Until Tuesday night, no one had really questioned Bernie Sanders' Jewish faith. That changed almost immediately after he trounced fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary.
At a post-vote rally for Clinton, former Rep. Paul Hodes of New Hampshire, a Jewish Clinton surrogate, questioned Sanders' support for Israel — and his Jewishness — in comments to the Jewish Daily Forward. "Bernie is a secular Jew and I don't think his religion influenced his stance on Israel," said Hodes. "We know Hillary and we know she has an unshakeable bond with Israel, so this shouldn't pose a great dilemma for Jewish voters."
Hodes' tin ear comment will not sit well with many Jewish voters — who know that "secular" Jews aren't always "anti-Israel," and can embrace a range of views on the issue — but it does underscore how things might change for Sanders.
To date, the Vermont senator has largely been able to skirt the issue of his faith. This might be a function of Clinton's frontrunner status, but it might also be due to Sanders' relentlessly on-message campaign platform against greed, inequality, and corruption. His stance resonates by hitting a sweet spot of progressive voters — religious progressives opposed not only to the religious right's stance on social issues but also to its alliance with business interests. He also appeals to secular progressives weary of too much God-talk in presidential politics, a growing segment of the Democratic base. And because of his outsider status, no one has expected him to adapt to the party's efforts appeal to "values voters" or to address concerns that the Obama administration is insufficiently "friendly" to religion.
Even when Sanders has been asked about his faith, he doesn't invoke God or his own particular religious experiences. He offers no sentimental accounts of his Bar Mitzvah or a revelatory moment with a favorite rabbi. He wasn't even asked to explain what he was doing speaking at Liberty University, an evangelical college, on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
And when CNN's Anderson Cooper asked Sanders at a February 3 town hall in New Hampshire what he would tell a voter who "sees faith as a guiding principle in their lives, and wants it to be a guiding principle for this country," Sanders replied, "I would not be running for president of the United States if I did not have very strong religious and spiritual feelings." He went on to root that commitment in his concern for the homeless and hungry, and the notion that "we are all in this together."
For her part, Hillary Clinton has long had to answer personal questions about religion. In Iowa, she gave a heartfelt account of her Methodist faith, in response to an Iowa voter who asked, "how would you say your beliefs align with the Ten Commandments and is that something that's important to you?" Unlike Sanders' general account of his faith to Anderson Cooper, Clinton artfully weaved in the Sermon on the Mount and regular Bible study in her response.
Yet Sanders has not been entirely reticent about his Judaism, most recently in his embrace of quintessentially Jewish humor in his appearance with comedian Larry David on Saturday Night Live. The entire Bernie Sanders package, from the humor to the Brooklyn accent to his unabashed critique of inequality, is instantly recognizable to American Jews, many of whom are secular or unaffiliated with organized religion, but still consider themselves Jewish. And to many non-Jews, too, Sanders is an archetype: the passionate, funny, lefty American Jew firmly rooted in Jewish ideals of justice but who doesn't talk much, or at all, about God or the Torah.
If the Clinton campaign continues to hit Sanders over his views on Israel, this archetype might be his saving grace. Whether it can save him in a general election is a different story.