September 22, 2019

Letters to the Editor: Dennis Prager, UCLA and Shavuot

Prager vs. Presner

We read with concern Dennis Prager’s attack on the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies and its director, professor Todd Presner (“The UCLA Center for Jewish Studies,” May 22). As members of the center’s faculty advisory committee, we would like to offer a response to the question with which Prager closes: “[W]hat is one to conclude about the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies?” To set the record straight for readers of this publication, one is to conclude that the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies is perhaps the most renowned, active and public-minded center of its kind in North America. Had Prager deigned to peruse the annual calendar of events, not to mention come to a single event, he would see a dizzying range of lectures, conferences, and workshops offered free of charge and intended to open the world of Jewish history and culture to a wide audience, on campus and beyond.

In the specific case that Prager refers to, the invitation to Cornel West to speak at a conference on Abraham Joshua Heschel, we are left scratching our heads at his invective. It is not merely that he uses inaccurate and offensive language to describe the center and its director, such as “moronic,” “reprehensible” and “disingenuous.” Nor is that he arrogates to himself the right to declare that there can be only one possible reading of the center’s motivations — namely, his own. It is that Prager has no interest whatsoever in West’s qualifications to speak at a conference on Rabbi Heschel, nor in what he actually said at the conference. Yes, West has made statements about Israel to which many of us object strongly. But that was not his task at the conference nor the reason he was invited to speak by Professor Susannah Heschel, Abraham Heschel’s daughter and a co-convener of the conference, along with Professor Ken
Reinhard. On the contrary, he was called upon to address the thought of Rabbi Heschel. He did so by delivering a vastly learned tribute, rooted in deep knowledge of the full range of Heschel’s writings that turned many skeptics into admirers. In the course of his presentation, he spoke movingly of the historical and ethical affinities between Jews and African-Americans. Dennis Prager seems uninterested in this, indeed, in the content of Cornel West’s ideas. It is one thing to offer a critique based on actual engagement; it is another to roll out tired clichés about those with whom one disagrees politically without listening to them. 

Intellectual laziness of this sort should have no place in the Jewish Journal.

The Faculty Advisory Committee of the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies:

Carol Bakhos, Lia Brozgal, Eleanor Kaufman, David N. Myers, William Schniedewind, Sarah Stein

Dennis Prager responds: 

Not one argument I made was responded to. Cornel West seeks to economically strangle Israel, compares Israel’s treatment of Gaza to a Nazi concentration camp and regularly tells Black Americans that the Black struggle in America is akin to the Palestinians’ struggle against Israel. That is why UCLA Professor Judea Pearl, father of Daniel Pearl, also strongly criticized the invitation to Cornel West. That is why I wrote “that a center for Jewish studies would do this is as moronic as it is reprehensible.” (I did not say its director is “moronic” and “irresponsible.”) But the center’s moral compass is broken. Years ago at UCLA, I debated Professor David Myers, a former director of the center and a signatory to the letter. The topic was “Is Israel morally superior to the Palestinians?” He argued that the two were morally equivalent. Finally, by arguing that my column should not have been published, the signatories obviously think the Jewish Journal should be run as UCLA and the Center for Jewish Studies are run — only opinions on the left should be expressed. 

Sustaining Shavuot

The most troubling aspect of Rob Eshman’s column “Is Shavuot Dead?” (May 22) is summed up in the following statement: “These days, any religious idea, institution or ritual must be able to answer this question: ‘How does it help me flourish?’ ”

Sadly, the key word there is “me.” If this is the approach of today’s younger generation of Jews toward Judaism, then the message of Shavuot is indeed dying. On Shavuot, we commemorate the day we all stood together as Jews, about to receive Torah, and declared, “naseh v’nishmah” (we will do, and we will hear). I have no quarrel with the idea of “mixing, blending, bending and switching.” Judaism has long evolved, adapted, adopted and innovated. But whether our path is Orthodox, Reform, Conservative or other, the values of commitment, community, acting justly rather than for personal advancement or fulfillment ought to be central. Imagine our ancestors, gathered at the foot of that mountain, hearing the Ten Commandments in a thundering voice, and instead of “naseh v’nishmah,” responding, “How will this help me flourish?”

Scott Taryle via email