President Obama’s risible claim to know more about Judaism than any other American president already has been demolished by, among others, John Podhoretz, who points out that James Madison and John Adams, who both read Hebrew, certainly knew more about Judaism than does Barack Obama. In fact, most educated Americans in the early days of our country probably knew more about Judaism than does Obama: Part of the Puritan heritage is a very strong identification with Israel. American universities were offering regular Hebrew courses long before their English counterparts, and the careful study of the Jewish scriptures was part of any gentleman’s education in religion and ethics. Hebrew was compulsory at Harvard at one point. Which is not to say that the Puritans and their descendents were exactly philo-Semitic — only that they knew something. President Wilson, a nasty but well-educated man, appreciated as much when he spoke of the Hebrew commonwealth as a model for the American commonwealth.
But one need not look back so far. Jimmy Carter is no friend of the Jewish state, but as a student of scripture probably knows more about Jewish thought than does our current president. President Obama’s immediate predecessor probably knows more about Judaism than the president does.
Even if President Obama were telling the truth, it would have been a boneheaded thing to say. Compare President Obama’s preening intellectual self-regard with the self-deprecation of President Kennedy, who famously remarked about a gathering of Nobel laureates: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together in the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” It is the reflexive self-aggrandizement of President Obama that grates more than the silliness of his claim. The list of important subjects about which Barack Obama knows more than Thomas Jefferson did is likely a short one. A more sensible man would appreciate that.