Jewish Journal

Letters to the Editor: Prager, Aaron Sorkin and Hollywood Jew

Posted on Nov. 2, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Readers Respond to Dennis Prager

Dennis Prager’s Oct. 22 column, “Are People Basically Good?” provoked many critical letters. Some are below. Prager’s response is here.

The word to watch for in this quote from Dennis Prager’s last column is “everything.”

“... If Jews are familiar with anything from the diary of Anne Frank, the most widely read book to come out of the Holocaust, it is her comment that ‘in spite of everything I still believe that people are basically good at heart.’

“Unfortunately — and I mean unfortunately with all my heart because I wish people were basically good — this teenage girl was wrong. She engaged in wishful thinking, as young people are often wont to do. What we have here is an example — one of many — of Jews and Judaism differing.”

How fortunate is the ghost of Anne Frank to be lectured by Dennis Prager, to have her particular soul robbed of her particular experience, and reduced to “this teenage girl,” to be thrown into the ash heap generalization of “young people,” as though her choice to see good under the shadow of torture, in the middle of war, is the “wishful thinking” of just another spoiled product of progressive education.

Seriously, could we assemble a beit din, or at least a rabbinic panel, on Anne Frank’s theological errors? Am I alone in wanting to scream at this desecration? Am I alone in wanting to scream that even to call her “this teenage girl” robs Anne Frank of her name, and in erasing her name, Prager erases what she meant by “everything”? For Anne Frank, everything meant that she’d been hiding with her family in an attic for two years, and that the discovery of her hiding place assured the agonized death she had no power to avoid, and in spite of all that, in spite of the sound of Nazis on the street outside, she believed in goodness.

She didn’t engage in “wishful thinking,” she engaged in the hardest work of all, finding good where there’s no reason for anything but bitterness. This is the real meaning of the Jewish admonition to choose life and the reason that “most Jews,” to support Prager’s assessment of our collective liberal heresy, make Anne Frank’s mistake. In Prager’s world, is “The Diary of Anne Frank” hidden from our children or do we draft a new preface, with a warning to parents, “CAUTION: THIS BOOK MAY KEEP YOUR DAUGHTER FROM BEING A GOTH.” He’s writing like the shamash who blows out the ner tamid when he closes up the shul at night.

Give Anne Frank the last word, written two years into her captivity, in all the clarity of her particular genius and truth. Where Dennis Prager sees wishful thinking, I see prayer. If what she’s thanking God for is another example of Anne Frank getting Judaism wrong, would any rabbis reading this care to tell her that? Failing that, would Dennis tell God?:

“And if I don’t have the talent to write books or newspaper articles, I can always write for myself. But I want to achieve more than that. I can’t imagine living like Mother, Mrs. van Daan and all the women who go about their work and are then forgotten. I need to have something besides a husband and children to devote myself to! ... I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death! And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that’s inside me!”

Michael Tolkin
Los Angeles

This column once again demonstrates the simplicity of Mr. Prager’s thinking. Our “id” develops first and in essence represents our raw impulses and lack of self-control. Consequently, we need to develop a strong super-ego to counter balance these forces. However, innumerable factors, many of which are mentioned by Mr. Prager, also affect our development as human beings. I am a liberal and believe that nature and nurture are both determinative of one’s behavior. Sadly, Mr. Prager does not engage in any level of complex thinking.

Martin H. Kodish
Woodland Hills

While I don’t share the hubris of Dennis Prager to speak for all liberal Jews on the question “Are people basically good?” I can say that liberal Jews believe that everyone comes into this world b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and therefore possesses a potential for good. And the concepts of yetzer hatov and yetzer hara ( the inclinations to do good or to do bad ) are firmly entrenched in Jewish thought and are fully accepted by liberals.Last month [in September], conservatives and liberals alike attended synagogue not patting their backs for jobs well done but instead were found beating their hearts over the sins they committed in the past year.

What can be said is that in their zeal to perform tikkun olam, liberals can sometimes be accused of turning a blind eye to what is legitimately bad in a person. But alternatively, conservatives can sometimes be accused of being so mono-focused on the bad in people that they never do uncover that spark of goodness that everyone has been endowed with.

