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Obama and the Rabbis

There’s no denying Barack Obama’s gifts, at least when it comes to a classic Democratic constituency teetering away from him — America’s Jews, who, as I noted yesterday, are showing signs of giving John McCain the largest share of their vote since Ronald Reagan in 1980. In a brilliant effort to shore up his support and stanch the bleeding, Obama held a conference call this morning with 900 rabbis to wish them a Happy New Year. The High Holy Days of the Jewish faith begin on the evening of the 29th of September with Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the new year, and end 10 days later with Yom Kippur. These are the only days in the year in which one can expect American Jews to attempt, at least, to attend synagogue and listen to a sermon — and in an election year, Obama was offering these rabbis plenty of grist for their mills in convincing their parishioners to vote for him, at least implicitly.

Whoever wrote his remarks is one smart cookie — they are full of exactly the kind of talk to make a Reform or Conservative rabbi swoon. “The Jewish New Year is unlike the new years of any other cultures,” he said, according to an informative report by ABC’s Jake Tapper. “In part because it’s not simply a time for revelry; it’s a time for what might be called determined rejoicing. A time to put your affairs with other people in order so you can honestly turn to God. A time to recommit to the serious work of tikkun olam  ― of mending the world.”

Tapper’s report continues:

I do not think, as president, that I can repair all this on my own, but that perhaps together,” we can, Obama said, quoting from Rabbi Tarfon in the Talmud: “You are not free to complete the work, but neither may you desist from it.”

Obama then seized the symbolism of the Shofar, the ram’s horn blown during the High Holy Days, and relayed it to — what else? — his campaign.

“I know that the Shofar is going to be blown in your synagogues over Rosh Hashanah and there are many interpretations of its significance,” Obama said. “One that I have heard that resonates with me is rousing us from our slumber so that we recognize our responsibilities and repent for our misdeeds and set out on a better path.

“The people in every community across this land join our campaign and I like to think that they are sounding that Shofar and to rouse this nation out of its slumber and to compel us to confront our challenges and ensure a better path,” Obama said. “It’s a call to action. So as this New Year dawns, I am optimistic about our ability to overcome the challenges we face and the opportunity that we can bring the change we need not only to our nation but also to the world.”

Nice Rabbi Tarfon cite there, and, as my colleague David Billet points out, an exceptionally clever callback to Maimonides’s notion of the meaning of the shofar call.

What Obama’s team has done here is extremely clever. Pulpit rabbis do not go to the lectern and announce that their congregants should vote for someone. But they will be more than happy to do everything but — by attacking the notion that Obama is not a friend of Israel or of the Jews, by talking about the lies told about him, and the like.

By paying court and obeisance to a group of American clergy that actually doesn’t get this all that often, and at a moment of political peril for him, Obama has probably done himself a world of good.

On the other hand, there’s no erasing Jeremiah Wright…



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