Obama the Talmudist

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I often find secular references to the Talmud interesting — and usually off base. The most recent example comes from today’s New York Times profile of Barack Obama by Michael Powell.

Friends talk of his sixth sense for career timing as if there were a Barack-the-immaculate-pol quality to his rise. But he is no accidental political tourist.

He studies his chosen world like a Talmudist, charting trends and noting which rivals are strong and which weak.

What does Powell think studying Talmud is all about?

To some extent this depends on where the simile ends.

If it’s before the comma, Powell is merely using “Talmudist” to connote some vague sense of intense analysis. This would be superficial, of course — and I’d say — a poor choice of wording. But it’s better than the other option: reading the sentence’s parenthetical as an elucidation of “Talmudist,” which would mean that Powell thinks studying Talmud has something to do with analyzing trends.

Either way, one gets the sense that Powell doesn’t know much about Talmud. Nor is he the only writer I’ve seen use the word in this ambiguous sort of way, which is a curious phenomenon.

Where does the secular image of the Talmudist come from?

Posted on June 4, 2008

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