Bernie Sanders is the first Jew (and first non-Christian) ever to win a presidential primary and be seriously considered as a candidate for the American presidency. Reactions from the Jewish community have been mixed and mostly pretty quiet.
Sanders is very familiar to Ashkenazi Jews like myself: he is basically our socialist uncle. His passionate denunciations, clear-eyed vision of injustice and chutzpah are heimish, almost nostalgic. The progressive Jewish community has seemed hesitant to throw its weight behind him, 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 he’s Jewish yet.” As Sarah Tuttle-Singer wrote last month in the Times of Israel, one of the great things about Sanders’ ascension is that his Jewishness has been so irrelevant to Americans. Meanwhile, big Jewish financiers, such as George Soros and Donald Sussman, have been backing Hillary Clinton, not Sanders.
So, what is Sanders’ relationship to Judaism? He seems comfortable with his Jewishness and appreciative both of what he finds valuable in the tradition and of Jewish customs. Despite some claims that Sanders has downplayed his Jewishness, J.J. Goldberg recently proved otherwise in a comprehensive analysis published in the Forward Feb. 26. In an article on chabad,org, Dovid Margolin spoke of Sanders’ fight for Chabad’s right to light a public menorah on public property in a key court case, which paved the way for the now-common practice. And Sanders declared the Rebbe’s birthday Education Day in Vermont with words of praise for the Rebbe’s work to universalize education, as well as praising Maimonides (it happened also to be Maimonides’ 850th birthday).
Sanders himself, when asked, has made it clear that he is not a religious Jew. When late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel asked Sanders last fall whether he believes in God, Sanders responded: “I am what I am … and what I believe in, and what my spirituality is about, is that we’re all in this together.”
“Bernie’s Jewishness is not the Judaism of the shul but of the street,” said Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Sholom. “It’s not the Judaism of rituals but of the ethical tenets of Judaism: about the holiness code and how you treat others. Bernie is Jewish in his kishkes.”
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 need for fair wages and medical care. He wants to free Americans from debt and modern slavery, and 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 run deep in Jewish consciousness.
Sanders has called for tougher pressure on Israel to make concessions in peace talks and is known to take J Street seriously. On the other hand, he has defended Israel from attacks from the far left, saying it has a right to defend itself and must be able to establish its own security and long-term viability as a state. He has been among a handful of Senate regulars at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Recently, a video surfaced of Sanders giving a speech during the Gaza war in August 2014. Asked by an audience member about Israel’s shelling of Gaza, he agreed that too many civilians had died, but said Hamas had instigated the fighting by firing rockets at Israeli civilians and that Israel has a right to defend itself.
In Israel, Michael Oren has expressed concern about Sanders being overly critical of the Israeli government, while others, including Ravi Eitan, Dov Henin and Yoel Cohen Paran, have expressed a resonance with him, citing his social policies.
Clinton’s campaign has criticized Sanders for his pledge to “normalize” relations with Iran in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal. Sanders agrees that Iran is a “bad actor,” that it funds terrorism and human rights abuses and must not get the atomic bomb, and he has voted to condemn the behavior and rhetoric of the Iranian government several times. But, Sanders argues that normalization is likelier to create the conditions that would spur change. As he said in the last Democrat debate: “It is easy to talk to your friends. It is hard to talk to your enemies. I think we should do both.”
There is no question that ethics is central in Sanders’ mind. It is commonplace for him to make a point by citing a statistic about life in America and then ask rhetorically, “Is this right? Is this moral?”
The most common criticism leveled against Sanders is that he is unrealistic. In The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggeman, a leading scholar of the Hebrew Bible, describes the prophets in words that could apply to Sanders: “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 same royal consciousness that makes it possible to implement anything and everything is the one that shrinks imagination because imagination is a danger…. 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.”
Sanders, of course, is trying to be king, as well. But the charges that he is not practical fail to adequately consider his decades of service as a senator and his time as an effective and popular mayor of Burlington. He was known both for idealistic stances and for taking care of the “nuts and bolts of the job,” as his former campaign manager Jim Schumacher stated. The real question is how Sanders would function in the presidency and with the Republicans in Congress. Time will tell whether we’ll have the chance to find out.
Matthew Gindin is a writer, lecturer and holistic therapist. As well as teaching holistic medicine, Gindin regularly lectures on topics in Jewish and world spirituality, and has a particular passion for making ancient wisdom traditions relevant in the modern world. His work has been featured on Elephant Journal, the Zen Site and Wisdom Pills, and he blogs at Talis in Wonderland (mgindin.wordpress.com) and Voices (hashkata.com).