So did you hear the one about Republican presidential candidate John Kasich and the students of the Talmud? Sadly, it’s not a joke. It does have a punchline – of sorts. Whether it’s funny or not depends on your point of view.
While campaigning in New York Tuesday, in what Jewish Insider‘s Jacob Kornblush calls “a pre-Passover learning tour in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn,” Kasich first had a debate with Ezra Friedlander – a Democrat by the way – about who is the most admired person in the Torah.
Friedlander: “I would say, Moses.”
Kasich: “What about Abraham? What happened to Abraham?”
Friedlander, as Kornbluh relates, then “explained that the story of the Jewish people accepting the Torah from G-d started when they left Egypt led by Moses.”
To which Kasich responded: “What are you talking about? Get outta here. The story of the people are Abraham – when God made a covenant with Abraham, not Moses.”
Friedlander: “Yeah, but you know what? In our prayers, we do mention Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — ” (here Kasich interrupts with, “Yeah, like they were important”) – “but we refer to the laws as the laws of Moses and Israel. So, Moses is up there.”
Opportunity to look the fool rained down on Kasich like manna from heaven, for he then ran across the group of Hasidic yeshiva students. Now, as Wikipedia will tell you, yeshiva is “a Jewish institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts, primarily the Talmud and Torah study.”
This gave Kasich an opportunity to show the world just how clumsily he can handle himself around non-Christians. And it’s not like the world is full of those, or anything.
This is how Kornbluh describes the encounter:
“What are you studying?” he asked. “Talmud,” one student replied. “Okay, but what are you learning now?” Kasich pressed. “Shabbat laws,” they said. “Do you know who I like? Joseph,” Kasich started lecturing them.
Now as Judaism 101 will tell you, or as you no doubt can figure out for yourself, Shabbat corresponds to “Sabbath” and what they were studying were laws concerning the Sabbath. As any Christian should know from a reading of the New Testament, there are some laws concerning this topic – laws Jesus himself ran afoul of.
Perhaps Kasich doesn’t know this. Perhaps he doesn’t care. Perhaps he just likes to hear himself talk. So he said,
“You study Joseph? What do you think about Joseph? Did you hear what was the most important thing Joseph said to his brothers? ‘My brothers, you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.’ Did you know that?”
This facepalm moment was followed immediately by another:
“They sold [Joseph] into slavery, and that’s how the Jews got to Egypt. Right? Did you know that?”
No, I bet they didn’t know that. They only study it all day long.
Watch courtesy of Jacob Kornbluh:
What is as distressing as Kasich’s derisive tone is his refusal to look at the man who is talking to him, Friedlander – as you can see from the screen capture above, or from the video, if you have the intestinal fortitude to subject yourself to it.
As Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine quipped, “this is a bit like visiting MIT, wandering into a physics lab, and asking people if they ever heard of this guy named Isaac Newton.”
Only a Republican…
Naturally, this caused some mirth on Twitter, where Tablet Magazine editor Yair Rosenberg tweeted,
John Kasich meeting Hasidic yeshiva students and explaining biblical stories to them is my new everything: https://t.co/W3bTjTyhy9
— Yair Rosenberg (@Yair_Rosenberg) April 13, 2016
There is another side to this of course, and not everybody had a negative reaction. Friedlander, perhaps being polite, perhaps enjoying the public discomfiture of a Republican candidate, or perhaps just amused, said he enjoyed the “impromptu theological discussion.”
But the rest of us are trying to picture this moment with Kasich and a group of Muslims instead.
Jamelle Bouie, Slate’s chief political correspondent, tweeted “I think it says a lot about Kasich and none of it is good.”
Never were the differences between the polished and erudite Barack Obama and your average Republican candidate more apparent than in these exchanges. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are not exceptions to the rule, but rather examples of it.
And Kasich proved you don’t have to be a Donald Trump to be an oaf and a clod where, not the policies of the state of Israel, but actual Jewish people are concerned.