Is murder wrong?: Progressive dialogue

In my last column, I made the case that if there is no God who declares murder wrong, murder is not, in fact, wrong. While human beings can believe that murder is wrong, without God, right and wrong are our moral opinions, not moral facts.

This is so basic and so logically obvious that no prominent secular or atheist philosopher I have dialogued with over the past 35 years has disagreed with it. Professor Jonathan Glover, one of Europe’s preeminent moralists, acknowledged this at the beginning of our debate at Oxford University. So did professor Steve Stewart-Williams, lecturer in evolutionary psychology at Swansea University in Wales, an atheist who is the author of “Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life” (Cambridge University, 2010). The very premise of his book is that because there is no God, there is no ultimate morality or meaning to life, so we have to fashion a godless morality and meaning. And one of the most revered liberal philosophers of the modern era, Princeton philosopher Richard Rorty, wrote that for secular liberals (like himself), “there is no answer to the question, ‘Why not be cruel?’ ” (“Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity” [Cambridge University Press, 1989]).

The other point I made is that I believe that this fundamental moral issue of life — if there is no God, murder isn’t evil — is rarely preached from non-Orthodox pulpits or taught in non-Orthodox seminaries. I would like to add two points. One is that I have no denominational agenda here: I am not Orthodox, and I have attended a Reform synagogue for about 25 years. The other is that the divine basis of morality and the need to spread that idea was one of the core beliefs of Reform Judaism when it was founded.

What I want to discuss in this column are Jewish Journal reader reactions to this column.

First, reactions as printed in the Comments section of

Comment by Dern: “Were I to submit such an article to any credible institution, I would expect them to throw it in the trash, not put it on the front page. This article is so bad I just had to comment on it. Why does JewishJournal print this stuff?”

Comment by Reader: “I see three possibilities here: 1) Dennis Prager is intellectually dishonest; 2) Dennis Prager is just not very bright; 3) both of the above. This kind of straw-man argument is just pathetic and I hoped I could expect better from the Jewish Journal (guess not as long as you keep publishing this tripe).”

Comment by Craig S. Maxwell: “So much then (I guess) for Jefferson’s self-evident truths. Or does Dennis think our nation was founded on a mere poetic fiction? … See Peter Kreeft for more details at:”

Comment by Rheda Gomberg: “What a waste of my time. What the hell did he say? How can anyone be so full of himself and say so little. Shame on JJ.”

Comment by LA Reader: “Mr. Prager’s tripe is a continuing embarrassment to this newspaper. Let him leave it in talk-radioland, where it finds an eager audience.”

There was also one letter in the printed edition of the Jewish Journal. It came from Joshua Holo, dean of the Los Angeles Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. 

Dr. Holo wrote, among other things: “I object to his heedless and gratuitous hostility. It is difficult not to read Prager as a provocateur, claiming incisive and close analysis, while in fact painting in broad strokes of facile caricature.

“HUC-JIR and every other synagogue and seminary with which I have interacted teach God as the source of morality, even if they do not always cast aspersions on those who arrive at morality differently.”

I cite these reactions because they typify the way too many on the left react to ideas with which they disagree: belittle the person who made the argument and demand he not be published (or be invited to speak at a university or to a progressive church or synagogue).

No one, including Dr. Holo, refuted my thesis that if there is no God, murder isn’t wrong. 

For example, Craig S. Maxwell cites Jefferson’s “self-evident truths” as a refutation of what I wrote. But one of Jefferson’s self-evident truths is that humans “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” No Creator, no unalienable rights. Sounds like what I wrote. And Mr. Maxwell’s citing Peter Kreeft is even odder. Kreeft, a philosophy professor at Boston College, just made a video course for Prager University titled “If Good and Evil Exist, God Exists.”

Nor does Dr. Holo deny that murder is wrong only if God says so. On the contrary, Dr. Holo writes that Reform rabbis and the Reform seminary clearly affirm this principle. That was good to hear, although I suspect that it will come as somewhat of a surprise to the many Reform rabbis and congregants who believe that good and evil exist quite independently of God’s existence. It is even better news — although, I admit, hard to believe — that Reform rabbis “teach” this to their congregants.

