April 27, 2000
The Great Debate
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Larry Flynt debate pornography with some help from Roseanne
It was billed as a championship heavyweight bout, the great debate between Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler and other pornographic magazines, and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of "Kosher Sex" and other major works.
As it turned out, it was more like an old Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton two-reeler, with the skinny and nimble Boteach furiously bobbing, jabbing and weaving, while the heavy-set Flynt sat there placidly flicking off the jabs and occasionally throwing a punch of his own.
The referee was Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer, who tried, with indifferent success, to point Boteach back to his corner at the end of a round.
Joining as an unannounced wild card was Roseanne, television personality and student of kabbalah, who sat between the two combatants and did little to raise the coherence level of the Monday evening debate.
Nevertheless, the 750-strong, mostly youngish audience apparently got its $15 worth, applauding the best punch lines and peppering the speakers with questions, some even more far out than the debate itself.
Stripped of its persiflage, Boteach's main argument was that pornography degrades and dehumanizes both men and women and causes marital dissatisfaction because few wives can equal the abundantly endowed and uninhibited porno queens on video.
Delving into his bag of statistics, Boteach asserted that 84 percent of men fantasize about other women while making love to their wives.
Flynt, who was introduced by Scheer as "a hero in the constitutional and First Amendment struggle for freedom of expression," took a swipe at Boteach as a "Jewish Jerry Falwell," before delivering his central message.
"It's O.K. to have values if they work for you, but it's a big mistake to impose your morality on others," said Flynt. "The church has had its hands on our crotch for 2,000 years. Let's give each other a little more space."
Roseanne interjected that both religion and pornography were about controlling women, but, since she had reached a menopausal stage, sex was of little interest to her.
Cleverly weaving in a Passover theme, she observed that "Being liberated from sex, I've been freed from slavery and the land of Egypt."
During the question period, one man wondered how the rabbi had become an expert on pornography without perusing the stuff. Another audience member asked Boteach, an Orthodox rabbi, to work toward the ordination of women rabbis and the abolition of the prayer in which men thank God for having made them men.
These observations, however, were topped by a lady who identified herself as the executive director of Coyote, a trade association for prostitutes, who sought the panel's help in legalizing prostitution.
"Being a prostitute is the best job I ever had," she asserted. "Before that, I worked for the Los Angeles Police Department for 10 years, and that job really sucked."
The debate was presented by the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC), and not everybody was happy about the sponsorship.
Several synagogues declined to host the event and Dr. Jose Nessim, president of the center, acknowledged that a number of rabbis had protested Flynt's appearance.
One note, which the center made available, was from Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple. "Flynt ought not to be given the sponsorship of a Jewish educational institution," Wolpe wrote in part. "He does not merit it. His life is devoted to the dissemination of pornography, to the objectification and degradation of human beings. Rabbi Boteach ought not to demean himself by appearing on the same platform, and you ought not to demean yourself by sponsoring it."
Apparently, no one objected to the fact that Boteach himself packaged the debate and then presented it to the Sephardic center.
Nessim shrugged off the criticism, noting that "to Sephardim little is taboo, and perhaps we can learn something useful."
Neil Sheff, chairman of the SEC's Young Adult Movement, who organized the evening, observed that the debate would help familiarize many young people with the Sephardic center.
As the crowd left the Wilshire Theatre after the debate, they encountered a sidewalk preacher with perhaps the final comment on the evening.
The man was wearing a sweatshirt with the words "Jesus Is Coming in 2000?" on top. Printed below was the warning, "God's Judgment Is Coming."