There is a tradition within Judaism that all actions in the world can be viewed through the lens of the Torah reading of the week. Based upon that premise, these columns can help us understand the politics of the world through a biblical lens.
Bernie Sanders is causing a stir in the Jewish world. As the first Jew who has a real shot at getting a major party’s presidential nomination, many of us are watching him closely. And it is beyond disturbing that this man, through his words and actions, seems not only to be betraying traditional Jewish values, but is de facto embracing anti-Semitism.
Although brought up in the home of Jewish immigrants from Poland, according to all reports, Sanders is no longer involved in any congregation or temple, and hasn’t been for decades. He seems to have entirely disconnected himself from Judaism, self-identifying as a secular humanist. He does not even mention Israel in his autobiography, a rare thing for any leader from a Jewish background. Instead, he discusses at length his time at the University of Chicago, and how he became devoted not to the texts of Torah, Talmud, or any of the great Jewish theologians and philosophers, but rather to the socialist writings of Marx, Trotsky, and Debs. It is this early rejection of the Jewish community that has led him into the abyss of socialism.
But from being a socialist he has progressed into truly anti-Semitic tropes. He castigates Israel on a regular basis, calls Netanyahu a “reactionary racist,” and refuses to even attend the annual AIPAC Conference next week, calling it a platform for bigotry. (AIPAC is the major lobbying group advocating for pro-Israel policies to Congress and the executive branch and is not tied to any party; even Obama spoke at the AIPAC conference.) He has refused to condemn Ilhan Omar’s repeated anti-Semitism; has embraced the “squad” and their pro-Palestine/anti-Israel goals; refused to discuss Israel policy in the recent debates; and has turned his back on his personal history and religious values in favor of courting people who have openly declared their hatred for all things Jewish.
How did a Jewish boy from Brooklyn end up like this, and why do so many “Jews” support him and his allies? It’s sadly a story that is all too frequent in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
This week’s Torah reading (Ex. 25:1-27:19) details how the ancient Hebrews must bring gifts to build the Tabernacle. Since we know that God doesn’t really need physical items, why are these very detailed gifts on the part of every person so important? It is so that each of the ancient Hebrews ties themselves to the community—to being part of the Jewish community and worshipping God—and is an affirmation of their commitment to Judaism, Jewish values, and the Jewish people. Without this affirmation, they could easily stray away from the community and its values.
But in the late 20th century, after the horrors of the Holocaust, many Jews consciously chose to abandon their faith and traditions. They exchanged their religious practices for a cult-like devotion to secular politics, usually manifested as political leftism. Because in the late 20th century anti-Semitism was less overt (it didn’t stop existing, but was merely subjugated for a few decades; how can one be an overt anti-Semite on the heels of the Holocaust…the shameful and ultimate manifestation of anti-Semitism) these secularized Jews felt that they could reject Jewish community, believing that they would never experience anti-Semitism again. But in the 1980s, as the guilt of the Holocaust started to become a distant memory, anti-Semitism reared its ugly head again and was couched as anti-Israel. Now that attitude has progressed: hatred for Jews is again becoming commonplace (our own congregation in a suburb of Los Angeles was met with a sign saying “Gas the Jews” when they left High Holiday services, and my children and others in the area have experienced institutionalized anti-Semitism in their schools), and anti-Semitic acts are on the rise nationally.
These secularized Jews rejected what the Torah text commands: tying one’s self to God through a Jewish community and acts of giving and prayer. And Bernie Sanders is a prime example of where ignoring this week’s reading leads. Having rejected Judaism, he has consciously aligned himself with people who, given the opportunity, would destroy anything tied to the Judeo-Christian values that built this nation.
Sadly, there are many secularized Jews like Sanders who happily support him. Their subconscious shame at rejecting the religious practices of their ancestors manifests in self-hatred and a disdain for any religiously observant individual. Ignoring the reality that voting for the party of Omar, Tlaib, et al. is analogous to a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders, they are lining up behind the secular socialist. It is a sad truth that some of the most painful acts of anti-Semitism are perpetrated by secular Jews who have rejected religion.
I rarely say or write something like this: but God forbid that Bernie Sanders gets elected president. Besides all the obvious ways that he would destroy our nation with his policies, his election would damage American Judaism more than anything since the Holocaust. His crazy policies would embolden anti-Semites to increase their anti-Semitic actions, justifying their hatred of Jews by pointing to Sanders. The State of Israel would not only no longer have an ally in the White House, but there would also be an enemy to the only democracy in the Middle East sitting as commander-in-chief. Observant Jews, and all people of religion, would find their spiritual lives threatened, and (again, God forbid) the public persecution of religious observance would become accepted under Sanders.
My prayer for us all is that we do not judge the Jewish people by Bernie Sanders; that secularized Jews return to their faith tradition and reject this socialist anti-Semite; and that we all find a deep and personal relationship with the Creator of the heavens and earth. Let us all work to stop not only anti-Semitism, but any anti-religious behavior, preferring instead to respect each other’s beliefs and strengthen all religious communities.
Rabbi Michael Barclay is the Spiritual Leader of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village, CA. (www.NerSimcha.org) and the author of “Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together”. He can be reached directly at [email protected]