Dr. Holo accuses me of “facile caricature.” But the only facile caricature here is Dr. Holo’s of me. He describes me as a “provocateur” engaged in “heedless and gratuitous hostility,” who “always cast[s] aspersions on those who arrive at morality differently.” I grant Dr. Holo the moral sincerity of his progressivism. Why can he not respect the moral sincerity of my opposition to his progressivism? Or does he believe that to oppose the left is, by definition, the act of a provocateur engaged in heedless and gratuitous hostility? And as for casting “aspersions on those who arrive at morality differently,” in a lifetime of writing and speaking, I have never done that. I deeply admire atheists who lead moral lives. 

Hopefully one day, Jewish progressives will hear a critique and respond not with ad hominem put-downs, but with, “Could there be some truth in this critique — especially when it comes from a committed, and non-Orthodox, Jew?”

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Combining fact and fiction confuses peace event

On June 5, the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War, two years after standing side-by-side with friends in Gush Katif in an attempt to ward off the evacuation of Gaza, I attended an Israeli-Palestinian peace event marking “40 years of war and occupation” at the Tel Aviv Cinemateque.

I have not converted to the left; I applaud the achievements of the Six-Day War, yet I cannot deny that the situation in the West Bank – Judea and Samaria – the territories, is a tragedy for both Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinians live in a virtual cage, and Israeli soldiers spend the best years of their lives checking Palestinian identity cards at checkpoints to sift out terrorists.

I decided to attend the event with an open mind, to approach it as an opportunity to learn more about the occupation, to show my solidarity with my leftist brethren and to express my appreciation for their humanitarian instincts. While we may disagree on how to end the occupation – I believe in Palestinian disarmament, not reckless Palestinian empowerment –we agree that the status quo is untenable.

The event was like an annual conference for anti-occupation groups. Card-carrying far-leftist organizations were represented by different booths: IPCRI, Machsomwatch, the Public Committee against Torture in Israel, Yesh Din, Combatants for Peace, Students for Equal Rights and the Arab-Hebrew Theater.

I arrived a little late, as people onstage were reciting testimonies of acts of Israeli aggression in the West Bank. One man described a group of maverick settlers grabbing an old Palestinian man’s cane and beating him, sending him to the hospital. An Israeli border policeman described the mutual hatred and distrust he had witnessed at checkpoints.

But probably the most moving testimony was that of a Palestinian woman named Jamilla. Wearing a beige hijab, she emotionally described how the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) once prevented her from passing a checkpoint while she was in the middle of labor contractions – she gave birth to a boy in a car, only to watch him die on the way to the hospital.

I was deeply saddened and hurt by these stories and grateful that they were being told. We can’t afford to hide from the truth, and I intended to confront my settler friends about such events, because I thought they would share my sadness.

In the middle of the courtyard, Machsomwatch (an organization that monitors IDF behavior at checkpoints) had created a makeshift checkpoint for people entering the Cinemateque building, where films documenting Palestinian hardships were to be shown. I waited inside the caged corridor leading to the revolving metal exit, and Jamilla was standing just in front of me.

We were trapped together, and I felt a need to say something, to apologize for her baby’s death. I knew at the height of my anger during the intifada – when a terrorist attack hit my favorite cafe and a friend got moderately wounded in another – I might have been guilty of bashing Palestinians, calling them horrible names and wishing upon them ugly things, but no one deserved her kind of suffering.

After all, we are all human beings, created in God’s image.

I mustered my courage, tears forming in my eyes – this was a big moment for me – and I said: “I’m sorry about what happened to you.” She nodded sympathetically, and I continued, “Not that sorry is the right thing to say. I don’t know what to say.”

She continued to nod, and I asked her how many children she had. Then she perked up and said: “It was an act!”

“What?” I asked, stupefied.

It turned out that some of the people who gave “testimonies” were actors from the Arab-Hebrew Theater, reciting monologues based on real-life testimonies. Jamilla was not an Arab but an Israeli, because Palestinians generally can’t enter Israel and “play” themselves.

She said she didn’t know whether the exact story she told was true but that similar things have happened.

At that moment, I really wanted to cry. My moment of reconciliation and empathy was killed and with it my open mind – I didn’t want it to be played with.

Waiting at the fake checkpoint actually became strangely enjoyable as I watched thespian “soldiers” in army uniforms dramatize the “humiliation” at the checkpoints. When it was my turn to pass, I went up the steps and they shouted, gruffly: “Don’t move!”

I laughed.

“Don’t smile!” one demanded.

