This is a true story, dating back to the mid-1980s. In Jerusalem , there was a prominent scholar of Jewish law whose lectures were attended by some of the brightest young men in the country. His razor-sharp logical distinctions were repeated and appreciated around the world. Yet he had one regrettable tendency that irritated his students mightily. He had a tendency to branch off mid-presentation into political tangents, offering oddball opinions. They deputized one of their ranks to suggest to the professor that he eliminate this part of his repertoire.
The young man was not brash enough to broach the subject directly. Instead he asked the teacher: “How can we explain the debate in the Talmud whether Ahasuerus, the Persian king in the book of Esther, was a wise man or a fool? One rabbi says he was wise to invite the broader population to the first celebration (Esther 1:3) and the locals to the second one (ibid 1:5), because he could take the hometown folks for granted. The other rabbi says the king was foolish; he should consolidate his base before doing outreach. But wait, isn’t one rabbi winding up saying that the other rabbi is a fool?”
The teacher agreed that this was a tough question.
“I would suggest an answer,” the student said. “If a king is wrong about politics, he is a fool. If a rabbi is wrong about politics, that does not make him a fool.” The message got through and there were no more insertions of political commentary in that classroom.
This anecdote comes to mind when surveying this horrible situation with Reverend Jeremiah Wright and his erstwhile protege, Barack Obama. As if Wright had not been wrong enough with his original statements about America exporting terrorism and killing innocents in Hiroshima , he compounded matters spectacularly by his appearance at the National Press Club this week. Not only did he repeat such classic canards as the United States government manufacturing the AIDS virus to decimate blacks, he assured his audience that Obama agrees but is prevented from saying so by the exigencies of the campaign trail.
Obama rightfully came out the next day and repudiated all this nonsense. There is no question that he is paying a high price for his relationship with this pastor, and I suppose that is fair enough. Yet on a personal level, I feel for him in this situation. I suspect that I am not alone in noting that I know a number of people whose religious views and behaviors impress me a great deal, yet they are political fruitcakes. Trust me when I tell you there are Jews of high intellect and moral probity who believe conspiracy theories about the United States and Israeli governments that would make your hair stand on end.
It is disappointing to see that people with generally good minds and hearts can be misled into views of government that border on true insanity. It takes an effort of will to overlook these craters of bad judgment on the “surface of the moon” of some religious luminaries. Nor do we want to patronize them by saying that religion is some esoteric endeavor that does not call for high intellect. No, we have to accept that people can be very smart in key areas of life and yet indulge a series of very odd beliefs about the political arena.
Sometimes I tell myself that politics is just too big and unpredictable, that it moves in odd patterns and does not follow rational systems. This leaves some of these very structured thinkers at a loss for processing so muddled a realm. In any case, the result cannot be argued. Some smart religious types, no less than smart professorial types in other disciplines, are absolute dunderheads about all things political.
Let me say it again. The Republicans are entitled to whack away at the wacko cleric and try to score points against Obama. But on a human level, just between you and me, this is a sorry shame.
Jay D. Homnick, commentator and humorist, is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator. He also writes for Human Events.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?