January 29, 2010
Messengers Who Forgot Their Message
For my first column as a contributing writer for The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, I thought I would share some thoughts on 40 years in Jewish life and introduce myself to readers through a brief, specifically Jewish, autobiography.
I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home in Brooklyn, where I attended yeshivah through the age of 18. To the chagrin of my parents, from my bar mitzvah onward I was not halachically Orthodox, though I was always deeply committed to Judaism. I call myself a “religious non-Orthodox Jew,” a term I will explain in future columns.
I began my involvement in public Jewish life in 1969 at the age of 21. That year I was sent to the Soviet Union by Israel to smuggle in Jewish items and smuggle out Jewish names. After returning from a month there, I began lecturing on Soviet Jewry to Jewish groups around the country — four to five times a week, as national spokesman for the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.
I did this while attending graduate school at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs (the Russian and Middle East Institutes). I did not receive my master’s degree, however, because I decided to write an introduction to Judaism instead of a master’s thesis.
So, Joseph Telushkin, my dear friend from the Yeshivah of Flatbush High School, and I wrote “The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism,” which became and still is one of the most widely read introductions to Judaism in the English language.
A story about the book is worth recounting. We sent the manuscript to the Jewish Publication Society of America (JPS), hoping they would publish it. I received a call from an editor at JPS who told me that they would not publish the book. I asked her why, and her answer taught me a great deal about Jewish life: “Because it is too advocative,” she said.
I was stunned. The Jewish Publication Society of America refused to publish a Jewish book on the grounds that it was “too advocative” of Judaism?
As it turned out, that rejection was a blessing. Joseph and I published the book on our own and sold so many copies that we lived off the sales of the book at lectures for years. Later Simon and Schuster published the book.
I came to realize that the JPS refusal to publish a book that was advocative of Judaism was symbolic of much of Jewish life. It seemed that almost no one outside of Orthodoxy was advocating Judaism (and even in Orthodoxy at that time, Chabad was largely alone in doing so and not nearly as well-known as it is today).
Jews were teaching about Judaism, but not advocating it. Judaism was more a subject to be studied than a distinct religious/moral value system to be lived, let alone advocated. That, I came to believe, was a Jewish tragedy. Judaism as a subject of study doesn’t make Jews. As valuable as Jewish scholarship is — and I consider it very valuable — it doesn’t convince many Jews to embrace Judaism, any more than my studying Buddhism in college made me a Buddhist.
But that is what I wanted to do — advocate Judaism and convince as many Jews as possible to embrace it (through whichever denomination they prefer or nondenominationally); and to convince non-Jews to embrace the God-based value system that the Torah introduced to the world.
The irony is that while few Jews have promoted Judaism or Torah values, Jews have not been shy about promoting what they do believe in. Jews have been among the most passionate advocates of liberal and leftist causes both in America and Europe — because they believe in those causes. In fact, though largely secular, Jews may well be the most ‘religious’ people on the planet — it’s just that their religion is rarely Judaism or any other God-based system. Rather, most Jews believe in and advocate almost every secular “ism” in the world — feminism, socialism, liberalism, environmentalism. You name the “ism” and there is a good chance Jews are among its founders and/or its leaders.
In fact, Jews proselytize as much as Evangelical Christians do — but for liberal and leftist causes, not for Judaism. Yes, I know that many Jews equate liberal and left-wing causes with Judaism, but I regard that as another Jewish tragedy, to be discussed at length, I promise.
The sad reality is that the Jews who talk to the world don’t believe in Judaism and the Jews who believe in Judaism don’t talk to the world. The Jews are a messenger — what else could Jewish chosenness possibly mean? — who forgot His message.
What is that message? I have devoted my life to explicating it, but in a nutshell, it is to bring the Torah’s values, specifically belief in the one God and His values as found first and foremost in the Torah, to the world.
Yet, far more Christians believe in the Torah than do Jews. That is why secular and left-wing Jews will often feel closer to left-wing non-Jews than to religious Jews, and why this yeshivah boy often feels closer to believing Christians than to left-wing Jews. This is not what I expected when I was growing up in Brooklyn. But, as the Yiddish saying goes, “Man plans and God laughs.”
Dennis Prager is a syndicated radio talk show host, columnist, author and public speaker. His Web site is dennisprager.com. He is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon.