Dennis Prager Talks About Interpreting Torah
Dennis Prager, author of “Exodus: God, Slavery, and Freedom,” responded in writing to questions posed by the Jewish Journal.
Jewish Journal: What inspired you undertake a book of your own about the biblical Book of Exodus?
Dennis Prager: I have been teaching the Torah since my early 20s — more than 40 years. I believe it is the greatest book ever written, and that it has the most insightful answers to the great questions of life. And most important to me, I believe it provides the only solution to evil.
It was once the most revered collection of texts in our society. Virtually everyone was biblically literate to at least some degree; its principles were central to shaping the freest and most prosperous country the world has ever seen. But since the 1960s, the dominant secular culture has rendered the Bible irrelevant.
The Jewish mission is to bring the values and wisdom of the Torah to the world. I want to do that to the best of my ability.
I began teaching the Torah verse by verse in the early 1990s at the University of Judaism, now the American Jewish University. Despite the fact that I was a Jew teaching Torah at a Jewish university, half my students were non-Jews. This confirmed to me what I said at the beginning of each semester: “Either the Torah has something to say to everybody, or it has nothing to say to Jews.” The idea the Torah only has something to say to Jews is as untenable as the idea that Shakespeare has something only to say to the English or Beethoven only speaks to Germans.
That teaching took 18 years, and the recordings of those sessions were bought by thousands of people in many countries. Joel Alperson, a Jew who credits my Torah teaching with his coming to believe in God and Judaism, had the hundreds of recordings transcribed and edited. His dream was to see a written edition of this commentary.
I told him I would write a new commentary — not just an edited edition of the courses — if Joseph Telushkin, the co-author my first two books — “The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism” and “Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism” — would serve as editor. He is.
The five volumes will come out over five years.
JJ: Do you regard Exodus as the most important book in the Bible?
DP: I began with Exodus because it contains the Ten Commandments. If the world lived by the Ten Commandments, the world would be a beautiful place. That’s almost all it would take.
In a brilliant play on words, the rabbis of the Talmud explained that the hatred of the Jews emanates from Sinai. “Hatred” in Hebrew is seenah, “Sinai” in Hebrew is pronounced seenai — the words sound almost identical.
The ancient rabbis were right: Jew-haters have always hated the Jews for introducing a morally judging God into the world. My argument to my fellow Jews is this: If Sinai is the root of Jew-hatred, bringing the world to Sinai is the solution to Jew-hatred. And the way to accomplish that, in my view, is to explain its brilliance and profundity.
In addition, Exodus deals with just about every important issue: slavery, treatment of animals, fear of God, God’s goodness, how to treat the stranger, and much more.
“In the commentary, I show over and over that the Torah is too great and too different from everything that preceded it to believe it is man-made.“
JJ: Some Jewish commentators have objected to the “universalizing” of the Passover seder by including the suffering of oppressed peoples of other faiths and cultures. Do you share these concerns? Do you think the story of the Exodus belongs as much to African-Americans as it does to Jews?
DP: The Exodus is about God taking Israel out of Egypt. No one should change that narrative. But, like the rest of Torah, the Exodus is relevant to non-Jews — and not only African-Americans. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin designed a Great Seal of the United States which depicted the Jews leaving Egypt. That’s how central the Torah was to the Founders: They saw America as a second Israel. And just as Israel left Egypt, Americans left Europe.
JJ: Like many of your readers, I was a devoted listener to “Religion on the Line” on KABC. I recall one broadcast during which a Protestant minister on the panel asked you what Jewish denomination you belonged to, and the rabbi on the panel jokingly said: “Dennis belongs to a branch of Judaism called ‘Pragerism.’ ” How would you describe your Jewish identity and affiliation today?
DP: Then and today my identity has been the same — a deeply religious Jew, though not strictly Orthodox. I believe the Jews are God’s chosen people and the Torah ultimately comes from God. In the commentary, I show over and over that the Torah is too great and too different from everything that preceded it to believe it is man-made. One example: The Jews are constantly depicted negatively in the Torah (and non-Jews are repeatedly depicted positively). There is no national or religious history in the world that so depicts its own people.
JJ: Many of us also recall when you were the director of the institution now known as the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, which was devoted to Jewish education and community-building. Today, you address a radio audience and a readership that extends far outside the Jewish community. What called you to your present role in media and education? How does your Jewish background affect the work you do in addressing a non-Jewish audience?
DP: Even when I was involved solely in Jewish work, my aim was to bring the insights of the Torah and Judaism to the larger world.
I repeatedly tell my listeners that the Torah and Judaism are the foundation of my views. Apparently, this has aroused enough interest in enough people to render “The Rational Bible” one of the best-selling nonfiction books in America today, and one of the best-selling Bible commentaries ever.
It is hard for me to imagine an open-minded Jew or non-Jew, atheist or believer, not being challenged to take God and the Torah more seriously. As one woman put it, “It gives an intelligent person permission to believe.”
JJ: What is “The Rational Bible,” and how does your new book fit into the series? Will you write additional volumes on other books of the Bible? Which ones?
DP: “The Rational Bible” is the title of what will be the five volumes of my commentary on the first five books of the Bible, the Torah. The name refers to the fact that I use reason, not faith, to explain everything in the Torah.
JJ: What is Prager University and how does “The Rational Bible” fit into the mission of Prager University?
DP: Prager University, PragerU as it is often referred to, is an Internet-based website presenting five-minute videos by some of the world’s finest thinkers — Pulitzer Prize winners, professors at leading universities, former prime ministers — on almost every subject outside of the natural sciences and math. It concisely presents ideas that are rarely heard at most Western universities. Examples would include a moral defense of capitalism, the legality of Israel’s founding, and rational arguments for God and the Bible. “The Rational Bible” obviously fits in the latter category. PragerU had 600 million views last year, and is on track to have over a billion views this year. Most of its viewers are under 35.