On culture and sexuality

The news is in. Kim Kardashian has released her most explicit photos ever, and an enthused public is looking for more.   

Why is popular culture obsessed with sexuality?  Why are magazines for the masses checkered with accounts of the dalliances of the rich, the coupling habits of the famous?  Surely, sex is not new.  Undoubtedly, the attraction between male and female hasn’t changed much in thousands of years.    

The obsession with sex seems most fervent in secular culture; much less so in religious society. 

Surely, a society is moved and shaken by its most creative members, those who open windows of possibility and allow the common man to believe in the future.  The work of secular artists – in their finely honed mediums of film, theater, and fiction writing – are bedecked with sexuality.   

To my ear, it seems that the secularist message is that the free-spirit who breaks mores and taboos recognizes the power of sex, but the middle-aged, religious heterosexual couple with kids, whose lives revolve around marriage, faith and family, doesn’t appreciate its liberating power. 

Which, to me (a middle-aged, religious, married, father of six), is rubbish.

No one contests the value of creativity and breaking stereotypes.  The most basic ingredient of a growing economy is the creative improvement of products and services.  The typical small business innovates and customizes, extending options, expanding possibilities.   Traditionalists work these bedrock jobs and are constantly creating and adapting. 

Yet, traditionalists don’t find creative release in breaking sexual mores. Why?    

To address that, we must engage one more concept, the role of leisure in a culture. 

Most people work the week and reset the weekend.  The common man or woman may gain R&R by watching a football game or a romantic movie.  The intellectual may regain his or her vigor by watching CSPAN and discussing politics.  But the truly sophisticated mind will only be rejuvenated when experiencing a pure art form; something uniquely creative and engaging, something that moves him to the world beyond.   Art – good art – is where the artist brings the viewer to the pinnacle of the corporeal and then beyond, allowing him to experience the sublime.   

I would posit that in secular culture, sex is an obsession because sex is where the human touches the beyond.  The drive, dance, passion and unity offer a moment beyond time and space.  Extending the barriers of what is normal within sex, allowing humans to touch the sublime in more ways, is an inherent value to secularists, a moral value. Sex is secular holiness because sex is art.       

The religious world view is different.  At the end of a long workweek the soul needs a reset.  A sophisticated spirit won’t be satiated with drink and revelry.  Only touching the beyond, lifting the veil of the physical to experience the spiritual, gives a reset.  The religious individual reaches that high through prayer to God amongst friends and family, infinitely more powerful than a maestro’s perfect score.

Sex, to religious folk, is much more than leaving time and space.  It is not art but intimacy, achieving oneness with spouse in the presence of God.   Sex, to the religious soul, is achieving unity with the perfect one, in the presence of all that is Perfect.      

The secularist and religious world views offer alternate paths to fulfillment in the most powerful human arenas of sexuality and rejuvenation.  One values art, the other values intimacy.  One touches the sublime, the other touches eternity. 

The author of two books, Yaakov Rosenblatt is a rabbi and businessman in Dallas, Texas

Letters to the Editor: Settlements, Rice, Jewlicious, Secularism

The Two-State Solution

David Suissa has been writing a brilliant monologue, telling Los Angeles Jews that Israel’s settlements are legal and Israel’s enemies are so very afraid. The problem with his monologue is that it will convince no one who is not already convinced.
Legal or illegal, we all know that the presence of settlements makes contiguous Palestinian territory ever more difficult and thus the possibility of a two-state solution ever more contorted and disruptive for Israel. Two out of three Israelis believe that a two-state solution is imperative for the future of a Jewish democratic Israel, and far more than two in three American Jews concur; two thirds also believe that it is not on the horizon.
But if the strategy — not the tactics — is to search for a two-state solution, then the settlements are unwise at least. I personally believe that they are catastrophic, not because I believe in the peace process but because I think that a divorce between the Israelis and the Palestinians is the only way to preserve a Jewish and democratic state.
But keep telling us, my dear friend David, what we want to hear and we may end up like the Republican Party without appeal to any demographic except our own.
Michael Berenbaum
Los Angeles
David Suissa responds: If someone accuses me unfairly of being a thief, and then tells the whole world that I’m a thief, I’m going to push back and defend myself, even if it’s not “practical” or “strategic.” If Israel doesn’t start defending itself against these lethal accusations, it will become the most boycotted and delegitimized country on the planet. And that’s not good for the Jews or for the peace process. Please read my complete response to critics here.

