He has not asked me to come to his defense. But he is “family,” so I feel obliged to at least speak up. The issue at hand is larger than Sanders, whether that be Bernie or David. It is not about politics. It is about identity, about family, about relationships. I would like to suggest it is also about the future of Jewish in America and perhaps around the world.
Bernie Sanders has been asked any number of times about his Jewish identity. He does not volunteer much about it, but when asked, he responds as he did at a CNN Democratic Presidential Candidates debate in March. He ended his answer about his identifying as Jewish by stating: “I am very proud of being Jewish and that’s an essential part of who I am as a human being.”
A few days later, CNN’s Religion Editor, Daniel Burke, wrote The Book of Bernie: Inside Sanders’ Unorthodox Faith and highlighted that Bernie expresses his Jewishness through a humanistic and spiritual perspective and that this way of identifying as Jewish is now prevalent among Jews in America. Quoting the Pew study on American Jews (2013) Burke contextualizes Bernie Sanders as part of a growing majority of Jews for whom observing religious law is not essential to being Jewish. The vast majority of American Jews, like Sanders, say that remembering the Holocaust, leading an ethical life and working for justice are the touchstones of their Jewish identity.
A month later, during an interview on Book TV, Dennis Prager, the conservative radio talk show host, characterized Bernie Sanders as a “non-Jewish Jew.” He labeled Sanders ethnically Jewish, himself as a Jewish Jew-religiously Jewish. Despite Bernie Sanders publicly declaring to America his pride in identifying as Jewish, Prager boldly claimed in that interview: “Being Jewish doesn’t mean anything to him.”
(To hear Prager says these words enter the interview at 16:30 at http://www.c-span.org/video/?407593-9/open-phones-dennis-prager).
Dennis Prager may be accused of hyperbole, or exaggerating to make a point. But I think his comments reflect a lack of appreciating what is important for the majority of Jews in America, from the so called millennials to those as old as and even older than Bernie Sanders. Judaism and Jewish are not synonyms. Prager has conflated them and therefore labels Sanders as a “non-Jewish Jew.”
Judaism remains an important vehicle for meaning and religious guidance for many Jews in America. For the vast majority of Jews in America, Bernie Sanders among them, Jewish is a source of meaning and spiritual guidance. And Jewish is not, as Dennis Prager would deride, merely as ethnic identity. Jewish, as the sociologist Herbert Gans once suggested, morphs into a sacred culture; one that can be defined as a communal identity that combines culture and ethics that is not ethnocentric.
Here is what Bernie Sanders has to say:
“What all religions hold dear is: To do unto others as you would like them to do unto you. I believe in, what my spirituality is about, is that we’re all in this together — that I think it’s not a good thing to believe, as human beings, that we can turn our backs on the suffering of other people.”
Hillel, the great first century Jewish sage could not have said it better. In fact, he said the same thing.
P.S. Because the conflation of Jewish and Judaism is so challenging for many I will be suggesting a new name to be adopted to represent the new Jewish sacred cultural-ethical identity.