In his latest attack upon the Jewish people, Barack Obama this week told Conservative rabbis that he “probably knows more about Judaism than any other president.”
“Absurd,” cried right wing commentators, noting that John Adams and James Madison knew Hebrew and that other recent presidents, like Jimmy Carter, were better versed than Obama in the Bible. Fair enough: Obama likely doesn’t know as much as Adams, Madison or Carter about Judaism (although reading the Hebrew Bible without the rabbinic commentary doesn’t exactly introduce one to Judaism). But Obama does know more about American Jewishness. This is a man, after all, who has read Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Leon Uris and David Grossman (an Israeli writer popular among American Jews) and was influenced by Saul Alinsky and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Adams and Madison didn’t spend the nine years prior to their presidential election attending Passover Seders, nor did they bring the ritual to the White House.
So what exactly is it about American Jewishness that Obama understands better than his predecessors? First, he understands the search for identity under conditions of assimilation; in reading writers like Bellow and Roth, he saw echoes of his own search. (Although given how much harder it is in America to jettison blackness than Jewishness, Obama’s search was more constrained. I’ve long thought of Obama as a kind of African American Baal Teshuvah, with Jeremiah Wright providing the religious and ethnic “authenticity” that newly religious Jews find through institutions like Chabad, but that’s a different post).
Second, Obama understands far better than any previous president the way in which American Jews have adapted their prophetic tradition and deployed it in the struggles against economic exploitation, racial discrimination and war. Obama, who spent the 1980s yearning to recreate the 1960s, was fascinated by Jews because he knew how crucial they were to reviving the American left. He came to Chicago seeking a civil rights movement and found that Chicago had just experienced its version of one via the election of Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor. When Obama launched his political career, it was the Washington coalition—a coalition in significant measure of blacks and Jews—that he made his own.
What Obama understands, via Heschel and Alinsky and his many progressive Jewish friends, is Tikkun Olam, a form of Jewish identity that, like it or not, is more pervasive in the United States than either observant Judaism or active Zionism. If it weren’t, Obama would never have won 78 percent of the Jewish vote. Which means that for the American Jewish right, Obama’s real offense isn’t that he doesn’t understand American Jews. It’s that he understands them all too well.