The following exchange took place between Anderson Cooper of CNN and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in the March debate in Flint, Michigan:
Cooper: “Senator Sanders, are you intentionally keeping your Jewish faith in the background during your campaign?”
Sanders: “I am very proud to be Jewish, and being Jewish is so much of what I am. Look, my father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust. I know about what crazy and radical and extremist politics mean. I learned that lesson as a tiny, tiny child when my mother would take me shopping and we would see people working in stores who had numbers on their arms because they were in Hitler’s concentration camps. I am very proud of being Jewish, and that is an essential part of who I am as a human being.”
Once again we are in presidential election season. The candidates are, each in their own way, projecting what they want the electorate to know about their faith. We Americans are used to this quadrennial exercise. This election cycle, however, is exceptional.
Senator Bernie Sanders has advanced further in the presidential campaign than any other Jewish citizen before him. (In 2000, Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut was the vice presidential candidate on Al Gore’s ticket.) Some have commented on how little has been made—and how little Sanders has made—of his Jewishness. Yet many others are trying to understand the relationship of Judaism and Jewishness to Sanders and the positions he advocates. Judaism, and membership in the Jewish people, fit no category of faith and religion familiar to most Christians. Ironically, Sanders’ own untraditional relationship to his faith and faith community actually presents an opportunity for America to learn some unique, aspects about Judaism and the Jewish people.
Judaism Is a Family
Judaism is not just a religion. Judaism and Jewishness are an indivisible amalgam of God, Torah (the scriptures), Mitzvot (commandments), land, language, and familial peoplehood. In the main, one is not born a Christian; one becomes a Christian by affirming the Christian faith. While one can convert to Judaism, for the most part, one is born a Jew. Irrespective of what a Jew believes or practices, a Jew is a Jew. Every Jewish person is a child of Abraham and Sarah and a member of that first family of believers.
Judaism is a family that became a faith and remained a family. One of the consequences of this is the unconditional love of one Jew for another Jew, no matter their depth of religious faith. It is still a family despite growing differences in various Jewish beliefs and practices.
Senator Sanders is a Jew of a particular genre, the product of a specific time and place—New York in the post-World War II years. This has shaped him and many like him, and therefore, has shaped today’s American Jewish community. This requires a short review of history.
By the end of the 19th century, approximately one million Jews lived in the lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which in 1795 was gobbled up by the Austro-Hungarian, Prussian, and Russian empires. That population grew to about five million during the 19th century. This growth took place largely in czarist Russia in the midst of a collapsing and oppressive economic and political order. The Jewish people suffered severely in these societies and under these conditions—both economic hardships and continued anti-Semitism from a largely Christian population.
Essentially two schools of thought emerged among the Jewish population. One focused on “there”—the Land of Israel. This solution involved establishing a nation-state where Jews could determine their own destiny. This movement is known as Zionism.
Another group reasoned that their problem was not so much a Jewish problem as it was universal problem. That problem was capitalism, which oppressed workers. A socialist revolution would solve the universal oppression, and thus the two great Jewish problems. It would not only deal with their oppression, but the early socialist leaders believed socialism would allow them to assimilate into European society without having to convert to Christianity. On top of that, socialism drew upon the universal Jewish impulse to do Mitzvot, to relieve human suffering.
Many of these Jewish socialists made their way to the US. New York became one of the world’s largest concentrations of Jewish people, with a heightened sense of Jewish ethnicity, many with a particularly secular bent influenced by Jewish socialists. These Jews were shaped by the received Jewish tradition, but they often transformed the particularities of religious Judaism into political and philosophical universal aspirations.
Sanders’ Secular Jewishness
Sanders, growing up as he did in Brooklyn, was raised in this specific Jewish environment. But in what ways has this slice of Jewish life affected his worldview and, if elected president, would it affect his policies? Of course, only God knows the heart and soul of another human. Still, we can see following:
Sanders is intellectually honest about his secular Jewishness. Some candidates in the past 50 years have felt obligated to increase their Christian bona fides during the campaign season. Sanders has felt no need to enhance his Jewish bona fides. Sanders identifies as a Jew, but it appears that for him this is an ethnic and historical identification, not a religious or a faith ontology. He rarely references Jewish teachings, practices, or traditions.
Still, in his public statements, Sanders identifies with some of the great 20th century dramas of Jewish history, especially the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel. He is the grandchild of Polish Jews. Members of his family were murdered by Nazis. This imbues him with deep convictions about democracy and compassion for those who are suffering and oppressed. The Jewish identification with liberal democracy is historically natural. It has deep roots in the Scripture, “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt” (Ex. 23:9).
Sanders, the Jew and public official, has been shaped by these events and ideas. One can sense this just by reading the titles of his position papers on his campaign website: “Income and Wealth Inequity,” “It’s Time to Make College Tuition Free and Debt Free,” “A Living Wage,” “A Fair and Humane Immigration Policy,” among many others.
Still, while he does not appear to take part in Jewish religious practices, in no way does that alter his status as a member of the family of the Jewish people. This is something that is hard for many Christians, especially evangelicals, to understand. We are not merely a faith or a religion. We are a family. Our family life entails belief in God, responding to God’s revelation at Sinai, and God’s commanding voice summoning us to a life of justice, holiness, purity, and righteousness. Irrespective of how an individual Jew responds to that, they remain a member of the family.
His type of Jewishness, commonly called “secular,” has only been possible in the last 200 years of Jewish history. He looks, talks, and behaves differently from many other American Jews, older and younger than he. But a Jew he remains.
Yehiel E. Poupko is Rabbinic Scholar of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.