions on domestic issues. His place in the history books was secured in 2000 when the Democrats nominated him for vice president, making him the first Jew ever to be on the national ticket of a major party—a party that then turned on him for remaining true to his core beliefs on the war on terror and the role of the United States in Iraq.

Yet perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the way Lieberman has conducted his career has been his unambiguously public practice of Judaism. Although there have been many prominent Jews in American politics, few could be classified as religious, let alone Orthodox, as is the case with Lieberman. In that respect, Lieberman’s predecessors as elected Jewish figures were fairly representative of an immigrant population that was just as, if not more, interested in assimilating into secular society than in seeking accommodation for their faith.

Lieberman was only the 22nd Jew to serve in the Senate when he was elected in 1988 (a figure that has now risen to 34), but he was the first (and remains the only) to do so while fulfilling the mandate of the Fourth Commandment to “remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” 

That injunction serves as the theme for his new book, The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath, an introduction to the rhythms and practices of traditional Sabbath observance for a general rather than a specifically Jewish audience. Lieberman and coauthor David Klinghoffer have given readers a road map of the Sabbath, in which each part of the 25 hours of refraining from normal activity is split into sections on every aspect of the day: the Friday night meal, Sabbath services, and prayers in and out of synagogue. The observances are explained in a simple manner and an upbeat, somewhat jaunty tone featuring numerous anecdotes from Lieberman’s personal experiences as well as snippets of Jewish tradition, wisdom, and learning. Each chapter concludes with a list of suggestions to help readers create their own Sabbath experience.

But The Gift of Rest is more than just Shabbat for Dummies. Lieberman’s main point is that ceasing all work and turning off electronic devices isn’t merely a mandate from the Almighty—though he believes it is—but a life-enhancing practice that can enrich the existence of any person, no matter his religion or creed. He argues persuasively that the “Shabbatland” to which he and his family retreat each week is not a litany of restrictions but a gift that enables them to connect not only with God but also with each other and the world around them—while recharging their batteries for the six days that follow.

Lieberman’s argument that the whole country should start mimicking traditional Jewish religious practices is, like his own career, a sign of how much has changed in the past century. Refraining from working on Saturday was once a luxury that many Jewish immigrants were forced to discard in order to survive economically. The issue today, however, is not so much the need to report to one’s job on what is for most Americans the first 25 hours of a two-day weekend, but the difficulty of escaping from a nonstop stream of communication and activity that characterizes life in the BlackBerry era.

It cannot be emphasized enough that the notion of an American Jew who refused to work on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays—assuming any position of importance, let alone a seat in the Senate or a chance at the vice presidency—would have been unthinkable to previous generations. The conclusions gleaned from Lieberman’s experiences of blending such observances into the routines of the Senate and a presidential campaign provide crucial insights for an American Jewish population that still sees the predominantly Christian culture of the nation as hostile to its rights as a religious minority. 

If there is any lesson to be drawn from Lieberman’s career experiences, it is that the vast majority of Americans have no animus towards Judaism or its observance. Rather than adversely affecting his political career, living by his faith has, if anything, helped Lieberman, because his unwillingness to eschew its observance and his open advocacy of moral principle seemed to elevate him as a public figure. The widespread approval Lieberman received for his refraining from taking part in normal political and governmental activity on the Sabbath ought to make it clear to American Jews they needn’t discard their faith in order to realize their ambitions.

It remains to be seen whether Lieberman’s excellent advice about the advantages of taking a day off from the information stream will gain a following. Some Sabbath-like ideas have already been adopted—by Mormons, for example. In 2002, LDS leaders began encouraging their flock to avoid worldly activity on Monday nights and spend those hours exclusively in the bosom of family. And who has not heard people speak longingly of a way to cut off the electronic chatter for an extended time to free themselves from its incessancy?

Still, it seems unlikely that there will be a Sabbatical movement of any size any time soon. But it is noble of Lieberman to try to share the benefits he has enjoyed from the Sabbath with others who are struggling to find a measure of liberation from hyper-modernity. Still, however helpful his tips for better living may be, Lieberman’s example as a man who refused to compromise his religious practice to fit more easily into the secular world remains, as the senator acknowledges, among the most significant of the contributions he has made to his country.

It also should tell his fellow Jews something about the willingness of the majority to accept them on their own terms. Though Lieberman’s book is intended to teach nonreligious Americans about the beauties of the Sabbath, the acceptance by the non-Jewish world of a proudly observant Jew such as Joseph I. Lieberman provides an equally important lesson to liberal Jews about their irrational fears of Christian America.

About the Author

Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of COMMENTARY.

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