I like John Kasich, even though I do not agree with many of his positions. He seems like a mensch.
And that word — mensch — is one that he could have certainly thrown around, during his recent visit to Eichler’s Judaica, a religious book store located in heavily-Orthodox Borough Park, Brooklyn.
Governor Kasich was making a campaign stop at the store, and encountered a group of hareidim (so-called “ultra-Orthodox” Jews). After a few niceties, he began explaining the Torah to them — in a move that one wag called “goysplaining” — when a gentile explains Judaism to Jews.
There is a Yiddish (actually, Hebrew) word for that.
You got it — chutzpah.
Kasich and Ezra Friedlander, a Democratic strategist, got into a nice little scriptural debate over who is the most admired person in the Torah.
“I would say, Moses,” Friedlander said.
“What about Abraham? What happened to Abraham?” Kasich asked.
Friedlander explained that Moses presented the Torah to the Jewish people, and that he was the true founder of Judaism.
“What are you talking about? Get outta here,” Kasich dismissed the explanation. “The story of the people are Abraham – when God made a covenant with Abraham, not Moses.”
“In our prayers, we do mention Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but we refer to the laws as the laws of Moses and Israel,” Friedlander explained.
Switching topics, Kasich then asked the hareidim if they knew anything about Joseph.
“Have you studied Joseph? Did you hear the most important thing Joseph said to his brothers? ‘My brothers, you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.’ Joseph may have been a little bit of a braggart, but they threw him in that ditch and then his brother saved him, and then they sold him into slavery, and that’s how the Jews got to Egypt. Right?”
So, as they would say in the yeshiva world — what is the RASHI (the below-the-line interpretation) of Kasich’s miniature Torah lesson?
Kasich was clearly intending to simply make relevant, friendly conversation — the way that a candidate would talk to Home Depot employees about, oh, nails.
Unfortunately, though, his discourse falls into a sad category of Jewish-Christian conversation — in which gentiles (mostly Christians) have tried to explain to Jews what the Jewish Scriptures “really” mean. This tradition goes all the way back to the beginnings of Christianity, in which Christians hectored Jews over the “fact” that the Jewish Bible predicted the advent of Jesus. (See Anti-Judaism by David Nirenberg). Take a tour of medieval cathedrals, and you will see the allegorical statue of the blindfolded woman, symbolizing the Jews who are blind to their own truths. And you don’t have to look far to see contemporary examples of non-Jews who are all too ready to explain the meaning of Jewish peoplehood and Israel to the Jews.
And, in fact, this is precisely what Kasich did subsequently — when he interpreted the blood on the doorposts of the Jews in Egypt as the blood of the lamb, Jesus. While this is a common Christian interpretation, to Jewish ears it is plain offensive and inappropriate. A bad move.
Kasich voted for Abraham — as the founder of the Jewish people — being “better” than Moses. His interlocutors preferred Moses — as the founder of the Jewish religion.
There actually is room for debate here. Rabbi Donniel Hartman engages in that debate in his new book, Putting God Second: How To Save Religion From Itself.
It is a larger conversation; is Judaism mainly a people (the Abraham argument), or mainly a religion (the Moses argument)?
Kasich was engaging in a very Jewish conversation.
Finally, the bit about Joseph. Kasich was telling the story of how, exactly, the Jews got into Egypt in the first place — because they followed Joseph there.
He was right.
But now, let’s dig a little bit deeper into Kasich’s interpretation of the Joseph story.
I will leave it to you to debate why he chose to mention the fact that Joseph was a “braggart.”
Or, perhaps (OK, OK — this is a stretch) — Kasich sees himself as Joseph — a “loser” who has, electorally, been in the “pit,” but who could (miraculously?) emerge from that pit and ascend to power.
I don’t know.
But I will say this: Kasich pointed out the part of the Joseph story that I love the most, as well.
“‘My brothers, you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.'”
That’s all about faith. That’s all about the fact that there is always something bigger going on, and that we cannot know about, and that sometimes our seemingly pitiful and even irrelevant actions bear the imprint of the Divine Map.
John Kasich is a man of faith. And this, bottom line, is a good thing.