Something is conspicuously missing from the current political cycle: meaningful attention to the ethnic identity of the candidates. It is interesting to note that Judaism does make an appearance among the principals. Donald Trump, current leader of the Republican pack and longtime supporter of Israel and Jewish causes, is a Presbyterian. However, his daughter, Ivanka, is an Orthodox Jewish convert whose husband is an observant Jew. She has two children and is expecting a third. Thus, Trump has a Jewish daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren.
The Clintons can also speak of a Jewish connection. Their daughter, Chelsea, is married to a Jew, so they also have a Jewish son-in-law. However, according to Torah law, which determines religious identity by matrilineal descent, the Clintons cannot be said to have a Jewish grandchild.
There is a more substantial Jewish presence in the primaries. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton’s opponent, Bernie Sanders, is a Jewish senator from Vermont. He surprised everyone by achieving a virtual tie in Iowa and a landslide victory in New Hampshire.
We cannot foresee what the future holds. Clinton is generally regarded as most likely to attain the nomination, all things being equal. However, there is a lot of volatility in the race, and we should not forget about the FBI investigation that hangs over her head and may affect the result.
What is amazing is the total absence of any interest in Sanders’ religion. My sense is that very few people even realize that he is a Jew or care about it if they do. However the outcome of his race against Clinton turns out, it does not appear that his Judaism will be a determining factor.
As Jews, we must evaluate the implications of this phenomenon. There was a time, not very long ago, when it was axiomatic that a Jew could not become the president. It was generally assumed that latent anti-Semitism would be sufficient to torpedo the candidacy of anyone belonging to that religion.
However, all that came to an end in 2000. To his credit, Al Gore chose Sen. Joseph Lieberman to be his running mate in his presidential bid. He actually won the popular vote, but narrowly lost in the Electoral College. All polls indicated that Lieberman was very popular and that his Jewishness had no negative influence on the voters’ attitudes.
Lieberman is clearly a different type of Jew from Sanders. Sanders does not identify with Judaism, nor does he belong to a synagogue. By contrast, Lieberman is an Orthodox Jew who takes his religion very seriously. He earned the respect of his Senate colleagues with his sincere observance of the commandments. On those occasions when his presence in the Senate on Shabbat was imperative, he would walk a number of miles to get there. He was regarded as a wise, principled and ethical public servant. I believe that his proud acknowledgment and practice of his faith brought honor and pride to Judaism and the Jewish people.
In spite of this, Lieberman’s religiosity had nothing to do with my voting decision when he ran for vice president. I absolutely harbor no bias and disregard color, gender, race and ethnicity when casting my ballot. My decision is based exclusively on who I regard as the most effective candidate for the office in question. Therefore, Sanders’ religion will have no effect on me. Nor will Trump’s close familial relations to Orthodox Jews be a factor in my calculations.
Still, we must ask: What meaning, if any, does a Sanders candidacy have for American Jews? Clearly, it demonstrates the extent to which we have “arrived” in this country. America has fulfilled its promise as the land of opportunity for all. In this time and place, we truly have the ability to “be all that we can be.”
Whether that is a good thing depends on how we determine what we want to be. A 2013 Pew poll indicates an alarming rise in the rate of Jewish assimilation and intermarriage. The words of Charles Dickens eloquently describe our existential condition for, indeed, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
From a practical political standpoint, we are “free at last.” However, if the price of our liberty is the abandonment of Judaism, we must sincerely ask: Is it worth it?
Rabbi Reuven Mann is the spiritual leader of Congregation Torat Emet.