April 19, 2019

A Rational View of the Torah

Shavuot is a festival with three names: the Feast of Weeks, the Day of the First Fruits, and the Harvest Feast. Scholars tell us that Shavuot, as observed in ancient Israel, marked the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest. And yet, starting in the third century C.E., according to the Encyclopedia Judaica, a “remarkable transformation” took place — Shavuot came to be wholly reinterpreted as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. By the Middle Ages, it was customary for young children to start their Jewish studies on Shavuot. So the observance of Shavuot is an appropriate moment take a fresh look at the Torah through the eyes of Dennis Prager in “Exodus: God, Slavery, and Freedom” (Regnery Faith).

Prager, of course, is already a media celebrity. He is best known as a conservative radio commentator and the author of “Think a Second Time” and many other best-selling books about Judaism, politics and ethics. He is the founder of Prager University, an online showcase for short video segments on topics ranging from “Gun Rights for Women” to “Gender Identity: Why All the Confusion?” Now he has launched a series of biblical commentaries that he calls “The Rational Bible,” and the first title in the series is his commentary of the Book of Exodus.

It’s a handsome volume, beautifully printed and bound. Starting with the updated and streamlined translation of Exodus that first was published by the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) in 1985, Prager interlays the biblical text with his own explanations, elaborations and annotations. The volume is edited by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, whom Prager first met in high school and with whom Prager has co-authored some of his best-known books, including their inaugural effort, “The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism.” In appreciation for the supportive role that Joel Alperson played in the development of “Exodus,” the book is dubbed “The Alperson Edition.”

The distinctive voice that we hear in our heads as we read his version of Exodus belongs to Prager alone. Born in 1948, he has spent most of his life in the study of Torah, and he is never shy about sharing what he knows and what he thinks. When he disagrees with the fine points of the JPS translation, for example, he says so. He insists that he is always deferential to the divine writ: “When I differ with the Torah, I think the Torah is right and I am wrong,” he quips. Yet the raison d’etre of Prager’s book, like every other work of scriptural exegesis since antiquity, is the effort to explain what the Torah actually says and means.

By way of example, when we read the biblical commandment to observe Pesach, Sukkot and Shavuot (which is described in Exodus 23:16 as “the Feast of the Harvest, of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field”), Prager points out that Shavuot is the least widely observed of the three pilgrimage festivals. “One reason is it has the fewest rituals associated with it,” he explains. “We are physical beings living in a physical universe; physical expression — which is what ritual is — matters. And Passover and Succot are replete with rituals.” And he ventures the opinion that “moderns relate far more to the idea of freedom (Passover) than to a holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah.” Yet the association between Shavuot and the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai is nowhere explicitly mentioned in the Torah itself.

Fans of Prager’s contributions to the Jewish Journal when he served as a columnist may be surprised to find that his new book is entirely free of the sometimes harsh rhetoric that he deployed against Jews whom he characterizes as “leftists.” One reason for Prager’s kinder and gentler approach may be the providence of his new book. “Exodus” is published by Regnery Faith, a publishing house that is owned by Salem Media Group, which also produces and distributes Prager’s radio show; Salem targets “audiences interested in Christian and family-themed content and conservative values.” So Prager strikes a notably ecumenical stance in the pages of “Exodus,” and he is apparently mindful that many of his readers will be non-Jews.

Prager does not dwell on what are essentially theological arguments. Rather, he is a strict moralist in the best sense of the word because he demands good behavior from everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs or practices.

Indeed, the preface to his new book includes separate sections that are variously addressed to Jewish readers, Christian readers, and nonreligious readers. Strikingly, Prager announces that it was the nonbeliever he had in mind in composing his commentaries. “With every passing generation in the West, fewer and fewer people believe in God, let alone in the Bible,” he writes. “This is a catastrophe for the West, and it is a tragedy for you.” Although he insists that he does not have a “parochial agenda,” Prager is plainspoken about his religious agenda. “I want as many people as possible to take the Torah seriously, to entertain the possibility that it is God-given, or, at the very least, to understand why so many rational people do.”

Exactly here is where two fundamental ideas collide. Prager invites his readers to approach the ancient text from a place of reason — that’s why he calls his series “The Rational Bible” — and yet he insists that the reader also must embrace the article of faith that the Bible is the revealed word of God rather than the work of human hands and minds. For most of readers who pick up the book, embracing these two notions at the same time will not be a challenging experience. The nonbelievers whom Prager had in mind when he wrote the book, however, may feel that he is begging the question.

“I am convinced the Torah is divine, meaning God, not man, is its ultimate source,” he continues. “The Torah is so utterly different — morally, theologically, and in terms of wisdom — from anything else preceding it and, for that matter, from anything written since, that a reasonable person would have to conclude either moral supermen or God was responsible for it.”

Prager does not dwell on what are essentially theological arguments. Rather, he is a strict moralist in the best sense of the word because he demands good behavior from everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs or practices, or the absence thereof, and he extracts from the Book of Exodus a code of conduct that he believes to be universal. His commentary on the writings from the ancient past is often hot-wired to contemporary reality, and that’s why his explanation of Exodus 23:8 (“Do not take bribes …”), for instance, points directly at the benighted world in which we live today.

“Corruption is the primary reason that societies fail to thrive,” he writes. “In Angola, for example, I saw rows of unfinished modern apartment buildings — unfinished because governmental officials were not offered sufficient bribes to allow completion of those buildings. To most people, corruption sounds bad, but most people do not recognize how devastating it actually is. The Torah does.”

Thus, Prager does not argue that we ought to obey the Ten Commandments because the Bible tells us that they are the word of God; rather, he argues that they amount to a civilizing code of conduct. “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:13) is included in the Ten Commandments, he argues, because “it is indispensable to forming and maintaining higher civilization.” He seems to express a degree of compassion for adulterers: “No one knows what goes on in anyone else’s marriage. And if we did, we might often well understand why one or the other sought love outside the marriage.” But his bottom-line argument is that “no higher civilization can be created or can endure that condones adultery,” and he assigns the same importance to five of the Ten Commandments, all of which “are intended to safeguard a foundation of civilization: life, family, property, truth, and justice.”

The Torah, according to Dennis Prager, is not the only way to understand the origin, meaning and purpose of the Bible in general or the Book of Exodus in particular. Prager joins a chorus of commentators, uncountable in number, that reaches back into distant antiquity and continues to attract new members. From all of us who regard the Torah as a living document, whether it was written by the finger of God or the hands of human beings, Prager deserves our praise for calling his readers back to the Bible.

Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of the Jewish Journal, is the author of, among other titles, “Moses: A Life.”