Prager and Dershowitz go head to head, heart to heart

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and radio talk-show host Dennis Prager sparred over everything from politics to religious identity to attitudes about Israel during a 90-minute event dubbed “The Forum on Critical Values” on April 29 at Stephen S. Wise Temple.

Speaking before the evening’s 1,500 attendees, Dershowitz challenged American-Jewish leaders.

“We have to do a better job in attracting young Jews to Judaism and we have to use every means at our disposal, and it includes modernization and change and adaptability and making Judaism relevant to contemporary feelings and contemporary ideology,” he said. “That means a compromise … nothing is easy, nothing is pure, there is no single path.”

Prager was more pessimistic, spotlighting failings in the Reform and Conservative movements as the reason that the only growing denomination is Orthodoxy, according to the “Survey of American Jewish Life” released last year by the Pew Research Center.

“Non-Orthodox Judaism is failing,” he said. The culprit, he said, is leftism — specifically, “social justice as it is understood by the left, environmentalism as it is understood by the left, morality as it is understood by the left.” 

Prager said he believes this country’s Jewish community is indifferent about Israel and that this attitude is another reason to feel concern about the future.

“American Jews don’t give a hoot about Israel. That’s mind-boggling. I never would have predicted that,” he said. “There’s a Jewish state. There are 200 states on Earth — one Jewish and one the size of New Jersey and you don’t give a damn if it survives or not, and that is increasingly the case with young American Jews.”

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The differences between the two men was not a surprise. Dershowitz, 75, a noted attorney who has been involved with high-profile criminal defense cases, skews liberal on politics. He is also the author of several books, including the influential defense of the Jewish state, “The Case for Israel.” His latest book, the autobiographical “Taking the Stand,” is his 30th.

The conservative Prager, 65, meanwhile, is a nationally syndicated radio personality. He is the author of the seminal “Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism,” co-written by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. His latest book is “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph.”

In some ways, as Prager noted during the evening, the two speakers’ early lives mirror each other. Both grew up attending yeshivas, both struggled academically in high school, and both eventually left behind the Orthodox world that surrounded them in their childhoods on the East Coast.

Today, though, their differences are many. Concerning religion, Dershowitz describes himself as post-denominational and skeptical about the Torah’s divine origins. Instead, he said, he draws on what he reads to form his own belief system. 

Meanwhile, Prager — who is also a Journal columnist — is a member of Stephen S. Wise Temple, a Reform synagogue, but holds the Orthodox belief that the Torah comes from God. So Prager said that if he finds himself disagreeing with the Torah, he assumes he is in the wrong. 

And while both are defenders of Israel, Dershowitz openly criticizes Israel on certain government policies. 

During the April 29 event, the topic of Israel’s reception on college campuses prompted some of the more emotional responses from the crowd. A collective gasp resounded in the audience when Dershowitz said that pro-Israel students at Harvard are too embarrassed to admit they might support Israel. He was speaking anecdotally, referring to a story he’d heard from a friend of his grandson, who attends school there.

Both men offered up grim predictions for the future of Judaism in Europe, with Dershowitz saying that the future of Judaism is in the United States, Canada and in Israel, despite the presence of prominent Jewish figures in the United Kingdom.

At certain points, the evening felt like a competition, with Dershowitz and Prager vying for “most intellectually entertaining.” So many of their arguments prompted laughs and applause that, at one point, the moderator, Stephen S. Wise’s Rabbi David Woznica, asked audience members to withhold their enthusiasm until the end of the night.

 And in many ways, it was not a typical community event. At 7 p.m., about 30 minutes before the forum began, the temple felt like the Hollywood Bowl: A few attendees ate dinner in the plaza outside the sanctuary; others stepped off a shuttle that had transported them to the hilltop campus. Even A-list star Larry David was in the audience. 

David wasn’t the only comic who wanted to hear what Dershowitz and Prager had to say. Elon Gold, who shmoozed with David in the sanctuary lobby at the end of the event, told the Journal that the evening left him with a feeling of respect for both speakers, particularly for their ability to get a laugh. 

“These two guys are just super-intellectual, and, obviously, just like they can formulate a thought and an opinion, they can formulate a joke,” he said. 

Regardless of their views, both have an important place in the community, Gold said.

“It wasn’t really about super-liberal versus super-conservative. It was really about two of the greatest, most important Jewish voices of our time coming together and enlightening us on a range of Jewish-themed topics,” he said. “They are people who need to be heard and whether or not one is right about something and one is wrong about the other, that is not important.”