Towards the end of Game Change, McCain operations manager Steve Schmidt appeals to Joe Lieberman to help a faltering Sarah Palin prepare for her debate with Joe Biden.
“You’re both very religious,” Schmidt said. “Go in there and pray with her.”
As it happened, Palin had already been prayed for that day. A group of Republican congresswomen had offered their blessings via a conference call with her. But Lieberman went back and took a less direct tack, providing Palin with Talmudic wisdom. Invoking the influential Orthodox rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, he spoke about the covenant of faith, which is the relationship between God and man, and the covenant of destiny, which is what men make of themselves.
“Look,” Lieberman said kindly, “you gotta be saying to yourself, ‘What am I doing here? How did this happen?’ This is your moment to make it really count for something.”
Palin seemed touched. “Joe,” she said. “I can’t figure any other reason I’m here except that I was meant to be here.”
What was this wisdom with which the “Independent Democrat” from Connecticut sought to buck up his pal’s running mate? Whichever of the authors got the story from Lieberman (and it could have come from no one else), they’ve gotten the name of the Sage of Modern Orthodoxy right but garbled his “dual covenant” theory of Jewish identity.
In a 1954 responsum [correction: as Larry Grossman points out below, it was a public lecture], Soloveitchik claimed that Jews have been presented with a Covenant of Fate (not faith) and a Covenant of Destiny. The Covenant of Fate is what binds Jews together as a people, whether they like it or not; it is what they’ve been handed simply by being born into the tribe, regardless of whether they follow the divine commandments. By contrast, the Covenant of Destiny has to do with a deliberate, conscious, and freely willed choice to embrace the law–to adhere to the practices of Orthodox Judaism.
Within the Orthodox world, Soloveitchik was a liberal, and his object was to make clear, particularly with respect to the secular Zionists who founded the State of Israel, that Orthodox Jews shared a common fate with the non-Orthodox, and could therefore work together with them. But, as my colleague Ron Kiener points out, Soloveitchik’s formulation is “not common”–used by “a very limited circle of Orthodox Jews, primarily in Israel, primarily of the nationalist-Zionist ‘modern’ camp.” See this, for example, from Prof. Shalom Rosenberg of the Hebrew University.
The appeal of the formulation to Lieberman is not hard to fathom. Not only is his own religious identity very much of the Modern Orthodox, nationalist-Zionist persuasion, but as someone who moved personally from low to high-level Jewish observance, it’s likely that he sees in it a description of his own spiritual journey–from just the inherited Covenant of Fate to the chosen Covenant of Destiny.
But why lay a Soloveitchikian rap on Palin? Lieberman seems to be trying to tell her to go beyond merely accepting her McCain-given role in the political universe and to embrace it, own it, “make it count”–and so learn enough damn policy details to do better against Biden than she did with Katie Couric. But Palin doesn’t seem to get it. She’s where she is, she replies, because it was “meant to be”–the Covenant of Fate, as it were.