Bernie Sanders is now the first Jew ever to win a presidential primary and be seriously considered as a candidate for the American presidency. Recent polls have him tied with Hillary Clinton. Reactions from the Jewish community have been mixed, and mostly quiet. Many Jews have chosen, unsurprisingly, to debate Bernie’s record on Israel. Has he supported the state enough? Are his ties to J Street and other liberal, dove-ish groups a sign that he will not stand up for the Jewish state?
For myself I am not interested in debating Sanders’ record on Israel, and I think other North American Jews would also be wise not to focus on it. The reason is simple: Sanders is running for the US Presidency, and the primary issues that need to be considered are how he will run the country he might be chosen to lead. I also resist the idea that the primary consideration for Jews should be Sanders’ relationship to Israeli security concerns. I think that the primary consideration for a Jew thinking about Sander’s candidacy is his relationship to Jewish tradition and the degree to which he embodies Jewish values.
The progressive Jewish community has seemed hesitant to throw it’s weight behind Bernie, perhaps because until recently they saw him as unlikely to succeed. Or maybe there is a fear of jinxing him: “Shhh, they haven’t really realized that he’s Jewish yet.” As Sarah Tuttle-Singer wrote a few days ago in The Times of Israel, one of the great things about Sander’s ascension is that his Jewishness has been so irrelevant to Americans- he has risen in the polls purely because of who he is as a human being. Meanwhile big Jewish financiers like George Soros, Donald Sussman, and several others have been backing Clinton, not Sanders.
So what is Sanders’ relationship to Judaism? Well, it seems that he is comfortable with his Jewishness and appreciative both of what he finds valuable in the tradition and of Jewish customs. Sanders has not been making much of his Jewishness, to the chagrin of people like Michael A. Cohen. Cohen recently complained in Tablet that Sanders was downplaying his Jewishness, saying that it “hurt”. Cohen seems to prefer Jewish identity politics to embodying Jewish ethical values. Sanders feels the opposite, and his evaluation is a perfect example of the moralism that is drawing people to him in the first place.
On Chabad,org Dovid Margolin recently defended Sanders’ connection to Judaism, citing his fight for the right for Chabad to light a public menorah on public property in a key court case which paved the way for the now common practice. Sanders was also appreciative of the Rebbe’s stance on education and declared the Rebbe’s birthday “Education Day” in Vermont with these charactarisic words:
The Lubavitcher Rebbe has democratized education by labouring tirelessly to establish educational institutions for the elderly, for women, for children, and whereas he has sought out the materially oppressed and disadvantaged thereby effecting their enfranchisement through education and by stressing the universal implications of education as a source of continuous creativity through which the human condition is perfected; and whereas especially in this same week marking the 850th birthday of Maimonides, binding the principle of reason to human liberation, now therefore I, Bernard Sanders, mayor of the city of Burlington, hereby designate yud-alef nissan as the day of educationNote Bernie’s use of the Hebrew “yud-alef nissan” to designate the date, as well as his interesting commentary on Maimonides. Margolin also notes that Sanders and the Rebbe corresponded and Sanders celebrated his re-election as mayor by attending a Purim party in Crown Heights. This writ, from 1985, does not establish Sanders as a Hosid, which clearly he is not. It does show him as sensitive to, and appreciative of, Jewish values and Jewish sages. As some have pointed out, Sanders is more of an old style Yiddish Socialist than a “Socialist”.
Sanders himself, when asked, had made it clear that he is not a religious Jew. When late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel asked Sanders in October whether he believes in God, Sanders sounded more like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr than Abraham Joshua Heschel: “I am what I am….and what I believe in, and what my spirituality is about, is that we’re all in this together.”
Sanders does not strongly identify with his Jewishness, and his religious sentiments could better be described as a general reverence for life and humanity, a kind of secular, naturalistic spirituality. He and his Catholic wife Jane both say they believe in God but are not involved in organized religion, and that their faith backgrounds inform their moral sentiments. David Harris-Gershon has written in Tikkun, “For Sanders, socialism is Jewish. Ending income inequality is Jewish. Supporting black Americans as they struggle against continued oppression is Jewish. Which is not to say such things are inherently so, but rather that for Sanders, such positions are a direct extension of his Jewishness. His career-long drive for social justice is a central part of his political identity in the same way his being Jewish is a central part of his cultural identity, and the two are inextricably intertwined. Belief in God doesn’t matter. Going to synagogue doesn’t matter. Keeping kosher doesn’t matter. What matters is justice. And that mattering is Jewish.”
Jay Michaelson has written, “secular, progressive Judaism is, itself, a kind of religion. While dispensing with the God of the alte velt—if the Enlightenment didn’t kill him, the Holocaust certainly did—leftist Jews of the 20th century maintained a prophetic, religious zeal for justice… if we are asking whether Sanders is “religious” in Jewish terms, the reply must be that he is.” I would argue that the evidence supports that assertion with regards to Bernie, who may be the most prophetic politician in decades.
The prophets of Israel were relentless in criticizing the behaviour of Israel and calling it back to its highest ideals. Contrary to the popular vision of them as diviners of the future their primary job was calling people back to the ethical demands of God. Their vision had social justice at it’s core; for them this equalled fidelity to God. In the words of Jeremiah (22:13-17): “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages, who says, ‘I will build myself a great house with spacious upper rooms,’ who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar and painting it with vermilion. Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He vindicated the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me?’ declares the Lord.” Isaiah sums up the prophetic vision well (1:17): “Learn to do good; seek justice, fight oppression; bring justice to those without a protector, plead the cause of the vulnerable.” Or Zechariah (7:9-10): “Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Judge truly, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the vulnerable, those without a protector, the foreigner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” Israel’s wisdom literature agrees: “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and the needy (Proverbs 31:8-9).”
Walter Brueggeman, a leading scholar of the Hebrew Bible, describes the prophets as follows, in words I challenge you not to associate with Bernie Sanders: “The prophet engages in futuring fantasy. The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing. The same royal consciousness that make it possible to implement anything and everything is the one that shrinks imagination because imagination is a danger. Thus every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.” (The Prophetic Imagination)
These are, of course, the very criticisms levelled at Bernie: that the future of justice that he fantasies is not thinkable, that it is indeed pure fantasy and cannot be implemented. Many would argue otherwise. Many would just like to see somebody really try for a change. That is why Bernie is so popular with millennials.
The Jewish Candidate
Bernie Sanders is relentless and consistent in his criticisms of the financial elite, his calls for a political system free of legal bribery, and his defence of education and the needs of the poor for fair wages, medical care and enough money to live. He wants to free Americans from debt and modern slavery and to pull America away from militarism and hatred of the stranger. All of these themes echo in dozens of verses and laws structuring the political vision of the Torah and running deep in Jewish consciousness, even when they are obscured by fear or effaced by our falls into chauvinism. Bernie Sanders may not be just the Jewish Candidate by ethnicity. Ironically this secular, non-observant Jew may be the candidate that best embodies the political values of the Torah, which is to say, the ethics of the Jewish tradition.