Daniel Biss, state senator representing north suburban district, Democrat running for governor, Jewish, modestly observant, says “it’s important to live as if there isn’t” an afterlife.
Born in Akron, grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, parents on the music faculty at Indiana University.
“I found myself at some point falling in love with mathematics . . . obsessed with . . . math,” and ended up on math faculty at the University of Chicago — “my dream job.”
Entered politics because “it felt like the country was spinning out of control, we were rushing off to war in Iraq, and it didn’t feel good enough to just hang out in the math department and solve problems that I personally found very interesting but didn’t have much connection to the kind of social unrest that was going on.”
Running for governor because “our state’s in trouble, and people are hurting.” Blames incumbent Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, as well as “a long legacy of broken machine politics” on the part of Democrats.
At home, growing up, there was “a lot of talk about public policy and fairness and how society ought to be structured,” but “we were describing something, not doing something.”
He’s Jewish, almost 40, and his mom grew up in Israel, her own parents from “a Transylvanian town on the Hungarian-Romanian border.” Grandmother survived the Auschwitz concentration camp, and grandparents moved to Israel after World War II.
For some people, “I think, if you’ve seen what they saw at a young age, it’s difficult to come out of that . . . with a lot of concrete faith in a benevolent God.”
They retained and passed along “a deep sense of Jewish identity” but didn’t have “a strong sense of ritual observance or literal belief, necessarily.”
His father’s side came to the United States from Europe before the war, his grandparents “kind of traditional ’30s European, left-wing Jews who . . . had kind of a Marxist view on religion.”
Once his maternal grandmother visited when he was fasting as a kid for Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, and she chuckled and said something along the lines of, “Why would you do that?”
They’d go to synagogue just a few times a year, a “modest observance.”
Where is he today in terms of practice?
“Pretty much where I started.”
His wife isn’t Jewish, and they’re raising their kids “with a modest level of identification with Judaism.”
Is there a God?
“I don’t know, I believe in people . . . and I think there’s something special and magical in the human spirit.”
Is there a place for faith in politics in Illinois?
“When I first started running, I went to see my rabbi, and he said something that I will never ever, ever forget. He said, ‘Daniel, I can’t stand it when Jewish candidates come around to the Jewish community and say, effectively, vote for me because I’m Jewish. If you want someone to vote for you because you’re Jewish, you should be comfortable with the idea that somebody else is going to vote against you because you’re Jewish.’
“I just think that’s so right . . . so correct . . . There is a place for morality and ethics and a kind of a sense of community in politics. In fact, that’s the point of politics. And many of us have those senses shaped by our faith. But, then, if you bring the faith into politics in a way that’s exclusive of somebody else, that’s just dead wrong.”
Blames Democrats and Republicans for the “transactional political system” of politicians “dividing the pie for themselves.”
“To me, the biblical themes that are the most powerful are the themes of redemption.”
“I think of science and religion as fundamentally not touching.”
Respects people who take a literal view of Bible stories, but he chooses “to view it as metaphor and parable and a very powerful set of stories that can help you live better if you study them carefully.”
Some Catholic leaders again are advancing the idea of tax credits for parents whose kids go to parochial schools. Where does Biss stand?
“I think it’s terrible,” he says, because it erodes the commitment to public education.
What makes him feel at “home” about Judaism “is this constant questioning . . . asking questions . . . pushing back.”
Does the world need more or less religion?
“The world needs less divisive religion.”
Face to Faith appears Sundays in the Chicago Sun-Times with an accompanying audio podcast, with additional content, available at chicago.suntimes.com and on iTunes and Google Play.
Listen to previous “Face to Faith” podcasts:
- Lutheran scholar Martin Marty on faith, Luther, the state of religion: Aug. 13, 2017
- Chicago Sky’s Amber Stocks: Message matters more than the denomination, Aug. 6, 2017
- ‘Hood’ and ‘holy’ minister Marilyn Pagan-Banks: Not alone ‘even when you make bad choices,’ July 30, 2017
- Author Patrick T. Reardon: ‘Embrace the pain of life as well as joys,’ July 23, 2017
- Paylocity founder Steve Sarowitz: Baha’i ‘made sense to me right away,’ July 16, 2017
- Candidate Chris Kennedy: ‘I’ve seen the Holy Spirit at work,’ July 9, 2017
- Jail warden Nneka Jones Tapia: ‘I think God is all around us,’ July 2, 2017
- Sox outfielder Melky Cabrera: ‘Let it be God’s will if we lose or win,’ June 25, 2017
- The Mekons’ Sally Timms: ‘Not the kind of atheist who’s down on religion,’ June 18, 2017
- J.B. Pritzker: At times, ‘your faith has to overcome maybe logic,’ June 11, 2017
- Daoud Casewit, American Islamic College president: ‘We’re as American as we are Islamic,’ June 4, 2017
- Public Defender Amy Campanelli: My clients ‘are not evil people,’ May 28, 2017
- James Lovell: ‘We go to heaven when we’re born,’ May 21, 2017
- Michael Magnafichi, one-time ‘rising star’ in Chicago mob: ‘I do say prayers,’ May 14, 2017
- Ald. Ameya Pawar: ‘There’s always the opportunity for redemption,’ May 7, 2017
- Sir the Baptist: ‘I want to be the first hip-hop chaplain,’ April 30, 2017
- Singer Shemekia Copeland: ‘Hell, yeah’ God loves the blues, April 23, 2017