wo days before the tenth anniversary of the largest-ever terrorist attack so far on American soil, the September 11, 2001, hijackings that led to the deaths of 2,977 innocents, Senator Joseph Lieberman, Independent-Democrat of Connecticut, sits in his office calmly conversing with a visitor.
Forget his Sunday schedule of many television interviews related to his work as chair of the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee. Forget the classified briefing he was about to receive on potential September 11 anniversary-related terrorist threats. Forget the many demands on the time and attention of a member of one of the world’s most exclusive “clubs,” as the United States Senate has been called.
Instead, one source of Lieberman’s calm is the approach—about eight hours after our meeting—of the weekly day of rest known as the Sabbath. An Orthodox Jewish believer, Lieberman—with the exception of issues involving the preservation or saving of a life—will not vote in the Senate on the Sabbath; if he either goes home after sundown Friday or has to be on the Senate floor during Sabbath hours, he’ll walk to and from his home in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., usually accompanied by U.S. Capitol Police officers as bodyguards.
When he became the first Jewish-American to run on a national political ticket—he was then-vice president Al Gore’s running mate in 2000—he did not campaign on the Sabbath, something he’s maintained throughout his political career. Lieberman’s running mate, the Tennessean who at one point was a student at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, was “very understanding” of Lieberman’s Sabbath commitment, the senator said. In fact, the Gores celebrated Sabbath with Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah, more than once after the campaign ended.
Such dedication is not often seen in the halls of Congress. The sixty-third chaplain of the United States Senate, Barry C. Black (USN Ret.), is a Seventh-day Adventist, and in the House of Representatives, Representatives Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) and Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tex.) are church members. But among many of his colleagues, including some of his Jewish brethren, Lieberman stands almost alone in his dedication to keeping the Sabbath day holy, as Scripture commands (Ex. 20:8-11).
A Message for Today
Lieberman, referencing famed Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, calls the day “a sanctuary in time.” He said the Sabbath “began as a command, but it really is a gift.”
That view—of the Bible Sabbath as a gift from a loving God to all creation—suffused our conversation. Over the summer Lieberman published The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath
(Howard Books), a volume that has been endorsed by figures as diverse as Cecil O. Samuelson, president of Brigham Young University, and Archbishop Timothy Dolan, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in New York City.
Book industry leader Publishers Weekly
declared: “This deeply sincere and highly readable composition is certain to help people rethink their concept of Sabbath and prod them to rest.”
Lieberman said his rabbi “pushed” him to write the book, curiously enough the seventh volume he’s published, the senator noted with a smile. He said he is familiar with the Seventh-day Adventist understanding of the Sabbath, and sees that there would be understanding by Adventists of his position. He’s discussed Sabbath matters with Chaplain Black, who is the first Adventist to serve as Senate chaplain.
Asked why the Sabbath is important, he responded, “How is it not important? That day reminds me of the opportunities and responsibilities I have in the other six days.” He added that the Sabbath commandment includes the directive “six days you shall labor and do all your work” (Ex. 20:9). And indeed, Lieberman’s book includes a chapter on attitudes toward work during those six days.
Lieberman thinks that observance of the Sabbath, while not a point in his book, might help some in political circles to lower the tone of rhetoric seen in today’s overheated environment.
The Sabbath, he said, “encourages humility” by making people disconnect from the normal routine. “If the world needs to find you, it will find you,” he said, adding that “one of the things [about Sabbath] is that it gets you off the treadmill.” And by taking time for family, a worship community, and nature, “you hear things you don’t hear otherwise.”
This promotion of the Sabbath is a far cry from the legislative actions of another, much earlier, senator from the northeastern United States, H. W. Blair of New Hampshire. It was Blair, in 1888 and several subsequent years, who introduced a “national Sunday law,” calling for Americans to respect the first day of the week as a day of rest. Blair’s bills died in committee, but his actions were enough to galvanize the leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to begin work on religious liberty that continues today.
Returning to the Creation question, Lieberman said he wasn’t at all concerned about politicians expressing their beliefs, as several potential Republican 2012 presidential contenders have. However, he said, affirmations of faith must stop at any attempt to breach the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits the creation of a “state religion.”
Mark A. Kellner is news editor of
Adventist Review and
Adventist World magazines [Photo: Astrid Riecken]. This article was published November 10, 2011.