Elliot Semmelman
Huntington Beach

“He tells us to judge one and all so generously, so much on the good side. Even if we think they’re as sinful as can be. By looking for that ‘little bit,’ the place, however small, within them where there is no sin (and everyone, after all, has such a place).” — Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (Hasidic master, 1772-1810)

Mr. Prager, in my opinion, the belief in humanity by liberals and others has less to do with “original goodness” and more to do with the confidence that people have the capacity to be good. Further, what is “goodness”? We do teach our children how to be what we consider “good,” but my own daughters express untaught kindness, compassion and empathy all the time that often causes me to check my own conditioned behavior. You are correct, human history is wrought with evil, but I fail to see how that is evidence of original sin. Rather, it could serve just as significantly as evidence of learned behavior and corruption of inherent goodness. I do not know if people are born good or evil or a mix of the two, and I agree in the imperative to develop loving kindness and a definite sense of moral accountability, be it through a sense of responsibility to a god or not, as there are many very moral nonbelievers. However, this in no way negates the overwhelming evidence that socioeconomic factors like racism, cycles of poverty, desperation, slavery and all manner of “evil” and injustice play significant roles in levels of crime, violent and not. Just dismissing them out of hand as liberal political excuses is irresponsible, prejudicial and, to use your word, “irrational.” Nobody is trying to suggest that criminals are blameless for their behavior or that lack of morals does not play a part. But simplifying the problem to one reason — people are just naturally bad — is doing what you criticize in your article, avoiding many of the causes of the problem. You may be right that controlling human nature is the root. However, the problem is much more complex, and only by understanding it in all its complexity can it be properly treated.

Joshua Berg

Thank you, Dennis Prager, for your article “Are People Basically Good?” You substantiated my belief that there is no God of Abraham nor any God that has a personal relationship with people. You cite Genesis 8:21 as God declaring that the “will of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” What you fail to cite in Genesis is that “God created man in His own image.” Ergo you are worshiping an evil God if your God says man’s heart is evil from his youth and that man is created in the image of God. I consider myself as basically a good person, hence why should I read or listen to anything you write or say knowing that you worship an evil God?

Leon M. Salter
Los Angeles

What a sad world it would be if we all believed as Dennis Prager that mankind is inherently evil. Fortunately, I am convinced he is wrong on this issue as he is on so many other of his opinions. He says he is “unaware of a single mainstream Jewish text that posits that people are basically good.” But he fails to observe and learn from the many incidences in Torah where our forefathers and mothers have expressed their inherent goodness. What was it that motivated Abraham to interrupt his dialogue with God in order to offer aid to the strangers that passed by his tent? What was it that guided Joseph to forgive his brothers who sold him into slavery? What was that pushed Ruth to be faithful to her mother-in-law? Yes, Torah does contain many wicked and immoral acts by people — because it is true that mankind is far from perfect. But in the end, the Torah shows us that the goodness of individuals overcomes adversity and inequities and thereby gives us all hope for the future. At the risk of being overly simplistic, I ask, if Judaism teaches that man was created in God’s image and that God is inherently good, how can Mr. Prager’s views be based on Jewish teaching?

John Beckmann
Sherman Oaks

Women & ‘The Social Network’

I am writing to say how baffled I was by Danielle Berrin’s takedown of “The Social Network” (“Who Does Aaron Sorkin Really Hate?” Oct. 22). The notion that Aaron Sorkin hates Jewish women because this story does not have a Jewish woman at the center is half-baked and bizarre. And far from being shrewish, I found the Erica Albright character to be smart, empowered and one of the script’s many pleasures. I should also offer that, within the Hollywood community, I have had no greater supporter of my screenplays (all of which have empowered Jewish woman as protagonists) than Mr. Sorkin.

Emma Forrest
via e-mail

Loyalty Oath

I believe you err when you express concern with the idea that new citizens have a requirement for a loyalty oath (“Debasing a Foundational Idea,” Oct. 22). I became a citizen of the United States 43 years ago and still remember that, under penalties of the law, I had to swear allegiance to the United States and the values by which it existed. I also had to resign allegiance to other “Princes.” Why would Israel not be considered democratic if it did the same? We must continue and reaffirm our support while allowing democracy to exist in Israel. When we disagree, we must be careful that our voice does not give comfort and support to our and Israel enemies.

Jose Reines
Los Angeles

Poland ... Then and Now

I read The Jewish Journal every week. I just got back from New Jersey, where we celebrated my dad’s 95th birthday, resulting in my reading last week’s issue this morning (“The New Life,” Oct. 22). (Hence, the late response.)

My father fought as a Jewish partisan in Poland and was liberated by the Russians, who made him an officer (due to his heroic exploits). My parents are from Chodel, Poland, a small village outside of Lublin. They will be the first to tell you as to how evil the Poles were to the Jews. Too many wanted to turn in Jews. The reward was a kilo of sugar or a liter of kerosene for every Jew turned in. Many could not wait to turn in as many as possible. There were Poles actively killing Jews during the war. This does not even include the pogrom of Kielce in 1946 in which Poles killed Jews who survived the war.

When I was back East, I also read the book “Rather Die Fighting” written by Frank (“Franek”) Blaichman, who was also a Jewish partisan in Poland and who is responsible for the memorial to the Jewish partisans at Yad Vashem. He is also a family friend. He outlines what the Poles did vividly in his book.

This does not mean that there were no good Poles. However, the bad seem to have outnumbered the good.

You should not be whitewashing actual history. Your article was unfortunately inaccurate at best.

Jacob E. Tauber
Beverly Hills

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