Divining the Meaning of Bernie Sanders' Jewish Ambivalence

Disclaimer: This is not a political post. Rather, I'm using my interests as a futurist to share some possibilities about what Bernie Sanders' reticence about his Judaism might say about him and about contemporary American Jews.

Bernie Sanders, despite an unmistakably Brooklyn Jewish accent, clearly is ambivalent about publicly identifying himself as a Jew. He lived on a kibbutz in Israel, defended the right of Chabad to place a large menorah outside of City Hall, when he was mayor of Burlington, Vermont and joined them in lighting it. Today, when asked about his religion, he describes himself as a "secular" Jew and speaks in generalized terms about spirituality. He sometimes hints in code that he's Jewish (as if anyone in the America or maybe even in the world doesn't know!). In a recent debate with Hillary Clinton, he commented: "... I think, from a historical point of view, somebody with my background... I think a Sanders' victory would be of some historical accomplishment, as well." He is an admirer of the current Pope, whom he claims is also a socialist, and Bernie has quoted the Jewish Biblical prophet Amos, but without explicitly connecting his passion for social justice to his Jewish heritage.

So, to what extent is Bernie a glimpse into the Jewish future -- as a seeker of universal social justice of Jewish descent? Is he a portent of what more American Jews will be like -- individuals who adopt a strong narrative and practice of social justice, deeply linked to the Jewish past but intentionally delinked from the Jewish present?

I'm also curious about why an individual who speaks about moral values is described as "secular" and not "religious" in both Jewish and general religious press outlets (like Religion News Service). This description is an admission of our self-acceptance of categories that experts have imposed on the nature of religion. But I believe it is a false, binary, distorted and fragmenting distinction. It unintentionally reinforces a belief that "real" religious people practice rituals but may not care as much about ethics, and "genuine" secular Jews care about social justice but may be indifferent to the beauty of Jewish ritual practice. The categories of "secular" and "religious," as we know from decades of studies on the American Jewish community, obliterate the nuanced understandings that individuals hold about the meaning that Judaism has for them.

It's impossible to second-guess Sanders' inability to proudly and explicitly connect his values with his distinct Jewish family history and heritage. That may be a political calculation, a personal quirk, or a sign of things to come. However, we can work to loosen the constraints our society has placed on the categories of "secular" and "religious." By doing so, we will be able to see the beauty and value of those who express their Judaism passionately though differently and from whom we can learn more about ourselves. That is a future that we can begin creating now.