Bernie Sanders is the most successful Jewish candidate for the presidency ever. It’s a rare sign of the health of our republic that no one seems to much care or even notice. Least of all, Sanders himself. Which prompted Anderson Cooper in a recent Democratic debate to ask Sanders whether he was intentionally keeping his Judaism under wraps.
“No,” answered Sanders: “I am very proud to be Jewish.” He then explained that the Holocaust had wiped out his father’s family. And that he remembered as a child seeing neighbors with concentration camp numbers tattooed on their arms. Being Jewish, he declared, “is an essential part of who I am as a human being.”
A fascinating answer, irrelevant to presidential politics but quite revealing about the state of Jewish identity in contemporary America.
Think about it. There are several alternate ways American Jews commonly explain the role Judaism plays in their lives.
1. Practice: Judaism as embedded in their life through religious practice or the transmission of Jewish culture by way of teaching or scholarship. Think Joe Lieberman or the neighborhood rabbi.
2. Tikkun: Seeing Judaism as an expression of the prophetic ideal of social justice. Love thy neighbor, clothe the naked, walk with God, beat swords into plowshares. As ritual and practice have fallen away over the generations, this has become the core identity of liberal Judaism. Its central mission is nothing less than to repair the world (“Tikkun olam”).
Which, incidentally, is the answer to the perennial question, “Why is it that Jews vote overwhelmingly Democratic?” Because, for the majority of Jews, the social ideals of liberalism are the most tangible expressions of their prophetic Jewish faith.
When Sanders was asked about his Jewish identity, I was sure his answer would be some variation of Tikkun. On the stump, he plays the Old Testament prophet railing against the powerful and denouncing their treatment of the widow and the orphan. Yet Sanders gave an entirely different answer.
3. The Holocaust. What a strange reply — yet it doesn’t seem so to us because it has become increasingly common for American Jews to locate their identity in the Holocaust.
For example, it’s become a growing emphasis in Jewish pedagogy from the Sunday schools to Holocaust studies programs in the various universities. Additionally, Jewish groups organize visits for young people to the concentration camps of Europe.
The memories created are indelible. And deeply valuable. Indeed, though my own family was largely spared, the Holocaust forms an ineradicable element of my own Jewish consciousness. But I worry about the balance. As Jewish practice, learning and knowledge diminish over time, my concern is that Holocaust memory is emerging as the dominant feature of Jewishness in America.
I worry that a people with a 3,000-year history of creative genius, enriched by intimate relations with every culture from Paris to Patagonia, should be placing such weight on martyrdom — and indeed, for this generation, martyrdom once removed.
I’m not criticizing Sanders. I credit him with sincerity and authenticity. But it is precisely that sincerity and authenticity — and the implications for future generations — that so concern me. Sanders is 74, but I suspect a growing number of young Jews would give an answer similar to his.
We must of course remain dedicated to keeping alive the memory and the truth of the Holocaust, particularly when they are under assault from so many quarters. Which is why, though I initially opposed having a Holocaust museum as the sole representation of the Jewish experience in the center of Washington, I came to see the virtue of having so sacred yet vulnerable a legacy placed at the monumental core of — and thus entrusted to the protection of — the most tolerant and open nation on earth.
Nonetheless, there must be balance. It would be a tragedy for American Jews to make the Holocaust the principal legacy bequeathed to their children. After all, the Jewish people are living through a miraculous age: the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty, the revival of Hebrew (a cultural resurrection unique in human history), the flowering of a new Hebraic culture radiating throughout the Jewish world.
Memory is sacred, but victimhood cannot be the foundation stone of Jewish identity. Traditional Judaism has 613 commandments. The philosopher Emil Fackenheim famously said that the 614th is to deny Hitler any posthumous victories. The reduction of Jewish identity to victimhood would be one such victory. It must not be permitted.
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