click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

The Jewish Mission

The Jewish Mission

Theodore Sorensen and the Jewish drive to change the world.


Most people will be forgiven for not imagining that the late Theodore Sorensen, President John F. Kennedy’s close confidant and speechwriter, born in Nebraska to a father whose first name was Christian, might be Jewish. But in the eyes of Jewish law he probably was.

Mr. Sorensen, who died on October 31 at the age of 82, was born to a Russian-Jewish mother, Annis Chaiken, although he was raised as a Unitarian. He was responsible for much of the soaring oratory associated with President Kennedy, who once called the celebrated speechwriter his “intellectual blood bank.” Sorensen had an extensive role (some say a full-fledged ghostwriting one) in producing Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Profiles in Courage,” and the president included him in important foreign policy discussions, including those revolving around the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, a truly hot point in the Cold War.

Although Sorensen was not a self-promoter, his death brought focus to the considerable role he played in the Kennedy White House and, thus, in American history. And, for those who take pleasure in (or are suspicious about, or just find curious) the influence that Jews – recognizable as such or not – have come to wield on world affairs over the ages, he was but another good example.

Why are Jews moving and shaking both ends of the political seesaw?

As he was an example of the particular prominence of Jews in progressive causes. In his teens, Sorensen registered with the military as a conscientious objector and in his later years he relentlessly championed liberal ideas and ideals, working with Nelson Mandela on voter registration in South Africa and with President Obama’s presidential campaign. He served, too, as a board member of the International Center for Transitional Justice, which seeks to pursue accountability for human rights abuses.

Related Article: WorldPerfect: The Jewish Impact on Civilization

Such activities well fit the stereotype of the American liberal Jewish activist, which engenders pride or disdain depending on the observer. What is striking, though, is how noticeable Jews are on the other side of the American political spectrum as well. The Kristols and Podhoretzes, peres et fils, are examples that most readily come to mind. But there are many others. New York Times columnist David Brooks famously observed that for some people, “con” in the word “neocon,” is “short for ‘conservative,’ and neo is short for ‘Jewish’.”

So how exactly does one make sense of the fact that Jews, presumably channeling some deeply-ingrained ethnic inclination, end up moving and shaking both ends of the political seesaw?

One approach is to simply note that Jews tend to be cerebral (a generalization, to be sure; many of us don’t seem to do much thinking at all) and so there will always be a good sized pool of bright and motivated Jews from which influential political players and activists of varied stripes will emerge.

But there is something else at work here, and it has less to do with brainpower than with a sense of Jewish mission, of wanting to better society. To effect, in the phrase fashionable these days in some Jewish circles, “tikkun olam” – the “perfection of the world.”

And that drive, holy at its roots if not always in its fruit, has long taken Jews in different, sometimes diametric, directions. Wherever on the political/social spectrum they may end up, though, what drives them there – often without their realization – is sourced in a desire… to serve God.

Yes, God. The Torah makes clear that the Jew is intended to be an instrument of the Divine, to help bring the rest of the world to recognition of His glory. That is true tikkun olam, as the phrase is used in the Aleinu prayer. Every Jew is hard-wired to want to do the will of the Creator.

The shame lies in the obliviousness of most Jews to how, in fact, they can create a better world. To be sure, Jewish tradition requires empathy and charity; as it does personal responsibility and morality – “liberal” and “conservative” ideals alike. But the Torah’s bottom line is that the observance and study of its laws comprise the ultimate path to perfection – our own personal perfection and that of the entire world.

Many Jews would – and do – scoff at that contention. God, if they think of Him at all, is there to be beseeched for sustenance, health and success. But making a better world, they insist, requires political or social activism; observing often challenging or arcane laws and studying ancient texts could not possibly lead to world peace, security and human welfare. Of course, the scoffers will happily use their computers without a thought to how this or that click here or there manages to yield this or that effect. But to imagine that the Engineer of the universe may have programmed His creation to respond to Jews’ observance of the Torah’s laws somehow taxes their imagination.

And yet, the seed of that truth lies waiting somewhere in every Jew’s soul. Sought out and nourished, it will grow.

The nourishment might be said to lie in a paraphrase of a thought often associated with Theodore Sorensen (although he insisted the words were those of his boss, the 35th president): “Ask not what your Creator can do for you. Ask what you can do for your Creator.”


November 6, 2010

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 18

(17) David S. Levine, November 4, 2012 4:51 PM

A Two Bit Phony

Ted sorenson never made much of his Jewish ancestry or the tact that he would qualify under Halaka as jewish until he ran for the Senate in the Democ-rat primary in New York. He joined the New York Athletic Club at a time when it was STILL notoriously anti-Smnitic (as it may be today, but who cares) and had little if anything to do with Jewish affairs. he most recently supported a President who is hostile to Israel and that comports with the rest of his life. He is to be disdained, not lionized or celebrated!

Beatrice, November 21, 2016 7:05 AM

an alternate view

hello. i'm fairly ignorant, and also younger than Mr. Sorenson., and most probably yourself Mr. Levine. But i do remember the days of Kennedy, and although there were things i didn't like about him and his administration, he did do a lot of good in the world as it was then was. That he has Jewish background i think is significant/ That he wasn't Orthodox, or even religious, is not overwhelmingly important in the context of the discussion, that he carried out Jewish values in 'changing the world tikkun olam', to the way he saw things, is. There is another person, with a Jewish mother and Quaker father who is now a leading atheist,and scientist, who is a public figure speaking out on what i feel is a very Jewish values agenda-he is Sam Harris. That there are convolutions in any one person, or complexities in any issue is to be expected, more so when they involve Jews or anything in our history. Seeing as to the levels of hate and persecution from non-Jews., and how the many ways that impacts an era and an individual.

(16) Andy, May 23, 2011 2:46 AM

Jews are continuing their mission on many fronts

"Of course, the scoffers will happily use their computers without a thought to how this or that click here or there manages to yield this or that effect. But to imagine that the Engineer of the universe may have programmed His creation to respond to Jews’ observance of the Torah’s laws somehow taxes their imagination." Fair enough, but nobody thinks mouse clicks alone perfect the world and while setting time for Toarh study is an obligation it seems to me living Torah outside the cave/yeshiva is a worthy ideal for the vast majority of Jews. Given his background and the limited opportunities [no aish in his youth] Sorrenson's drive was directed in ways he hoped and kiekey id successfully contribute to tikun olam. There are many great Jewish organizations like Uri L'Tzedek, Friendship Circle, Aish Fellowships among others which I think can effect the world and those working in them positively .

(15) AlbertE., May 22, 2011 2:16 PM


"Somehow I suspect being a conscientious objector to WWII - to fight the Nazis and the Japanese Empire - did NOT make the world a better place. The world would be a miserable hellhole if fewer people fought. Of all the wars it was immoral to avoid, it was World War II. I could never figure out why Ted Sorensen did that." Ted probably had to serve in some capacity other than merely a CO. A combat medic, etc. NOT shirking duty but serving in a role where he did not carry a rifle.

(14) Andrew, December 29, 2010 3:12 PM

Ignoreance of Genetics

Ayla5 wrote: "Intelligence would have been highly selected for " Genetically that would only work if the so-called unintelligent people were prevented from having children - all based on a big unfounded assumption of a genetic origin to intelligence (however that is defined). and "Plus little influx of genes from outside populations." That is not a good thing. As a result, the Ashkenazi have a higher proensity to some forms of gentic disease than people from wider genetic pool. I suggest you learn about the realities of genetics before speaking on the subject.

See All Comments

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment