He is the author of three books: 1998's The Lord Will Gather Me In: My Journey to Jewish Orthodoxy, 2003's The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism, and 2006's Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History.
If you are at all acquainted with his work, then you must have a strong opinion about him. He's a bomb thrower.
As Publishers Weekly put it in a review of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus:
Klinghoffer's foundational belief is that Torah is truth and has something important to say about everything in life. David's mentor is Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Toward Tradition -- the Right's favorite rabbi.
David began taking up residence in my brain in 1998 with the publication of his memoir. I read many reviews of the book, most of which portrayed him as a nutter and claimed he tried to circumsize himself in a bathtub at age 16.
"I didn't try to circumcise myself (I was medically circumcised already) in the bathtub," notes Klinghoffer. "It was hatafat dam brit I was trying to accomplish, merely drawing a tiny drop of blood, which has the same effect as circumcision in Jewish legal terms but isn't the same procedure. The former would have landed me in the emergency room and probably an asylum."
I was struck by this critique by Carol Lloyd in Salon on January 26, 1999:
I never forgot that final sentence and have used it as a conversation starter ever since, usually while rubbing my chin in a Socratic manner and turning my gaze to the horizon.
I checked out David's book from the Los Angeles Public Library and felt like I had discovered a kindred soul. Like me, he was unable to be. He had to have ultimate meaning.
Like Klinghoffer, I played with socialism in college. At UCLA, I declared myself an "atheistic communist" while secretly venerating George Will, Thomas Sowell and the Chicago school of free-market economics.
I was an atheist in 1988 when my life came crashing down. I developed what was diagnosed in March 1989 as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and ever since I've hobbled through life with what feels like a never-ending flu.
In the humiliation of weakness, I found God and Judaism through the teachings of Dennis Prager. In a similar way, Klinghoffer found the excitement of Torah through the teachings of Daniel Lapin.
Without the thrilling way Prager articulated the Jewish religion as a step-by-step guide to making a better world, I doubt I would've become Jewish. Similarly, without Rabbi Lapin's presentation of Torah as a divine blueprint for life, I doubt David would have written his books and lived his life as he has the past 12 years.
David confessed in his memoir that he was unable to be sexually abstinent before marriage. Neither was I. In my first year in Los Angeles, I slept with about 20 women. Only half of these were hook-ups. The rest were part of genuine attempts at a relationship, something I've never sustained for over a year.
Though Klinghoffer and I traveled a similar path from 1988-94, in the summer of 1995 we went in different directions. While Klinghoffer enjoyed success as the Literary Editor of the National Review, I was struggling to establish myself after six years on the sick bed. Wobbly morally as well as physically, I took a desperate route to earn a living as a writer by landing a book contract to write a history of porn.
My preference had been to write a book on how to be a good person, but nobody seemed interested in that. Around May of 1995, I had approached Dennis Prager for permission to develop some of his ideas on this topic into my own book but he understandably asked me to leave off. (I had moved to Los Angeles in 1994 to work for Prager but the job never came through.)
Like Klinghoffer, I believed (and continue to believe, though in a much looser way than David) that Torah is truth and that it would be a light in the most dark of places.
"So you believed that God wanted you to write a book on porn?" queried a sarcastic young Persian I once wanted to date.
No. Not at all. I did not feel called by God to write on porn. I felt distinctly queasy about it. I was a regular at Aish HaTorah at the time and other Orthodox shuls in Pico-Robertson. I foresaw that the consequences of my writing would be disasterous for my prospects in Jewish religious life.
Rather, I believed that the pursuit of truth was divinely mandated for everyone and that my religious background would enable me to see things about the pornography industry (whether you hate it or love it, it is certainly a serious issue facing society because it profoundly affects the way ordinary people relate to each other) that the secular would ignore.
Just as one good deed leads to another, so my decision to write a book on porn led me to spending much of the next 12 years interviewing porn stars, pornographers, pimps and and prostitutes (I stopped watching porn in 1996 -- with few exceptions -- realizing that the people who made the product were more interesting than the thing in itself and less damaging to my soul).
From 1991-1995, I babbled to anyone who would listen that I wanted to live for God. I would enumerate, at the least opportunity, the reasons why I chose Judaism. I was an unbalanced, needy, desperate, pompous ass.
Following the humiliation of my 1995 writing choice, I became quieter. I found out the world was willing to pay me to interview others while almost nobody would pay me to give my own opinions.
(Over the years, I got emails such as this one: "I came to your website for the porn but I stayed for the Torah. There's a mitzvah in there somewhere.")
I wanted to be an intellectual like Dennis Prager and David Klinghoffer -- making my living from my ideas. I failed.
So when I picked up Klinghoffer's book in 1999, I became immersed in the story of somebody who had succeeded exactly where I had failed (religiously, vocationally and morally).
Ironically, I wasn't much interested in Klinghoffer's ideas. I was interested in his descriptions rather than prescriptions. I didn't care about his teachings on circumsicion. I wanted to know what kind of knob would convert himself to Judaism in a bathtub.
After visiting Israel in July 2000, I took another run at Orthodox Judaism (having lounged among the less rigorous non-Orthodox for the past couple of years). I put on tefillin every day at Young Israel of Century City (YICC), studied a page of Talmud and walked around in fear of the great and terrible day when Rabbi Elazar Muskin would discover that "Levi Avraham" was "Luke Ford."
Before that reckoning arrived, David Klinghoffer came to town. He was the scholar in residence one Sabbath at YICC. He spoke about wearing his yarmulke in Santa Monica and shining the light of Torah in the wider world.
YICC is a bastion of frum from birth types and they didn't take well to this convert criticizing them.
In the midst of this sea of pissed off yids (Klinghoffer was completely oblivious to their reaction), I marched up to David and told him how much I enjoyed his work. Then I just as quickly marched away before he saw that I was a fraud.
Over the next few years, I'd see Klinghoffer's writings in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles. In the December 13, 2002 edition, David wrote: "My family and I are eager to move to Los Angeles from Seattle, but I've got a problem: We are Orthodox and we like trees."
I immediately developed a fantasy that David and I were going to be friends. If he'd have lunch with me, I'd plant a tree for him in Pico-Robertson.
Luke:"What was your reaction to David Klinghoffer's book, The Lord Will Gather Me In?"
Mark:"I think he's a dodo. It's not because he's conservative. He's not just an ideologue. He's ignorant. I've been at the point many times of writing the Forward to say, I understand you need to have somebody writing from the conservative standpoint, but he's a dope. It's a real example of a little bit of knowledge being terrible."
[David emails: "You see, this is what I mean about the Internet. Obviously, I'm biased, but this kind of thing — though it's simply his personal opinion and Silk is fully entitled to it — I could never get away with in an edited venue, and that's a good thing, to preserve a veneer of civilized discourse. I couldn't quote someone who just calls names. But it's very typical of the Internet."]
The point of this long and disturbing (but if you say it is homoerotic, I will punch you in the face) introduction to my interview is that my cassette tape did not register the first 60 minutes of my chat with Klinghoffer Thursday afternoon and I have to rescue the thing from memory (I took no notes).
The next problem is that I don't remember much. I'm just left with a few sense impressions and a few minutes of recordings on a new tape where David praises his Orthodox community in Mercer Island.
This type of mishap happens to me about once every two years. The damn thing of it is is that both my tape recorder and the particular cassette in question record just fine. Something went mysteriously wrong in the hovel between three and four p.m. yesterday. Perhaps it was aliens who wanted me to kick away my crutch and write out my feelings.
As someone who has blogged for a living for a decade, I hate to write and absolutely prefer to transcribe.
Before I get back to David, I just want to whine about the preparation I put in for this interview. I read David's latest book on Jesus (in shul, it didn't go down big) and reread his memoir Tuesday and Wednesday while surrounded by scantily-clad girls eager for my attention.
I asked David what he wanted to be (as a child) when he grew up. He said archeologist. I asked him what crowd he hung out with in high school. He gave a meandering answer. I asked him what his reputation was in high school. He said he was thought of as a geek and as a momma's boy.
David said he gave his future wife his memoir on their first date. She'd read the whole thing by their second date.
(Daniel J. Goldhagen gave a friend of mine a copy of his book Hitler's Willing Executioners on their first date. I don't think there was a second date.)
I asked David for his profoundest disagreement with Daniel Lapin. He said it was his willingness to speak frankly to Christians about Jewish differences. Rabbi Daniel Lapin says we should make nice with Christians.
I asked David why he was conservative and not libertarian. He said the Torah is not a libertarian document. He then elaborated on why he believed that such vices as pornography, prostitution and gambling should be illegal.
Luke: "Why do you live in the Seattle area?"
David: "I was in Palos Verdes. The sun was going down. The weather was beautiful. I was talking to my friend. I said I had just gotten a contract to write a book about Abraham, which gave me freedom to move around. I don't have to live in New York. It was a tremendously liberating realization. I decided right there that I was going to move back to the West Coast.
"I thought about living in L.A. I didn't know the Jewish community there. It just seemed huge and overwhelming. I thought about the Seattle area where I did know people.
"I took a visit to Mercer Island. I thought, 'If I could just find a place that was cute and cheap, then I would take that as a sign.' I did find a place that was cheap and cute."
Luke: "If Torah is so wonderful, why don't you live in a Torah center such as New York or Los Angeles?"
David: "Because Torah is portable and it exists anywhere Jews exist. I don't think Torah is better when there are more Jewis living in a certain place."
"We've got an incredibly generous sweet little community [in Mercer Island]. We just had twins. Our community went all out and beyond the limits of generosity to help us. I don't think you would've found that in New York. Even though there are more Jews, community can often be stronger when there are fewer people.
"At the height of Jewish existence in the classical era of the Middle Ages, Jewish communities were tiny. They were nothing like New York. This huge bloated community like in New York or Israel is the anomaly.
"A lot of people in New York say, 'Living in Brooklyn is how Jews have always lived.' Not true at all. Jews have always lived the way we live now in a small community in a suburb of Seattle. Only here we don't have pogroms."
Luke: "So you enjoy living in a goyisha city."
David: "Seattle is very goyish. That's one thing that makes it not as interesting a city as New York. In many ways, it's a very gentle place. Seattle has a lot of problems. I write about the consequences of secularism in the North-West -- the most unchurched region in the country -- in my new book on the Ten Commandments. I have no interest in moving back to New York. I think L.A. is an interesting place."
Luke: "Why don't you live in Israel?"
David: "Because I'm not a Zionist. I don't feel that the Jewish mission is to live in Israel at this time. The idea that all Jews must live in Israel now -- that's the anomalous attitude. The normal Jewish idea of the past 2,000 years is that if the individual Jew wants to live in Israel, that's wonderful, but the idea that all Jews must live there now would be seen as eccentric verging on heretical. I represent the norm of what was/is the Jewish attitude to Israel, which is to feel that there's an amazing spirituality about the land itself but not about the idea of Jews living under a Jewish government in the land of Israel."
Luke: "Zionist. All that means is that Jews have the right to a land of their own in Zion. You don't believe that Jews have the right to their own nation like every other people?"
David: "Zionism means lots of different things. It's like the word 'evolution.' You get into trouble if you don't supply a definition. When I say 'Zionism' and I say I'm not a 'Zionist', I have in mind religious Zionism, which is a doctrine..."
Luke: "That there's religious significance in the modern secular state of Israel."
David: "I don't buy that. To say that this is the first fruits of the promised redemption, that's wildly presumptuous. I've heard wise Modern Orthodox rabbis say that this may have been premature."
Luke: "If there had been an Israel in 1939, six million Jews wouldn't have gone up chimneys."
David thinks for ten seconds. "You're talking about a different world. That's like a hypothetical. I guess so."
Luke: "We live in a world that frequently hates Jews."
David: "If there had been an Israel in the Middle Ages, Jews wouldn't have been killed... For whatever reason, God sent us into exile and He didn't choose to end the Exile in 1939. I assume for good reasons. I don't know what those reasons are..."
Luke: "You don't have any sense that your life and your children's lives may depend on the existence of an independent Jewish state in the land of Zion."
David: "It could. Sometimes mistakes [such as the creation of the modern state of Israel] end up having positive consequences. Maybe it will turn out that it was a crucially positive thing that a Jewish state was founded."
"In Jewish life, often things that are not Judaism become identified almost as halacha [Jewish law]... 'All Jews must be excited about the state of Israel.' Where does that come from? Why?"
Luke: "It comes from the Holocaust."
David: "'All Jews must eat cholent.' Why? There are enough mitzvas [divine commandments] without adding mitzvas that aren't."
Luke: "Isn't it a mitzva to live in the land of Israel?"
David: "People disagree on that in classical sources. The Rambam doesn't seem to think it is, per se. Nor did most halachic authorities until recently. They said that Jews should not go up to the land of Israel with force and make their own state until the Messianic era. And now Judaism has changed for some reason. Almost by the force of events."
Luke: "Because of the Holocaust."
David: "I don't know. There were tragedies [before]. The Khmelnytsky massacres [of the 17th century]? Was that radically different from the Holocaust? I'm not so sure. Were the Crusades of a completely different nature than the Holocaust? I don't see it. Why the Holocaust would change our understanding of Judaism when those previous tragedies did not? I don't see why. We have a whole framework for understanding tragedy. It's called tisha' b'av. People want to make the Holocaust into this unique event and it's not."
I tell David that I find the establishment parochial Jewish press -- the Forward, The Jewish Week of New York, the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles - dull.
David: "I don't agree. I think you undersell them. There are some local Jewish newspapers that are deadly dull but the ones you mentioned, I find interesting. I'm much more troubled by Jewish blogs, excepting yours which I find admirable as evidenced by your interviewing me.
"I think there's a lot of nastiness and gossip. It's because there are no editors. That's the problem with the internet in general. Many times I have written something for publication in the print media and an editor has told me, 'That's not appropriate.' 'That's going too far.' 'You can't back that up.'
"I was grateful for it. I would've regretted it if they had not told me that."
Luke: "Could you give any examples?"
David: "I don't want to give any particular examples."
Luke: "Why not?"
David: "There's so much sniping on the internet and so much nastiness and attacking people personally and much of it I doubt is even true. It's just a huge rumor mill. There's evil in it. It encourages people to indulge their basest desires to run people down. It's wrong. It's disgusting."
Luke: "Have you followed at all the blogs vs. purported rabbi predators?"
David: "A great example. I have a little bit. For a while I was reading that stuff more carefully. Now I have stopped completely because it made me want to wash my hands afterwards and take a shower, in part because what you were reading might be true or it might not be true."
"As shocking as it is to imagine a rabbi-predator doing whatever they do, if you can believe that a rabbi would do that, you can also believe that somebody would make stuff up. A blogger has the responsibility to be careful about what he allows people to say on his blog or what he says himself. Bloggers are not careful. It's salacious. We know that people sometimes say things that are not true. The whole sexual abuse craze of the 1990s, the whole Wenatchee, Washington case...where about 60 people were accused of sexually abusing children and it turned out to be untrue. It turned out there were young people who just made stuff up."
Luke: "I've been following this closely for three years. I've written about the issue from both sides. I'm unaware of any rabbi being falsely accused [of sexual abuse] on any prominent blog such as Canonist, UnOrthodoxJew. I'm not saying the language is always temperate."
David: "Could be. I stopped reading those accounts when one blogger allowed people to tell stories about a rabbi I knew slightly and I found it unbelievable."
Luke: "But if it were true..."
David: "Another thing I find contemptible about these blogs is that [many of them] are anonymous... To write in a newspaper, you have to put your name on and say who you are and where do you live and where do you work...but blogs can say what they like with impugnity. It's cowardly. It's terrible."
Luke: "The authors of the Federalist papers were anonymous."
David: "The authors of the Federalist papers were making philosophical arguments. Accusing rabbis of molesting children is different... They were writing noble ideas. Not hurting anybody. Not casting aspersions on anyone's reputation. If you want to make philosophical arguments about ideas, fine. If someone wants to have an anonymous blog about philosophy, terrific. But if you want to accuse other people of evil acts, you better put your name on it and your address and say where you work, otherwise you have no right to speak about these things."
Alexander Hamilton was one of the two leading authors of the Federalist Papers and he, along with his peers, were constantly dealing with nasty anonymous publications.
Luke: "Why did you write your book, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus?"
David: "In part because the argument with Christianity was a big part of the reason I became a Jew. I began thinking about Judaism in a serious way in large part because I had an encounter with a Jew for Jesus missionary on the UCLA campus when I was a high school senior. It was a guy called Sid and he argued with me about Isaiah 53. I realized I was so ignorant, I couldn't answer any of his challenges. It scared and disturbed me. I date from that my personal journey...and my research into what's true."
"I have a lot of gratitude to Christians because my encounters with them have provoked me into going deeper into Torah, and the results of that are always positive. Christians, with the exception of one nasty email I got when my book came out, have always been genial, civilized and concerned. I've received almost no nasty Christian responses to my book. I have received nasty responses from Jews."
Luke: "Where does your book on Jesus break new ground?"
David: "I don't think anyone has written a history of the whole Jewish-Christian argument about Jesus. It's a 2,000 year argument. There are books that atomistically list the arguments but I wanted to tell a story and say the things that are positive about Christianity. It's not just a debate where we are good and they are bad. The world was blessed with the coming of this new religion in ways we experience every day as Americans. There wouldn't be an America if it weren't for the rise of Christianity and there wouldn't have been Christianity if the Jews had not rejected Jesus."
"There's an aspect of my argument that is not made by the Jewish counter-missionaries. They will argue with Christians on Christian terms about the prophecies. Do we find signs of Jesus in Isaiah 53 or not?
"I think the crucial argument is the status of Torah observance in Christianity. Christianity rejects Torah observance and that is the most basic reason for a Jew to reject Christianity. The Hebrew Bible is clear that the grammer of the relationship between the Jews and God is to be Torah observance forever."
Luke: "Why did you write your book on Abraham [The Discovery of God]?"
David: "He's the first Jewish convert. My perspective is animated by my being a convert. I wanted to tell the story of a Biblical figure using both traditional Jewish and secular material, which no one had ever done before. I was excited by Abraham because he chose to be Jewish. Not that I'm drawing a comparison between myself and him."
Luke: "What do you love and hate about being interviewed and written about?"
David: "I like that it helps me reach my audience. Above all, I want to reach lost Jews. It's frustrating when people quote you and you end up not sounding intelligent. I get frustrated when people get things wrong. One of the most aggravating things written about me was a review of my Abraham book in the Washington Post by Jeff Sharlett (his blog is Killing the Buddha). First, it was a badly written review. Second, he tried to summarize my first book, my memoir, and tried to be funny by saying how Klinghoffer talks about how he tried to convert himself and he cut off the tip of his penis.
"I should've sued him. Anyone who's read my first book knows that is not an accurate description of that scene. It makes me sound like a lunatic. To take one drop of blood is nothing. This completely exaggerated it in a responsible publication, which shows that having an editor doesn't guarantee anything."
Luke: "It's interesting to see how people seize on stories like that to dismiss people who trouble us. Almost every review I read of your memoir seizes on that incident and tries to show you're a lunatic. And when you read that, you immediately think, 'This guy's a lunatic.'"
David: "I've seen more people seize upon my professional association with Christians as a reason to dismiss me. You would think that somebody who wrote a polemic explaining the reasons for rejecting Christianity would be immune from that."
Luke: "Do you see yourself on the margins of Orthodox life or do you see yourself in the middle?"
David: "Philosophically, I'm in the middle. In a community like Seattle, there aren't the political divisions between Modern Orthodox, Yeshivish, and all these ridiculous labels. They don't come up in Jewish life here. It's much more tolerant than on the East Coast."
Luke: "I perceive Daniel Lapin as on the margins of Orthodox life."
David: "No. He's not the typical Orthodox rabbi but he speaks in Orthodox shuls all the time, from Chabad to Modern Orthodox. There are people who'd like to perceive him as on the margins..."
Luke: "Why are you writing a book on the Ten Commandments?"
David: "It bookends with my next book, Why God Is A Republican. The Ten Commandments book is about judging American culture through the lens of Torah and [Why God] is about judging American politics through Torah. I'm trying to show the relevance of Torah to everything, that Judaism has something vital to say about every aspect of our public life, not just our private life."
Luke: "Do you think abortion should be illegal in the first trimester?"
Luke: "Do you think we should deport people who are here illegally?"
David: "I do not. If you look at the Torah as a model, it provides a mechanism by which people who are outside can come in, but it's a rigorous model. The model of conversion is that anyone who wants... We are delighted when someone converts but we do impose high hurdles. That model for America is appropriate -- to welcome people who are willing to abide by demanding standards."
Luke: "What do you think about building a big fence between us and Mexico?"
David: "It's probably a good idea. The theory of a fence is the same as a Beit Din: If you want to come in, you can, and we want to talk to you, but there is a certain way you do it. You don't just wander in off the street and declare yourself a Jew. You go through a channel."
Luke: "Do you think it is possible that different races have different median IQs? That that controversial chapter in the book The Bell Curve might be true?"
David: "Sure. It's objectively true. Do different races test differently? Objectively they do. The question is why. That doesn't mean that one race is smarter than another, they just test differently."
Luke: "Do you think it is possible that different races, on a median level, are smarter than others? For instance, Ashkenazi Jews not only test higher, but they have everything that goes with that -- higher education, higher income, Nobel prizes, etc..."
David: "Did you see that article [by Charles Murray] in Commentary on superior Jewish intelligence? I think discussions of IQ often miss the forest for the trees. That article is a classic example. He was trying to argue that Ashkenazi Jews are, and have always been, of superior intelligence, on average. He tries to figure out why. He knocks down all sorts of materialistic explanations."
Murray's concluding paragraph: "At this point, I take sanctuary in my remaining hypothesis, uniquely parsimonious and happily irrefutable. The Jews are God's chosen people."
David: "What do different endowments say about the different missions God seems to have given to different people? It's arguable from a Torah perspective that different races have different missions. We're not meant to be one melding of people. You lose something when distinctions between peoples and nations are lost.
"A lot of people were offended when Barak Obama's pastor was quoted talking about the black church, and Black Christianity vs. White Christianity... I thought, what's wrong with saying that black people have some special gift or mission or illumination or insight from God that other people don't? I believe Jews have a particular insight to share with the world and why wouldn't blacks? That I find more interesting than discussions of IQ."
Luke: "Where are your biggest doubts vis-a-vis the essential principles of the Jewish faith?"
David: "Materialism. That material reality is the only reality. That's a huge challenge that we don't make an effort to answer and I'm disturbed by that. You will find efforts by the Jewish community to respond to philosophical challenges or religious challenges from Christianity, but I think the challenge from Christianity is much easier to deflect than the challenge from secularism and Darwinism and that whole worldview. That almost no one is trying to answer that question disturbs me.
"It says in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) that you're supposed to have an answer to an apikoros (heretic) -- a follower of Epicurus, the arch-materialist. We are told that we are supposed to have an answer for such people and we don't and I wonder why. You talked about the scandal of supposed rabbi-predators. I find that much less interesting and important than the scandal of rabbinic irrelevance. Why do rabbis ignore the great intellectual challenges of our day? Why do they focus only on Israel or on fight anti-Semitism, things that are much less likely to result in Jews being lost.
"Are Jews more threatened by Islamists or by secularists? To me the answer is obvious -- secularists, but all our focus is on Islamists. Jews aren't being lost to Islam. Jews are being lost to secularism. In large part it's because our community makes no effort to answer secularism. Jews will hold Christians at arm's length when Christianity is not a threat to us."
Luke: "One hundred and fifty years ago, most Jews in the world were Orthodox. Now most Jews are not Orthodox. Whenever Jews have had a choice, a majority of them have chosen to not be Orthodox. What does that mean?"
David: "I don't agree. Jews in the Middle Ages chose to be Orthodox. As far as Jews choosing to be Reform or Conservative, I guess that's some kind of failing on the part of the Orthodox establishment. I don't see that as true today."
Luke: "But it is true today. Only a minority of Jews are Orthodox."
David: "That's true, but the tide has turned."
Luke: "Only because so many Jews are not being Jewish [in any denomination]."
David: "You hear many stories of Jews becoming Orthodox. Off The Derech is an interesting book but it documents a small phenomenon [of Jews leaving Orthodoxy]. Traditional Judaism is in a stronger place than it has been in a century or more."
Luke: "How do you decide when you consult a mishna or gemara, what is divine and what is man-made?"
David: "The whole gemara is obviously a human product. It wasn't given on Mount Sinai. I always try to assume that whatever I'm looking at is in some way a reflection of God's mind even though it comes to us in a human voice. That is something that is cool about Talmud study. You come across stuff that seems crazy like the Talmud on medicine and some people will say that the rabbis are speaking in the science of their time, I find that argument tedious. I find that whole 'the rabbis were speaking for their time' incredibly pedestrian. What if they are not talking about medicine at all even though they seem to be? What if this is coded information we are given the privilege of trying to crack? That I don't understand it when I look at it is immaterial. Who am I?"
"The whole phenomena that the Torah is a reflection of God's mind is an exciting possibility to me. It makes life worth living... It makes life very exciting to think that you've got this text that perhaps the whole thing is a representation of God's mind. I would rather take a chance on that... I'd rather err on the side of hope than on the side of fear."
I call author David Klinghoffer Friday afternoon, August 31, 2007.
Here's the audio and a partial transcript.
Luke: "How was the experience of writing this book different from the others?"
David: "I had to write faster. With my Abraham book, The Discovery of God, I did a lot more research. I write books on scholarly subjects but I'm really just a journalist. I couldn't do the kind of research that a real scholar would do."
"It was harder in that there are more new insights. With the Abraham book, I was drawing on midrashim. My creative work was to tie them all up in a narrative. With the Jesus book I was relying on a lot of scholarly research that had been done before me and the creative work was drawing it into a narrative. Here I had to take some creative stabs on connections between the commandments because they are not specified in the traditional sources. That was uncharted territory."
"My next book was going to be called 'Why God is a Republican.' And every time I would mention that people would laugh. Now I can't use that title because the organization I work for is a non-profit and we can't be partisan. Now it is going to be called, 'How Would God Vote?'"
"I write fast. I take risks. I'm sometimes surprised when people take great offense at things I wrote.
"Weakness? I'm writing about things that a scholar should be writing about and I am not a scholar. There's always the danger of my being superficial and wrong."
Luke: "If you were offered a million dollar book contract but with the proviso that you could not criticize liberalism nor secularism, what would you write about?"
David: "I would write a novel about Judaism."
Luke: "What do you love about Seattle's culture?"
David: "It's a beautiful place. It's gentle in many ways. You point out that it's very secular and you queried why do I live here instead of Jerusalem. You speculated that I like secularism more than I admit."
"Being in a religious culture is a hothouse environment. Everybody's looking at you. We live in a suburb where there's a small shul as opposed to the main Jewish neighborhood called Seward Park where there are three large Orthodox synagogues. We chose not to live there in part that it is a hothouse. Everybody notices what you do and what you don't do. Where we live there are more secular Jews. I guess you are right that it is inconsistent of me that I choose to live in such a secular area."
"It's true that the place you'd think of as fun, beautiful cities to live in -- Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Boston -- these are all blue cities. The cities in the red spectrum, be it Dallas, they are not places I'd run to live in. That is a mystery. I don't have a solution."
"These blue cities are new to secularism. The analogy I'd give is someone going off their medication. For the first few hours, the person may feel fine and concluded he never needed his meds."
"There's a genteel quality to the better aspects of Seattle's culture. Nordstroms could only have started in Seattle with their emphasis on customer service. But I didn't move here for Seattle's culture. It's not like when you go to New York or L.A. and feel a buzz."
David's favorite movies include The Last Emperor, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Lord of the Rings, and the Star Wars series.
"I listen to rock music all the time on the radio. It's great for driving but I never listen to it at home. I don't pay attention to the groups. I just turn on the radio and flip around to try to avoid commercials. If you mention the name of a song to me, it is almost certain that I wouldn't recognize the name of the song but if you played it for me, I probably would recognize it."
Luke: "What did you think of Borat?"
David: "I thought it was funny but mean. The first half was hilarious. The second half I felt increasingly guilty yet enjoying it. It made fun of people who were trying to be helpful. It was cruel to people who weren't bad enough to merit that kind of cruelty. Though I laughed throughout it, it was ugly movie."
Luke: "Would you agree to be interviewed by Borat?"
David: "No. Everyone knows that if Borat wants to interview you, it is to make a fool of you."
Luke: "Which part of life do you find most perplexing?"
David: "How to be a good husband."
He's been married seven years.
Luke: "How has being a husband and father affected your thinking and writing?"
David: "I've been thinking about that in connection with our disagreement about gossip."
Luke: Some forms of gossip I view as completely reprehensible (those forms that do far more harm than good) and other forms of gossip as mixed (the good and harm are about equal) and some forms of gossip are good (those that do more good than harm).
David: "You've never been married and you don't have kids."
David: "Have you ever held a real job, a 9-5 job?"
Luke: Yes. I've held various full-time jobs for three to six months each. I held part-time jobs for more than two years.
David: "Have you ever been part of a community that you felt committed to?"
Luke: "All of my life (with the exception of my years from age 18-26), I have been a part of a traditional religious community (before 18 it was Seventh-Day Adventist ones, from age 27 on it has been Jewish ones)."
David: "One way my life position has made me rethink gossip is that you understand what other people have to lose. With gossip you can destroy someone's family and his role in the company and community. To understand what people have at stake, you have to experience this. You don't just kill the one person. You kill his family, his wife, everyone connected with the irresponsible spread of gossip. It places a tremendous responsibility on the person who wants to spread information.
"Your argument is that where there's smoke, there's fire."
Luke: Sometimes where there's smoke, there's fire. When you transmit personal information, you have to balance the good with the harm before publishing. Sometimes transmitting gossip informs the unwary about something that could hurt them.
David: "I guess I'm placing more stress on the harm."
"People who have opted out of responsibilities and worries and concerns that other people have and treat those responsibilities lightly and then wear that fact proudly... It would be interesting to know if the people who run Jewish blogs that gossip, do they have anything at stake?"
Luke: "The more you have at stake, the more vulnerable you are, and the less you are in a position to write gossip."
David: "That's my point. That drives me berserk."
Luke: "How important a role does gossip play in enforcing community norms?"
David: "It's a two-edged sword. On the one hand, you can say it keeps people honest. At the same time, every time someone is caught doing something they shouldn't and it is broadcast, it lowers the shock value of the thing reported. Before, the thing was so shocking that nobody would talk about it much less do it. Now it is being talked about all over and giggled at..."
Luke: "Why do you say that the media hold someone's life in their hands? Someone could write that I am a child molester and I would still feel that my life is in my hands. Why would give the media that much power?"
David: "It does. Maybe that you're a blogger and a lone ranger, you're not married with kids, you're not employed, you are invulnerable to being destroyed. You report things on yourself, you linked to something nasty someone had written about you that wasn't true, and for you there's no cost to that. It's all part of being a blogger. It's interesting to read. It costs you nothing. But you report the same thing about someone else and it costs them everything."
Luke: "Isn't that because I've built up a thick skin and someone else hasn't?"
David: "No. It's because you've exempted yourself from responsibility for other people. Is there anyone for whom you are responsible?"
Luke: "I know that my writing profoundly affects the hundreds of people I write about."
David: "That's different. They choose to read your blog."
Luke: "No. The people I write about [whether they read me or not]."
David: "Is there anyone who is inextricably bound to you?"
Luke: "Not on an ongoing basis. Sometimes people are particularly vulnerable and I am the one who's there for them."
David: "Someone who looks to you for support."
Luke: "A lot of people who are disenfranchised, who have a story they want to tell but don't have the means. They feel beaten down by life. I get to tell their story. I went to dinner the other day with Marsha Plafkin. I told the story of her troubles with the University of Judaism....
"She said to me she would not have been able to get married without my telling of her story. That freed her to go on with her life. Prior to then, she felt so completely battered by life, she felt unable to carry on."
David: "I don't know the story, but taking what you said at face value that's great. But that's different from what I'm talking about. If you were to disappear from the world tomorrow, her life goes on."
Luke: "Yeah, but if I had disappeared before telling her story, her life would not have gone on as it has, if we take what she said at face value."
David: "But if you disappeared right now..."
Luke: "But the other persons who I might help now..."
David: "Your relationship with them is purely hypothetical. Anyone you might help in the future, you don't know who they are yet."
Luke: Some of them I do know who they are. I've taken down their story. I've started to check it. I just have not published it.
David: "You have to imagine yourself in the total existence of someone you are writing about. It's harder for you to do that because you don't have those kinds of responsibilities now."
Luke: "But as a conservative, don't you believe in individual responsibility? You keep talking about the power of the media to destroy someone's life. I would contend that a person has a fair amount to say in their own destiny and that a person who has some resources should not allow himself to be destroyed by some damaging report in the media."
David: "That's naive. You can't not let yourself be destroyed."
Luke: "Let's say you are accused by a blogger of sexually molesting a 12-year old girl. And the allegation is true. That's very damaging but I would contend that depending on how you handled it, you could carry on."
The proper way to handle such a thing would be to admit the truth and then plead for your sin to be balanced against the good things you've done in your life and point to evidence that shows you have changed from the person who did the evil.
David: "I guess."
Luke: "Let's say you plagiarized three lengthy paragraphs in your new book. Normally, that would end your career as a writer. But I contend you could bounce back. It would destroy your career as you know it now but it would not have to destroy your life."
David: "Whatever someone does to me, deserved or undeserved, would deeply impact everyone connected with me."
Luke: "Let's say a blogger has that information on you, should they publish it? Would you if the shoe was on the other foot?"
David: "I don't think so. I'd email them privately and let him know that I've got his number and put some fear into him."
"People make careers out of jumping on someone's mistake and using it to advance themselves."
Luke: "I think that works to the good."
David: "Whenever everyone is ganging up self-righteously on some guy who has everything to lose... Did you see my column for NRO about Larry Craig? Everyone jumping on this guy... Maybe I'm a contrarian."
Luke: "Are you a contrarian?"
David: "I guess you could say that I am."
Luke: "Wouldn't that be part of the reason that you choose to live in blue areas?"
David: "Someone could say that... You could more readily explain it as a profound inconsistency in my whole argument. If what the Torah says in this parsha is true, then you would think that societies that are God-centered would prosper and be beautiful places to live and that places that are not God-centered would be pits. Anyone who takes the Torah seriously would have to ask themselves why is that not the case? Seattle is not a pit."
Luke: "Where would you be if you didn't have secularism and liberalism to fulminate against?"
David laughs. "I guess I would be an archeologist."
We talk about Noah Feldman.
David: "I find something uninspiring about Modern Orthodoxy and I can kinda see why this guy might have felt unexcited by it."
Luke: "How often do you encounter anti-Semitism among right-wing Christians?"
Luke: "Did you ever hear from Mel Gibson?"
Luke: "How do you recharge (aside from the predictable answers such as family, friends, Judaism, etc)?"
David: "I like to drink a screwdriver when I get home from work. I like to see the ocean. I like to see big bodies of water."
Our interview wanders.
David: "I'm always looking for a teacher. I'm always searching for a guru. Not just a living person, but a book. Then I'll think, 'Now I've found it. This is how I'm going to explain Judaism.' And then I'll read more and I'll realize that doesn't quite do it. I'm still trying to figure out an overall hashkafa (worldview) that satisfies me completely. I haven't found that."
"The whole blog phenomena has things that are depressing. The internet has brought a lot of nastiness. There are things that I wish I'd never read about rabbis, whether they were true or not."
Luke: "It seems that when you go out into the world you are looking solely for evidence to support the Torah rather than ever challenge your understanding of the Torah?"
David: "All of my writing is an experiment in trying to see if the Torah can be tested as a guide to life. I use the Torah as the primary guide to understanding reality. Relying on other sources for morality is fine for other people but that's not what I'm trying to do."
"I'm happy to chalk what I don't understand in Torah to my own inadequacies. As soon as you start saying the Torah is wrong about this, what sort of anchor is there for your moral thinking?"
"The link you sent me seem to have a lot of academic and journalistic thoughts about gossip that were more positive than Torah's. That doesn't fit with our understanding of gossip. There are positive things that gossip does just as you could think of positive things that unjust wars do. They help keep down the population, but that doesn't mean it is OK to embark on unjust war."
Luke: "Often 'lashon hara' is used to try to shut down a discussion that needs to be had."
David: "Yes. Often. It does seem like if you followed strictly the Chofetz Chaim's guidelines for what you can say, it would be hard to open your mouth, let alone to write a gossip blog."
"Gossip is sort of the equivalent of going to war."
Luke: "The news media under-reported the Roosevelt, JFK and LBJ administrations."
David: "The sort of culture that would have allowed us to talk frankly about JFK's sexual adventures, there would have been consequences that spread throughout the culture. You'd be talking about a different culture, less gentle, more indifferent to hurting people like Richard Jewel... Making a decision [to report personal information] is like dropping a stone into a pool. You have no idea of the consequences."