Rice, U.S. Champions of Human Rights?
How dare Condoleezza Rice defile the podium at UCLA by lauding the United States as “a worldwide champion of human rights,” when she personally approved the use of waterboarding, prohibited by the Convention Against Torture, ratified by the United States in 1994 (“Rice Dissects American Policies,” March 8).
According to a declassified 2009 Senate Intelligence Committee report, in July 2002 Rice approved the CIA’s request to subject alleged al-Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah to waterboarding and personally conveyed the administration’s approval to CIA Director George Tenet. The next month Zubaydah was illegally waterboarded at least 83 times.
The Senate Armed Services Committee also released an exhaustive report detailing direct links between the CIA’s harsh interrogation program and abuses of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, in Afghanistan and at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. While Rice admitted that she had attended meetings where the CIA interrogation request was discussed, she omitted her direct role in approving the program in her written statement to the committee.
Instead of giving high-priced lectures, Rice should be huddling with her lawyers preparing her defense to charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Stephen Rohde
Chair, ACLU Foundation of Southern California 
Founder, Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace

Jewlicious: He Gets It
I found Rob Eshman’s article about the recent Jewlicious Festival insightful and encouraging (“Whatever Works,” March 15). It took just one visit and Rob got it. He understood clearly the Jewish outreach value Jewlicious brings to our Jewish community. And while I think it’s important to mention that The Federation and Valley Alliance have been supportive of Jewlicious in the past, there has been very little organized or overall support of Jewlicious. If reaching out beyond the usual suspects and reinvigorating Jewish life for young people is a priority, it would be a tragedy if this turned out to be the last Jewlicious Festival.
Larry Cohen
West Hills

Prager on Secularism
In the first sentence of his article, Dennis Prager writes, “Most non-Orthodox Jews venerate secularism” (“Secularism,” March 15). If I were a rabbi at a Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or nonaffiliated temple, I think I would be quite surprised to find out that I am really a closet atheist who is hostile to religion. And I would be even more dismayed to learn that “most” of my congregants are just as deluded as I am. 
Michael Asher
Valley Village
Dennis Prager responds: First, “most” does not mean “all.” Second, “non-Orthodox Jews” does not mean “non-Orthodox rabbis”; they compose a fraction of 1 percent of non-Orthodox Jews. Third, sarcasm is not argument.


The article “Slavin Library to Close” (March 22) incorrectly indicated that the decision to close the Slavin Children’s Library was made jointly by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and BJE, Builders of Jewish Education. The decision was made exclusively by Federation.

Secularism: Great for government, destructive to everything else

Most non-Orthodox Jews venerate secularism. Virtually every movement and organization advancing secularism in the United States has been founded or led by Jews, and Jews are disproportionately active in these movements.

The initials ACLU are loved and respected by most American Jews, primarily because the organization fights every public expression of religion. Secular Jews have spearheaded the movement to replace “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays.”

But secularism is endangering us Jews, just as it is endangering our country and the countries of Western Europe, and it is dulling the souls of individual Americans and Europeans.

Secularism is great for government. But it is destructive to everything else.

Among many other things, it shatters meaning, marriage and even the desire to sustain a society through reproducing its members.

If there is no God, life is inherently devoid of meaning. DNA provides no ultimate meaning. Evolution tells us that all life is random. And, of course, nothing higher cares about us because there is nothing higher than us.

But because people who do not believe in God don’t want to go crazy, they make up meanings. Often these made-up meanings — work, family, self-sacrifice for the country and for freedom — are noble. On the other hand, too often the search for meaning leads to horrific ideals. Fascism and communism gave their adherents as much meaning as Judaism gives the believing Jew, and as Christianity gives the believing Christian. Likewise spreading and imposing sharia law and killing infidels gives many Islamists meaning.

Throughout American history, Judeo-Christian religions gave the vast majority of Americans meaning. As these religions have lost their hold, Americans have looked elsewhere for meaning. And many — including many Jews, members of the most secular group of all — have found meaning and purpose in substitute religions such as Marxism, socialism, feminism, environmentalism and myriad other movements, nearly all of them leftist. Leftism, which became the most dynamic religion in Europe with the breakdown of Christianity after World War I, has become the source of meaning in the United States, too.

