Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
How Jewish is Bernie Sanders? This question rose to the surface after Sanders’ historic victory in the New Hampshire Democratic Presidential primary, the first time any Jew had won a Presidential primary election.
My colleague, Rabbi Seth Goldstein, recently wrote a thoughtful piece about whether Jews should vote for Bernie just because he is Jewish. I happen to believe that, if one votes symbolically rather than substantively, breaking the glass ceiling for women carries far more cultural and political resonance than breaking the glass chuppah (wedding canopy) or Jews. But I think there is a different, revelatory question at stake here: How Jewishly representative is Bernie?
A recent article in JTA suggests that there is far less “Jewmania” over Bernie’s Jewishness than when Senator Joe Lieberman ran for Vice President with Al Gore. It notes that “Lieberman comes off as the more-Jewish political figure — even though the overwhelming majority of American Jews are more like Sanders in terms of their secular Jewish identity and, in many cases, their politics.” I would argue that Sanders’ ethnic and cultural Jewish identity (as he expressed in this Saturday Night Live skit), his unmistakable Brooklyn accent, and his politics make Sanders the more Jewish political figure.
As Rabbi Goldstein writes, “the ethnic humor, the youthful exploration, the Jewish historical experience as a call for social justice” are all markers of Jewish identity which many Jewish-Americans resonate with far more than Lieberman’s more observant Jewish practice and hawkish foreign policy. This is without even mentioning Sanders’ visit to Israel in his young adulthood, the impact the Holocaust had on his family, and his preference for spirituality over organized religion. Sanders is, in many ways, a Pew Jew: As the 2013 Pew Study on Jewish American Life found, 69% of Jews polled felt that being Jewish meant “leading an ethical life,” while only 19% said it meant “observing Jewish law.”
So maybe Bernie is representative of many (most?) Jews in America. If so, that means that those Jews who aren’t excited about Sanders becoming the first Jewish president for Jewish (rather than political) reasons might be experiencing discomfort with the status of American Jewry in the 21st century rather than with Sanders’ level of observance and public expression.