January 5, 2011
The Case for the Torah
With this first column of the year, I have decided to devote a number of my columns this year to making the case for the Torah.
If I may be personal for a moment, I will admit that, like most people, as I get older, the fact of mortality begins to play a more conscious role in my life. So, when I think about what I would like most to leave behind, in addition to good children and the good opinion of those who knew me, it is the case for America’s unique values (the American Trinity, as I call it — Liberty, In God We Trust, and E Pluribus Unum) and the case for the Torah and its unique values. I fear that both Americans and Jews have largely forgotten what world-changing values they have brought into the world.
The greatest Jewish contributions have been God and the Torah. But most Jews do not know why God and the Torah are so important, and many Jews think neither is important at all.
We Jews are a messenger who forgot his message. The message is to bring the world to the universal God of that Torah, the God of morality, the God of the Ten Commandments, and to the moral values of that Torah. (This does not mean converting people to Judaism, though Jews should be very open to converts. Rather, it means converting people to a system of moral and other values that is rooted in monotheism as laid out in the Torah.)
Why have Jews lost their sense of being a messenger?
I think there are four primary reasons, both external and internal.
1. Once the Roman Empire became Christian, Jews and Judaism were essentially declared enemies of the state. It is very hard to advocate a message when you are fighting for your life.
2. Jews, therefore, became preoccupied with survival. When a man is drowning, his one concern is not drowning. Nothing else occupies his mind. Unfortunately, Jewish preoccupation with survival continues to the present day, even where, as in America and Israel, Jews are free to advocate the Torah’s values.
3. Jews and Judaism became increasingly insular as much of Jewish law became preoccupied with having Jews avoid interactions with non-Jews (nonkosher wine is an example).
4. Halachah, Jewish law, became so all-encompassing that it became an end unto itself; indeed, it became the very purpose of a Jewish life. As a result, the religious Jew came to be defined quantitatively — i.e., by how many ritual laws he observed. The more laws a Jew observed, the more “religious,” the more authentically Jewish, he was and is perceived to be.
What, specifically, are Jews supposed to be advocating?
The answers lie primarily in those five books known as the Torah and, secondarily, in the rest of the Jewish Bible.
But there are two huge challenges to accomplishing this.
The first is the one I have just noted: You have to first believe that you have a mission in order to embark on it.
The other is even more daunting. Even if Jews were to be convinced that they have to teach the Torah’s values to the world, too few would know what to teach.
Here’s a possible way to test this thesis: If you or your rabbi were given an hour a week for 52 weeks to teach the Torah on YouTube to a mixed audience of millions of Jews and non-Jews, what would you teach them that would make them and their societies better? The question is not what would you teach them in order for them to have a more scholarly understanding of biblical text, but what distinctive values of the Torah would you teach them that could impact their moral behavior and values?
It is my belief that the Torah is the most important and influential book ever written, that it is God-given, and that properly understood, it provides the finest recipe for a good life and a much better world. But — and this is a big and necessary “but” — properly understood, it would also involve rejecting many of the dominant values and beliefs of our time.
One final point: Some years ago, I had an epiphany. I realized that I wasn’t using almost all the technology I purchased to its fullest capability, because I never read the instruction manuals. In a lifetime of photography, for example, I had rarely looked at the instruction manual that came with the camera or with a flash attachment. Over time, through trial and error and suggestions from others, I took some nice pictures, but I wasn’t nearly the photographer I wanted to be or could be. And the reason was that I didn’t know much of what my camera or flash was capable.
There is an analogy to life here. If we need an instruction manual to use our cameras properly, why would we not need an instruction manual to know how to lead a life properly? Sure, through trial and error, and through others giving us suggestions, some can get through life without necessarily doing any real harm and even doing some good. But we fool ourselves and do not improve the world if we think we can do it consistently and well without an instruction manual.
And the greatest instruction manual is the Torah. I intend to show why that is so.
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host, columnist, author and public speaker. He can be heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) weekdays 9 a.m. to noon. His Web site is dennisprager.com.