Friday, June 01, 2012

We don't even know if the other John Adams knew Hebrew - on Obama and Judaismgate.

I love Wikipedia. I really do. I was never a naysayer, even though I was always aware of the shortcomings. See, for example, this post from longer than I care to think, about  how the life of Rabbi Moses Hayyim Luzzatto was in the process of being censored on Wikipedia - but it was being fought and documented on the talk page and edit change history. Also see these two posts (I , II) on how Wikipedia keeps on insisting that the fake portrait of the Baal Shem Tov is, or at least may be, his portrait: 

On the other hand, the greatness of Wikipedia hardly needs expounding any more. Yet with Wikipedia (and everything you read) it is still caveat emptor, and sources still need to be checked carefully and critically. 

So the other day Barack Obama reportedly told a group of rabbis that he knows more about Judaism than any other president did. This upset a lot of people, most of whom seemed politically motivated, and tried to refute it on a variation of the theme that in times past educated people and religious people were biblically literate (for example). The former presidents were both educated and religious. Therefore they knew their Old Testament, therefore they know more about Judaism than Obama. Now I have no idea whatsoever if Obama knows a little or a lot about Judaism, or how he may have acquired or not acquired this knowledge. Maybe he has a stack of Baron's Social and Religious History of the Jews which he keeps in his bathroom. Maybe he curls up at night with a Daf Yomi edition of the Schottenstein Talmud. Maybe he has read a lot of Heschel. Putting aside the possibility that he too may know his Old Testament just fine, that is simply no indicator of any knowledge about Judaism - not even ancient Judaism, actually. As someone who is deeply interested in Christian Hebraism, who has read a lot of works by Christian Hebraists, I know how to tell when a non-Jew (or Jew) knows a lot about Judaism. The ones who delved into rabbinic literature sometimes did know a lot. The ones who knew their Old Testament probably know a lot about Christianity, but not Judaism. 

Charles C. Johnson wrote an article which appeared in Tablet called "Obama’s Historical Chutzpah
Does the president really know more about Judaism than John Adams and James Madison did?" and he ridiculed this notion. Johnson, who is writing a book on Calvin Coolidge, writes: "To make sure that Jewish influence would be felt more widely, [President John] Adams, a polyglot, even translated the Old Testament into English."

Oh? The Old Testament? The Arba Ve-esrim? Can I read this translations? John Adams? Are they still in manuscript? Why haven't I heard of this?

The first thing you have to do when you hear something pretty wild is ask, Is this plausible?[1] The next thing to do is to check. Since I had never heard of this, and since I believe that I would have heard of this if it were true, I decided this must be examined. Why was it that whenever people write about Hebrew in America they talk about Cotton Mather and Ezra Stiles and Urim V'tumim and that Congress contemplated making Hebrew the national language of the United States - another tall tale, as I showed here - don't you think someone might have mentioned that President John Adams translated Tanakh before? 

It appears to me that Johnson's source is Wikipedia's section on John Adams in its entry List of Multilingual Presidents which says that "[Adams]  also demonstrated proficiency in Hebrew by translating books of the Old Testament into English, and translated parts of the New Testament from Greek." The footnote there gives us a book by Benjamin Franklin (not that one!) published in 2003 called The Other John Adams, 1705-1740. That's right. The other John Adams. By the way, did anyone read or see Coraline? Remember "the other mother?" Spooky. I digress. This other John Adams (henceforth OJA) was not the president, who was born in 1735. OJA was a New England clergyman, and he died when President John Adams was 5. 

On pg. 96, Franklin discusses OJA's linguistic proficiency. He shows that Adams had translated Horace from Latin - almost any educated man born in 1705 had to know Latin, at least to read it - and then he writes that "if Adams translated verses from the original languages of the Old and New Testaments - as opposed to reworking English translations of these books - "then he was demonstrably proficient in Hebrew and Greek." Franklin writes this since OJA included some translations from Scripture in his posthumously published book Poems on Several Occasions (Boston 1745), then perhaps he made those translations and perhaps he knew Hebrew well. Franklin then is not sure if OJA made the translations - of verses, not books - himself or only reworked existing translations, but if he did, then it would be a demonstration of his proficiency in Hebrew and Greek. But we have gone far afield, because who cares about Other John Adams? This is still not President Adams.

Finally, here is President John Adams in his own words (7 July 1814):

"I promised you that I would answer your questions of my opinions with regard to the Bible, and of my acquaintance with it—I have not studied the Canon of the Old Testament, because to my deep and constant regret I do not understand the languages in which it was written—I have never learnt either the Hebrew, or Chaldaic Characters, and therefore never could read a line of the Old Testament, in the Original—I have only read it in the Modern English French and German Translations for I have hitherto not even had the opportunity of going through either the Greek Septuagint or the Latin Vulgate, as I hope at some future day to do—of the translations which I have read, that in German, made by Luther, is incomparably the Best—The French one, originally made by Calvin, and revised by the Pastors of the Church at Geneva, is upon the whole not quite equal to the common English Bible published with the Dedication to James the 1st.—But in all there are a multitude of errors; and they are all so far from giving me satisfaction, that I shall never forgive myself, for neglecting to learn the Hebrew, when the opportunity for learning it was in my own hands."
The end of the matter is, check all sources.

[1] Note, I have nothing against the implausible. All my years of research, blogging, discussing, etc. have taught me two things. One, the implausible is often very plausible. Two, the implausible is often implausible for a very good reason. I first ask myself Is this plausible? and that question leads me on my way.

Edit: I got the chance to look at Other John Adams's Poems on Several Occasions, which you can do for yourself here. The full title contains the subtitle "Original and Translated." His biblical translations include the Songs of Deborah and David - both say they are "paraphras'd," which is an accurate way of acknowledging, I believe, that he made no claim to having translated them. Rather, he rendered his own poetic versions of these songs, but did not in any way translate from the Hebrew. But again, this isn't the president anyway.


  1. And we might add YOJA (Yet Other John Adams), the composer of the opera "Nixon in China." What his knowledge of Yiddishkeit is, I couldn't say.

  2. Nice catch on the OJA. But it doesnt change Johnson's central point, which is that this president's comments are quite ignorant. [I resist the urge to digress here.] Besides, Adams the President, whether he translated the OLd Testament or not - and Johnson doesnt say he translated the entire OT - was pretty knolwledgeable of Jews. He has a famous letter, cited among others by R. Z. Charlop in the first Torah UMaddah journal, referencing Sefer Yetzirah, the Zohar, the Kuzari, the Mishna, and the Gemara (not the "Talmud".)

  3. Meant to say above, Adamswas knowledgeable of JUDAISM, as contrasted with Jews.

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  6. DF:
    You're wrong in citing Adams' mention of those texts as evidence of his alleged knowledge of Judaism. With due respect, it's worthwhile to read both the letter you read about and the letter it was written in response to. In the letter you refer to -- the one cited by Rabbi Charlop and others, Adams writes to Jefferson:
    "To examine the Mishna, Gemara, Cabbala, Jezirah, Sohar, Cosari, and Talmud of the Hebrews would require the life of Methusaleh, and after all his 969 would be wasted to very little purpose."

    That's in response to Jefferson's letter, where Jefferson wrote (more famously):
    "As commentaries, too, on these, the philosophy of the Hebrews must be inquired into, their Mishna, their Gemara, Cabbala, Jezirah, Sohar, Cosri, and their Talmud, must be examined and understood, in order to do them full justice. [Johann Jakob] Brucker, it would seem, has gone deeply into these repositories of their ethics, and [William] Enfield his epitomizer, concludes in these words: 'Ethics were so little understood among the Jews, that in their whole compilation called the Talmud, there is only one treatise on moral subjects. Their books of morals chiefly consisted in a minute enumeration of duties [...] It may serve to give the reader some idea of the low state of moral philosophy among the Jews in the middle age, to add that of the two hundred and forty-eight affirmative precepts, only three were considered as obligatory upon women, and that in order to obtain salvation, it was judged sufficient to fulfill any one single law in the hour of death; the observance of the rest being deemed necessary, only to increase the felicity of the future life. What a wretched depravity of sentiment and manners must have prevailed, before such corrupt maxims could have obtained credit It is impossible to collect from these writings a consistent series of moral doctrine.' Enfield, [The History Of Philosophy, From The Earliest Times To The Beginning Of The Present Century: Drawn Up From Brucker's Historia Critica Philosophiæ] B. 4. chap. 3. It was the reformation of this 'wretched depravity' of morals which Jesus undertook."