Others find meaning in accomplishment. Hence the great contemporary emphasis on career. Even women, who throughout history have found primary meaning in marriage, family and children, now, for the first time, often seek meaning first and foremost in career. Many eventually regret having made that choice, but by the time they do, it can be too late to make a family.

Just this week, Erin Callan, one of the most successful businesswomen in the United States, the former chief financial officer of Lehman Brothers, wrote a column in The New York Times describing her great regret at having devoted her life to career. She forsook having children, paid considerably less attention to her husband than to her work and ended up a major financial and career success — but with no children and eventually no marriage.

A few years ago she realized what she had done: “I have spent several years now,” she wrote, “living a different version of my life, where I try to apply my energy to my new husband, Anthony, and the people whom I love and care about. But I can’t make up for lost time. Most important, although I now have stepchildren, I missed having a child of my own. I am 47 years old …”

Compare her life to that of Orthodox Jews, practicing Mormons, Evangelical Christians and religious Catholics. They all believe that marriage, having children and making a home are vital. 

In this regard, the very same week, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote this about Jews:

“Nationwide, only 21 percent of non-Orthodox Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 are married. But an astounding 71 percent of Orthodox Jews are married at that age. And they are having four and five kids per couple. In the New York City area, for example, the Orthodox make up 32 percent of Jews over all. But the Orthodox make up 61 percent of Jewish children.”

Secular academics tell us that the reason Europeans and Americans are having so few children is that as people become affluent they choose not to have more than one or two children.

They are mostly wrong. The primary reason is secularism, not affluence. Affluent Orthodox, Jews, affluent Mormons, affluent Evangelicals and Catholics have many children. Secularism gives you no reason to perpetuate your nation, no reason to marry, and no reason to have children. Indeed, other than better government, it gives you nothing. 

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

Stalin’s Jewish State

When Yale Strom was growing up in a traditional,socialist-Zionist home in Detroit, he was riveted by his father’s tales of aJewish state founded 20 years before Israel in a Siberian swamp.

Three decades later, he remembered the obscure Jewishgeography lesson to make the intriguing documentary, “L’Chayim, ComradeStalin!” about the Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) founded by Stalin in 1928.

Papa Joe’s motivations weren’t altruistic; he hoped topopulate the Chinese front and to funnel Zionist dollars into the U.S.S.R. Butat least 40,000 Jews made the gruelling, 5,200-mile journey to build a Yiddishmecca in waist-deep mud and snow. They were successful, in part, untilStalin’s purges closed most Yiddish institutions and sent residents off toGulags from 1948 to 1953.

Musician-filmmaker Strom — whose documentaries aboutvanishing Jewish culture have carved a niche in the Yiddish revival movement –retraced the journey when he boarded the Trans-Siberian railroad and made theweek-long trek to Birobidzhan in 2000. He alighted in the world’s only railroadstation with Yiddish-language signs, although finding Yiddishkayt provedelusive in a region where less than 6,000 Jews remain. Eventually, he visitedthe local synagogue, the Yiddish newspaper and the capitol’s main thoroughfare,still called Sholom Aleichem Boulevard.

He interviewed local Jews and recorded conversations withhis suavely anti-Semitic interpreter, Slava, who turned out to be the grandsonof the high-ranking official who originated the idea of a JAR.

So was the JAR a Yiddish utopia or a Jewish reservation, thedocumentary asks. Strom and his wife, “L’Chaim” writer-producer ElizabethSchwartz, think it’s both: “It’s historically significant as a Jewish statefounded on Yiddish secularism,” Schwartz said. “But it’s also a bit like thefake TV suburb in the film, ‘Pleasantville,’ where everything seems perfect,but realities start to bleed through.”

Strom, nevertheless, maintains his youthful fascination withwhat he calls “the first Jewish state established since 70 B.C.E.” “These werepioneers who made aliyah to the end of the world,” he said.

The film opens March 5 in Los Angeles. Strom will alsoperform with his jazz-infused klezmer band, Klazzj, at the Workmen’s CircleMarch 9. For information, call (310) 552-2007. Strom’s “The Book of Klezmer:The History, the Music, the Folklore” (A Cappella Books, $28) is now in stores.