Iran’s apologists and others seeking to head off the effort to stop Iran from attaining nuclear weapons have been doing their best to portray the Islamic Republic as a reasonable nation run by rational persons. The goal of these arguments is to assure the world that the ayatollahs and their minions can be trusted to keep their word if the West negotiates a deal that would allow the Iranians to keep a peaceful nuclear program. Others go so far as to assert that a nuclear Iran would not be a threat to the West or Israel because its leaders are neither suicidal nor really bent on Israel’s actual destruction. But the problem with the Iranians is that their ideology of hatred is so deeply embedded in their political culture that they can’t help but undermine the efforts of those seeking to polish their image even when the world is watching.
That’s what happened yesterday when the United Nations convened an international anti-drug conference in Tehran. At the event, Iran’s vice president greeted the delegates by telling them the key to understanding the plague of the illegal drug trade was, you guessed it, the Jews and Judaism. Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi said the Talmud, a sacred text of Judaism, was responsible for the spread of drugs because it instructs its adherents to “destroy everyone who opposes the Jews.” As the New York Times reported from the conclave, European diplomats who came to make nice with the Iranians were “shocked.” But even this display was not enough to convince the West to connect the dots between this open display of hate and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Prediction is a loser’s game. But if one were to guess the Jewish happening of the moment in the United States of greatest future consequence – the one most likely to be discussed and to have influence 100 years or more from now – you could do much worse than to say the publication of a new English translation of the Talmud by Adin Steinsaltz by Koren publishers, the first volume of which is now available, and was reviewed today in Jewish Ideas Daily by Yehuda Mirsky. The volume’s appearance and the promise of the remainder of the entire great work to be published in the years to come is a landmark in making the text accessible to the millions of Jews whose native (and often only) tongue is English.
The Steinsaltz text is not the Talmud’s first English translation. In his review, Mirsky compares the new Koren edition to the Schottenstein translation, capably published for years by ArtScroll and widely available in Judaica shops and many houses of study. Mirsky praises the Schottenstein English as “lucid” and a great window into Jewish learning, and it certainly is. He also notes the “gravitas” of the ArtScroll format, which in its Talmud as in everything else conveys a valuable sense of tradition and history.
But ArtScroll, perhaps by design, seems incapable of reaching beyond the doors of Orthodox institutions. That gravitas can serve also as a barrier.
Apparently, Barack Obama told a visiting contingent of Conservative Jewish rabbis that he probably knows more about Judaism than any other president—on the same day that he referred to “Polish death camps.” For that last remark he apologized, but the one about Judaism is far more telling. In the first place, the claim is transparently absurd. We can quickly pass over the fact that John Adams and James Madison, among the most educated men in the world at the time, knew Hebrew as well as Latin and Greek and just say that the president is, to put it mildly, punching above his weight here. So let’s move on to the fact that every president until the modern era knew more about Judaism than Barack Obama because the Bible was the one book every literate person knew, and the Bible includes the books Christians call the “Old Testament,” and a working knowledge of the Old Testament certainly is the best introduction to “Judaism” there is.
Earlier presidents did not learn the Talmud, of course, but if Barack Obama ever has, that would come as news to me. There is no indication from Obama’s own writing that he is especially Bible-literate, and we can presume that his notorious pastor of 20 years used the Bible primarily as flavoring for his political duck soup. I have no doubt that, among presidents closer to our time, Jimmy Carter was far more conversant in the lore of Biblical Judaism, for all the good it did his corrupted soul when it comes to the Jewish state.