  7. To digress on your digression..I'm actually fairly impressed that you referenced Coraline. It gives me little hope that I may yet emerge as a great scholar, despite my love of reading Neil Gaiman.

  8. It is impossible for colonial-era figures to have been very knowledgeable about Judaism. The leader of the small Jewish community was Gershom Mendes Seixas, and he was largely self-taught. The first person with a solid traditional Jewish education to settle in America was Israel Bear Kursheedt, who arrived in the first decade of the 19th century (and married Seixas' daughter). The first rabbi in America was Abraham Joseph Rice, who did not arrive until 1840. There might be some Presidents who would have had the opportunity to learn more about Judaism, but not early in America's history.

    What is certainly true is that although many US Presidents have Jewish relatives (and it is known for certain that Jefferson, both Roosevelts, Kennedy, and Clinton have living Jewish relatives in America), President Obama has the closest Jewish relative, a paternal half brother whose mother (still alive) is Jewish.

  9. Are you aware that you are cited at least twice in Shaul Shtampfer's recently published Lithuanian Yeshivas?

  10. Eastman, I did not. Can you tell me the context and/ or the posts? I have to get this book at some point, but on the book's own merit.

  11. 2009/06/what-happened-to-volozhiner-roshei.html
    Page 207 & 230

  12. "Maybe he curls up at night with a Daf Yomi edition of the Schottenstein Talmud."

    Yep, and here's a picture:

  13. I'm sure you know that Pres. Obama's wife's first cousin once removed is not only Jewish, but a rabbi in Chicago.

    I don't think there were any other presidents with such close rabbinical relatives.

  14. Excellent,as usually.

    1.Yes, another Neil Gaiman fan here. I'm afraid a retired fan at this point...

    2. Maybe I'm missing here something, but why in the world did you not correct the Wiki entry?

  15. Barcuh Pelta - You are correct. I actually noticed this myself when reivewing the letters over Shabbos, and intended to write an addendum. It is true that Adams was obviously using the same references cited to him previously by Jefferson. Having said that, Adams does proceed to discuss a fair bit of knowledge of Jewish history not discussed by Jefferson, including the burnings of the Talmud.

  16. There might be some Presidents who would have had the opportunity to learn more about Judaism, but not early in America's history.

    Don't forget that some presidents, such as Jefferson, spent significant time abroad.

  17. I do not know how much John Adams knew about Judiasm, but he knew something about Zionism, even though he lived before Herzl. In 1819 he wrote to Major Mordechai Manuel Noah, a Zionist forerunner:
    “Farther I could find it in my heart to wish that you had been at the head of a hundred thousand Israelites . . . & marching with them into Judea & making a conquest of that country & restoring your nation to the dominion of it. For I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation.”

  18. finish the quote..the next sentence of that letter is :

    I believe [that] . . . once restored to an independent government & no longer persecuted they [the Jews] would soon wear away some of the asperities and peculiarities of their character & possibly in time become liberal Unitarian christians for your Jehovah is our Jehovah & your God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob is our God.
    (source -

  19. Can you imagine if Obama said that the Jews should become liberal Unitarian Christians?

  20. MiMedinat HaYam6:13 PM, June 04, 2012

    JXG -- the (cousin in law) "rabbi" is self converted, not exactly jewish, even by C or R standards, but he identifies as jewish, so ....

    but his pulpit (on the tony part of the south side ofg chicago) is popular among ...some...

    2. as for pres adams, others being knowledgeable (to some degree, at least) about judaism: men of "letters" in those days were pretty knowledgeable about things like this.

  21. Rabbi Capers Funnye (pronounced "funNAY"), born Christian, underwent a "Black Israelite" conversion and later, in 1985, a Conservative conversion. So regardless of his halakhic status, it is inaccurate to refer to him as "self converted."

  22. "2. Maybe I'm missing here something, but why in the world did you not correct the Wiki entry?"

    Why didn't someone who read my post?

    If I had a responsibility to correct Wiki entries I would have to do it every day. I go through periods when I get into Wiki editing, and periods when I don't.

  23. "Arba Ve-esrim?"

    arba'ah ve-esrim



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