Finally, I showed them my press card and passed through. One of the soldiers eventually smirked, too, and I told him that I write for a Los Angeles paper and joked that I can make him famous. It was all sadly comical, defeating the purpose of the installation, at least for me.

I remained outside and passed by the booth of Combatants for Peace, an organization consisting of IDF soldiers and Palestinian Fatah fighters now working toward peace through nonviolence.

A handsome 28-year-old Israeli student, Yonatan, a former tank officer who refuses to serve in the territories, told me that the organization was founded to bring together the “fighters” of Palestinian and Israeli society, considered the elite of their respective communities.

“Israelis should meet Palestinians and not rely on what they see on television,” he said.

Taking his encouragement, I jumped at the chance to speak with a Palestinian member of Parents’ Circle – Family Forum, which had an adjacent booth. The organization fosters dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis who lost family members in the last round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

Dark, thin Ibrahim Halil, 41, spoke fairly good English as we sat on plastic chairs in the courtyard. Finally, I got the chance to meet the “Palestinian future,” the “moderates” with whom we’ll eventually make peace and live side by side.

He joined the organization because he believes that “the most suitable meeting ground for making peace between Israelis and Palestinians are those who are paid the highest price.”

A Festival of Lights — lite

How many Jews does it take to change a lightbulb?

Here’s a hint: Sing this song by Deborah Kornfield to the tune of “I Have a Little Dreidel”:

I have a brand new lightbulb,
It’s a miracle you see;
It lights the room completely,
Using half the energy.
Oh compact fluorescent lightbulb.
I really have to kvell;
It’s just so energy efficient.
And it saves you gelt as well.

The question is, in fact, the name of a campaign launched by the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). Humorous title and cute lyrics aside, COEJL is on a serious mission to heighten ecoconsciousness in a Jewish context, and this initiative focuses on — you guessed it — energy-efficient lightbulbs.

COEJL’s Web site describes its three-pronged approach of “engaging the Jewish community in awareness, advocacy and concrete action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote energy conservation and sustainable legislation,” in order to “change how American Jewry responds to … daunting environmental problems.”

This all sounds good, but why, you may be wondering, is this a Jewish issue?
God said this to Adam: “See My works, how good and praiseworthy they are? And all that I have created, I made for you. [But] be mindful that you do not spoil and destroy My world — for if you spoil it, there is no one after you to repair it” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:13).

And, COEJL argues, Jewish values such as tikkun olam and tzedek should be extended to include not just people but other animals and plants.

OK, you’ve conceded. It is Jewish. But is this really about Chanukah?

Well, what about the Festival of Lights? About making resources last longer than we thought they could? Like for eight nights, perhaps?

High-efficiency lightbulbs actually last eight times longer than regular lightbulbs. Imagine that. And speaking of the number eight, see COEJL’s list of eight actions in eight days as a simple and concrete way to bring some ecoconsciousness into your Chanukah holiday practice.

So, you might be left wondering, just how many Jews does it take to change a lightbulb? As many as possible. As of the writing of this article, more than 20,000 energy-efficient lightbulbs have been sold through COEJL, saving 8,250 tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

So, as you nosh on your latkes this Chanukah, be a modern-day Maccabee — take action against global warming and environmental degradation.

Rachel Kantrowitz is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.


Oh Jerusalem

On June 6, or Iyar 28, we will celebrate Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) in honor of the day Jerusalem was reunified during the Six-Day War in 1967.

An Original Word

Etymology – this means “the origin of a word,” or where the word came from. For instance: the word “cap” comes from the Latin word caput, meaning “head.”

Answer these etymological questions:

1. The Assyrians called it Ursalimmu; the Greeks and Romans called it Hierosolyma. What do we call it today?

2. If you got the first question right, answer this one:

The last part of the word is oka.

What does this word mean in Hebrew?

3. And finally: did you answer the second question? So, what does the name of the city mean? It is the city of ________.

Unscramble these letters to get the name of a town in Massachusetts that has a similar name to Jerusalem. (Hint: it wasn’t a very “peaceful” place. They had witch hunts there in the 16th century.)


Why are so many weddings in June?

Fill in the blanks with the following words to get some interesting information about the month of June:

bath, custom, May, flowers, good, smell, married

Next time your Mom reminds you take a bath, think of this fact: back in the 1500s, most people got ______ in June because they took their yearly ____ in _____, and still smelled pretty ______ by June. However, they were starting to ______, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor.

