As Monty Python once said: “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”
On May 5, a DNC employee asked colleagues to “get someone to ask his [Bernie Sanders’] belief” in God and suggested that it could make a difference in Kentucky and West Virginia.
“This could make several points difference with my peeps. My Southern Baptist peeps would draw a big difference between a Jew and an atheist,” DNC chief financial officer Brad Marshall wrote.
Who really cares what Bernie Sanders believes about God?
The whole question is so….well, un-Jewish.
First, when people tell me that they don’t believe in God, my (somewhat snarky) response tends to be: “What god don’t you believe in?”
My respondent will then, usually, come up with the “Old Man in the Sky” god. That offers me the opportunity to speak of the multitude of ways that Jews have understood God.
Second, Judaism has never successfully come up with a “one-size-fits-all” catechism of belief.
Read the Bible, the Talmud, rabbinic literature, mystical literature, medieval thinkers, and modern theologians. You will discover a veritable smorgasbord of theologies — all of them Jewish.
Yes, Maimonides and other medieval Jewish theologians came up with their creeds and credos — and in the case of Maimonides, that list of beliefs has withstood the test of time.
But, more often than not, such catechisms came and went, quickly rejected, and then forgotten by subsequent generations.
And so, the idea that there should be a single, undisputed Jewish catechism of belief — is simply not Jewish.
Third, as a rabbi and Jewish leaders, what Bernie Sanders believes about God is the least interesting (Jewish) thing to me about the Vermont senator.
The modern Jewish thinker, Mordecai Kaplan, taught that there are three modes of connecting to Judaism — belief, behaving, and belonging.
Kaplan insisted that the primary form of Jewish identification is belonging.
You want to know what — Jewishly — bugs me the most about Bernie Sanders?
It is the fact that, as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, and as a senator — that Bernie Sanders did not affiliate with the local Jewish community.
He did not belong.
That hurts me — far more than his theology.
And as for his (now sidetracked) presidential ambitions, they are utterly irrelevant.
We are electing a president here — not a theologian in chief.
Yes, American presidents have believed in God, and it would be very difficult for an avowed atheist to win national office.
When did we become so “hyper” about presidential faith?
I suspect that it was in the 1950s. That was when “In God We Trust” became our national motto.
That was when we added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag.
The reason was clear: to have a religious faith (as President Eisenhower basically said: any religious faith) was what distinguished America from the godless Russian Communists.
My main political fear is that we are going back to the 1950s. And I don’t mean doo wop and slicked back hair.
As a religious person, I am getting tired of people checking out each other’s faith.
I am less and less interested in what people believe.
I am more and more interested in the question: “What difference does faith make in your life?”
- Do you believe, and teach, and embody the biblical idea that all people are made in the Divine Image?
- Do you believe and embody the biblical mandate not to disparage the handicapped?
- Do you believe, and teach, and embody the biblical idea that society should take care of the strangers in its midst?
- Do you speak of others with kindness — even and especially those with whom you disagree?
- Do you believe that God speaks in a multitude of voices, and that different people, different peoples, and different groups can hear God differently?
- Are you taking maximum responsibility to make sure that people, made in the Divine Image, receive the kind of protection against, say, wanton murder that one might expect in a civilized society? Which is to say: do you believe that the sixth commandment — the one against murder — is still in the Ten Commandments?
(On this note: I am proud that my sermon against gun violence has been included in this new volume, edited by my friend Rabbi Menachem Creditor).
Let’s stop fetishizing other people’s beliefs in God.
Let’s start worrying about how belief in God can and should transform society — and ourselves.