Think a Second Time._(book reviews)

Stew Albert



Page 89

COPYRIGHT 1996 Institute for Labor and Mental Health

The Jewish community continues to suffer from the loss of growing numbers of disaffected youth. In desperation, the directors of synagogues and community centers are looking for help from a circle of independent thinkers who address the spiritual and political issues that plague the modern world. Yet, scorning Jewish Renewal activist rabbis, story-tellers, artists, and musicians, the Jewish leaders instead prefer importing for "personal appearances" those pop-philosophers who sacralize the manners and morals of marketplace America.

What do we really expect? Socialist labor leaders maybe? Or 1960s-style civil rights and peace activists? I don't think so. The Jewish community is run by the rich. True, most of them want to do something good in the world, but as the Jewish communal crisis grows, their only source from which to draw a solution is their own acquisitive lifestyle. Naturally, the community leaders call upon glamorous personalities who, like themselves, have "made it," who tell us to look for moral corruption mostly among the poor, the Blacks, the gays, and pathetically sentimental middle-class liberals. On this lecture circuit, Dennis Prager is often in demand.

Prager's Think a Second Time offers a bigoted good-old-boy defense of the American white backlash. But it is not altogether typical of this genre, since Prager isn't a right-wing televangelist, but a pop-Jewish-theologian-cum-L.A.-talk-show-host who aims at the talmudic sanctification of his ruthless rage.

By means of books (he is the co-author of The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism), audio cassettes, a defunct national television show, his Ultimate Issues Quarterly, and speaking tours, Prager has built an impressive circle of influence for his conservative fulminations. Here in Portland, Oregon, a Prager appearance at the Jewish Community Center will draw a crowd, and not just from the Likud side of the street.

His approach covers most everything, ranging from surprisingly humane theories of child-rearing to an intelligent defense of non-Orthodox religiosity and somewhat interesting speculations on God's purpose. Yet he can then turn hideous, with a celebration of capital punishment and a pathetic apologia for describing God as a man. Prager offers some kernel of interest for almost any perplexed Jew.

Dennis Prager definitely knows how to draw customers into his tent. He sets them up with a compassionate acknowledgement of mutual suffering and a need for some higher purpose, presents his version of "ethical monotheism" as a rational solution, and then when the crowd is sufficiently softened, he springs his all consuming hatred of liberal and feminist ideas on his somewhat unsuspecting audience.

Even here he is selective. Since Portland Jews have been strong opponents of Christian Right-sponsored, anti-gay electoral initiatives, he stays off the subject. You'd have to watch his very late night T.V. show to hear his defense of Pat Robertson's homophobia. Instead he offers moderate audiences a treatise on the need not to offend gentiles by opposing prayer in the public schools. Besides, a moment of silence is a great way to foster moral development.

The big schtick centerpiece of Prager's theo-politics, argued with force and much repetition in Think a Second Time, is his contention that believing in the natural goodness of a human being is not only wrong but downright dangerous. He tells his readers that God created human beings as morally neutral beings with inclinations for good and evil. As a former camp counselor, the author assures us, he knows that there really are bad children. And after the Holocaust and Rwanda, how can anybody believe in humanity's natural goodness?

The notion that humans are naturally good is a wicked liberal secular idea that leads otherwise nice people into being sympathetic to the horrible Rodney King (whose behavior was so "immoral" he almost deserved, according to Prager, what happened to him) and believing that Blacks riot because they are denied any semblance of decent hope. If people are born good and act badly, liberals mistakenly believe, society must be at fault. Perhaps, some say, it has something to do with America's declining standard of living and the rise of grotesque economic inequality.

Dennis Prager knows better. He's sure that King and the L.A. rioters acted the way they did because of their individual immorality, which is due to the ill effects of liberal social programs and the absence of fathers who could teach them right from wrong, and finally because, at the liberals' behest, they were denied a moral education in the public schools. And, Prager would add, because until lately there hasn't been an electric chair around to keep them in line. "The difference between moral people and immoral people," he writes, is "not that moral people don't have rage; it is that moral people control their rage and immoral people don't."

And the same holds true for all Third-World anti-American rioters (although these days many are too hungry to riot), because the belief that the Third World is poor due to Western capitalism has "as much verifiable truth ... as there is to a belief in Neptune's effects on one's love life."

Arguing for capital punishment, Prager denigrates execution opponents, stating that, "The denial that people are the primary cause of evil...and that they must be fought might be the strongest denial mechanism operating in the world today." As for racism, yes there still is a bit of it about, but the American market economy has created more prosperity and opportunity than in any other time or place in human history, and besides, the Black patriot Clarence Thomas sits on the U.S. Supreme Court. But in case you think Dennis Prager isn't really fighting racism, you should know that he actively encourages whites and Blacks to have dinner together. It is a mark of the great progress made by American society that the "Negro" no longer has to settle for only being "taken to lunch."

What tortures me the most about Prager's worldview is that he pours his bitter wine into Jewish bottles. Name an issue and, with a few surprising exceptions (he believes first-trimester abortion should be legal, provided the woman is made to feel sufficiently guilty) and predictable variations (of course he doesn't agree with Robertson that all Jews are going to Hell), his program and the Christian Rights' are nearly identical. And yet he finds prooftexts in the Torah and Talmud to back up his meanest judgments.

I suppose one could let all this go with the usual "two Jews, three opinions" sort of reasoning, but reading Prager was so painful I found myself longing for the wonderfully just and compassionate Torah doctrine that sought to create a "nation of priests," so that a society might exist that did not oppress or corrupt its members or even its "strangers." That doctrine leaps off the Torah's scroll. It is a blueprint for a world where bosses are required to feed their workers before they can sit down at the table, and farmers must leave a corner of their fields for the hungry. In the Torah's world, bakers have to provide bread to the poor. See, Dennis - then no one has to steal it.

And I found myself also seeking the kindly talmudic sages who did everything they could to make the death penalty next to impossible. But in Think a Second Time, Prager haughtily dismisses their view as out of touch with contemporary America. Finally, I longed for the Baal Shem Tov's God who is so very good that everything God creates, including human beings, is naturally good - in fact, everything is good because God is in everything. Prager disagrees with this view, insisting that his infinite God can't fit into a finite world. Well Dennis, how dare you say what God can't do. If he wants to be in a tree, who are you to say no? I want Dennis Prager to face the fact that when racist police brutalized Rodney King, they were also stomping on the image of God.

How can educated upper-middle-class Jews consider Dennis Prager an acceptable centrist? It is a measure of how far to the Right the debate has gone in America and how shallow and degraded its discourse has become that Prager's trite rehashing of conservative truisms now appears to some Jews as political sophistication and spiritual truth.

Stew Albert is a founding Yippie and an editor of the Berkeley Tribe, an underground newspaper. More recently he has been active in the Oregon chapter of New Jewish Agenda, Peace Now, and his Havurah Shalom congregation.