That is how the _______ of a bride carrying a bouquet got started!


Noir Fiction Fills in the Babel Blanks

"King of Odessa" by Robert Rosenstone (Northwestern, $24.95).

In an impressive effort of literary boldness, historian Robert Rosenstone fills in some of the blanks in Issac Babel’s life and work in a first novel, "King of Odessa." He writes as though he has recovered a lost Babel manuscript, imagining what one of Babel’s final years might have been like. Other than a few postcards sent to his family, no records remain of the summer and autumn of 1936, when Babel, then 42, returned to Odessa, the city of his birth.

Stretching the lines between fact and fiction, Rosenstone narrates the story in Babel’s voice, writes several letters sent to Babel in the voices of the women in his life, and also pens a final story about his character, Benya Krik, the clever Jewish mobster of Odessa who’s something of a Robin Hood — and referred to in Babel’s stories as "the King."

"Yiddish noir" is how Rosenstone describes the novel’s style to me. Rosenstone, who has taught modern European and American history at California Institute of Technology, is also the author of "Romantic Revolutionary: A Biography of John Reed," which was the basis for the Academy-award winning film, "Reds."

With irreverent humor, textured descriptions and sensitive attention to detail, Rosenstone imaginatively constructs Babel’s world. Some of Babel’s childhood recollections in the novel are based on his short stories. The young Babel, indifferent to the violin lessons his father insisted that he take, would prop a book on his music stand when he was supposed to be practicing. He would read while simply making noise with the violin, which was indistinguishable from music to his tone-deaf father in a nearby room. Some days, he would leave the violin in his closet and fill the case with a bathing suit and towel and head right past his teacher’s home to the beach. There, he befriends an athletic guy who teaches him to swim and also tells him that his early writing has a spark of genius.

In 1936, Babel goes to Odessa for a rest and to work on a film with Sergei Einsenstein, and also as part of a mission he undertakes with the secret police to help a condemned prisoner escape. Although he hasn’t published anything in a while, in Odessa he is celebrated; Babel is treated as though he invented the city and its characters in his stories. His romantic affairs are complicated, with a wife and daughter in Paris and two other women, too. Rosenstone invents an additional woman, an actress, whom he meets in Odessa, who might be an agent of the state. It’s not clear whether it’s his own escape that he’s trying to arrange, although Babel ultimately turns down an opportunity to leave.

"I fell in love with Babel some years ago," Rosenstone said, "particularly with the whole world of Jewish Odessa." The author, who spent about eight years doing research — as much as on any historical biography he has written — added that he was also interested in the trajectory of Babel’s life, from being an international star with "Red Cavalry," a collection of stories that came out in the 1920s, to falling out of favor and not being able to publish.

"I’m fascinated with how people went on with life in the new world they thought they had built, when it was closing in on them. And with the tensions between the hopes, the realities, the despair of life," he said.

Rosenstone, whose earlier five books are works of history or biography including a memoir about his grandfather, "The Man Who Swam Into History," describes "King of Odessa" as fictional biography.

"You can’t write a biography of Isaac Babel," he said, pointing out that when Babel was arrested, all of his papers were taken, and the materials still not have emerged even as Soviet files have been opened. In addition, Babel was known for being secretive.

"I think its a good introduction to a bit of lost history," he said. Although he’s never been in Odessa, Rosenstone makes the city come alive as a beautiful, cosmopolitan city. From the 1880s to the 1920s, that city was the second largest Jewish community, after Warsaw, under the rule of czarist Russia. Rosenstone studied 19th century travel books, photo collections, memoirs that mentioned Babel, literature about the period and "everything I could get my hands on about Babel and Odessa and Odessa Jews, about the literary scene between the revolution and his death." The book jacket is a souvenir postcard from Odessa, circa 1897.

Since the novel was published, Rosenstone has heard from Nathalie Babel, the writer’s daughter, who is the editor of a recently published one-volume "The Complete Works of Isaac Babel," with new translations from the Russian. She wasn’t pleased that Rosenstone had taken on this project, and Rosenstone explains that she has a particular view of her father as almost a saintly figure.

Rosenstone thinks of the work as "a kind of homage to Babel." He’s also pleased to be spreading an appreciation of the Russian master to the American reading public. At several bookstore readings, people have left with copies of Babel’s books.

Robert Rosenstone is speaking Nov. 19 at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 761-8644.