No one wants to stir up controversy regarding an annual gathering meant to unify religious believers, so it’s understandable that press and pundits largely ignored President Obama’s profoundly peculiar remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5th. Nevertheless, his brief prepared talk (the White House released a text of his comments before he spoke) February 5th in the nation’s capital contained so many provocations, contradictions and flat-footed misstatements that they deserve more serious attention than they’ve received.
For instance, the President of the United States (and the speechwriters who undoubtedly helped craft and polish his lines) made a glaring mistake of Biblical attribution. At the center of his speech, Mr. Obama declaimed: “We know too that whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. Jesus told us to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’” Actually, it was God the Father, or Moses, or the anonymous compilers of the Old Testament who communicated that commandment at least 600 years before Jesus. “Love your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18) had been identified by Jewish sages as the central instruction of the Torah long before the Nazarene made it the theme of his challenge to corrupt religious officials of his generation.
Moreover, after giving Jesus credit for the most famous passage in the Torah (Five Books of Moses), the President went on to ascribe to the Torah a line that isn’t even there. After explaining what “Jesus told us” Mr. Obama went on: “The Torah commands, ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.’” Actually, these worthy sentiments appear nowhere in the Old Testament. But they do echo a famous passage of the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) in which Rabbi Hillel (who lived in the first century BC) was asked for a quick summary of the Jewish faith and responded: “What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Law. The rest is explanation; go and study the explanation.”