The man behind the golden voice.
The voice as it comes out of the radio is big - deep, resonant, combative, sure of itself. The man behind the voice is also big - 6 feet 4 inches tall, a hefty 250 pounds, full of energy and sure of his ideas and his mission: to make old-fashioned ethics the central organizing factor of American public life and of every private life his voice can reach.
Dennis Prager, author, radio celebrity, moral preacher (and scourge of liberals) has for nearly ten years been a fixture on local radio. At age 44 (when this article was first published in 1992), he is in mid-career stride, his ambition, appetite, brains and charm having propelled him from success as a lecturer and educator on the Jewish circuit to the edge of becoming not just a major presence in the national Jewish community but an intellectual celebrity in the larger world, too, a Jewish St. George battling the forces of secularity on behalf of simple "goodness."
Will secular America take the bait? Has Prager cannily positioned himself to ride the resurgent wave of "traditional values" to national influence and a network TV talk show? Or will his seriousness about morality and goodness in a society that prefers to stop at lip service to virtue consign him ultimately to the margins of public life?
So far, Prager's career is a litany of successes, and the sheer imposing vocal, physical and intellectual presence of the man suggests that he won't allow anything - anything, that is, within the boundaries of what is morally right - to get in his way now.
Some of Prager's critics, however, condemn his teaching and preaching about personal morality and religious values as a screen for a partisan political agenda, accusing him of simply selling conservative politics disguised as religion. "He's just trying to reframe ordinary politics into a morality play," objects one liberal critic. And it is true that moralist Prager offers a clearly defined, and generally right-wing, position on virtually every current public issue. Adept at lengthy arguments with liberal callers-in to his show, he is also a master of the sound bite who can compress his positions into a few choice words.
Abortion? "Allow but discourage." School prayer? "Preferably non-denominational - but at least it will remind Jewish kids that they're Jewish." Vietnam War? "It was a mistake but not immoral." The American Civil Liberties Union? "Except for free-speech issues, almost single-mindedly destructive of most of what preserves the United States and its values." He's an enemy of "secular extremism," of confused liberals who "defend evil when it's perpetrated by minority groups," and of Jews so mesmerized by the Left that they have stopped following Judaism. "Liberalism has now replaced Judaism as the religion of the Jews," Prager laments.
To those who accuse him of selling nothing more elevated than conservative politics, Prager replies that he is merely applying religious values to the political arena. His product, he insists, is "goodness." "I only care about goodness," he says loftily.
Prager derives his notions of goodness and the centrality of moral values from Judaism. The reformation of Jewish life is his special passion, and his commitments as a Jew form the foundation for his work in the larger community. His biography itself makes clear the opposing forces of religious commitment and secular ambition that define him.
Born in 1948 into an Orthodox household in Brooklyn - his parents remain Orthodox although the son has moved religiously to the left - Prager attended Yeshiva of Flatbush through high school. After taking a BA at Brooklyn College, he spent two years at the Columbia University School of International Affairs, not quite earning a Master's degree there. ("Secular narrowness is as great as that of the yeshiva," he says.)
Perhaps somewhat uncomfortable with his lack of academic credentials, Prager notes that he co-wrote (with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin) Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism
as a kind of substitute Master's thesis. With a touch of the salesman, Prager calls the book, which has been translated into Russian, Spanish, Persian and Japanese, the "most widely used introduction to Judaism in the world."
Graduate study of Russian, knowledge of Hebrew and strong Jewish commitment suited Prager perfectly for the next leg of his journey: envoy to the Russian dissident movement. Beginning in 1969, he served both the Israeli government and the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry as courier/lecturer for Soviet dissidents.
Over the next few years, he lectured "hundreds of times" to American audiences about Soviet Jewry. But that wasn't the only subject on which he claimed some expertise. Accepting minimal fees in return for exposure, he leapt onto the Jewish lecture circuit with talks on why Jewish youth was alienated from Jewish life. "It was part chutzpah," he admits, and part inspired experimentation.
Through the lecturing and the career in Jewish outreach that it defined, Prager came to the attention of Shlomo Bardin, the nearly legendary founder and director of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, CA, northeast of Los Angeles, an independent institution for educational and cultural Jewish outreach. Bardin became his mentor in a relationship Prager characterizes as "mutual respect and love." In 1976, after Bardin's death, Prager, a wunderkind
of 27, became Bardin's hand-picked successor as director of BBI and an important figure on the L.A. Jewish scene.
The seven years of Prager's tenure in Simi Valley, however, were filled with conflict between himself and the Brandeis board, whom he accuses of treating him "miserably." At Brandeis, Prager says now, not without bitterness, "I learned that many Jews are uncomfortable with paying another Jew to do something Jewish."
Or was the problem, as some board members complain, that he tried to make BBI into an Orthodox institution? Prager acknowledges trying to push individuals toward greater observance, in a marked change from Bardin's non-religious orientation that was sure to threaten and antagonize many. But he castigates the view, which he ascribes to much of the non-Orthodox community, that keeping kosher and not working on Shabbat define someone as Orthodox. "Reforming Jewish law is one thing," says Prager, whose own practice is eclectic. "Simply dropping it is another. A Jew needs to have a good reason not to keep kosher."
Even his critics acknowledge that Prager succeeded in exciting many young people about Jewish observance and bringing them into the Jewish community. But that enterprise had its down side as well. He developed "followers," explains one BBI insider during those years, but he turned off many people by leaving no room for "intelligent disagreement. His bullying antagonized a lot of people."
It is a complaint about Prager's style that clings to him even today.
In 1982, again with Telushkin, he wrote Why the Jews?
which argues that anti-Semitism is a response to the moral mandate that Jews bear into the world. Prager is not too modest to call it perhaps "the most persuasive explanation of anti-Semitism ever writen."
Prager's emergence as a radio personality seems as accidental as his career as a lecturer and the road it opened to Brandeis-Bardin. In 1983, as he was leaving Brandeis and deciding against a run for Congress, L.A. School Board member Roberta Weintraub, impressed by a Prager lecture, recommended him to KABC. His debut as a fill-in moderator for the Sunday-night "Religion on the Line" program, on which a rabbi, priest and minister discussed religious issues with listeners, was such a success that he was hired permanently while still on the air.
Religion, and the spin Prager put on it, brought in listeners. During his years as host of "Religion on the Line" and the other KABC talk shows to which he graduated, Prager's ratings have been high, according to station president George Green, often luring up to a quarter of total audience share and consistently getting the highest ratings among the station's programs.
Although the varied conversational mix on these shows more often emphasized what Prager calls "macro" political and social issues than "micro" personal matters, Prager insists that his core message is that personal moral values and goodness are the most important things in the world. And like any preacher, he insists on putting God into the equation. "I don't trust the human conscience. Without God as the basis of goodness, goodness will not prevail."
There are plenty of non-believers to vehemently disagree. But Prager, taking a puff on his pipe, settles back in his chair in his book-lined inner sanctum and explains that "authority" is necessary for the survival of any moral system. "To the liberals, God is tolerance," he sniffs, suggesting that in the end, pure tolerance can lead people to accept virtually anything.
To illustrate his own conviction, he recounts a conversation he had with his 9-year-old son David. During the April 1992 L.A. riots, he says, as they watched the looting together on television, he asked if the boy would loot if he knew he would not get caught or punished. The father was pleased when the boy said he would not, not merely because it's "wrong" but because "God said not to."
Using a sentimental anecdote as support for a complex philosophical notion is a device sure to raise the cry of "simple-mindedness" from Prager's critics, who don't take him or his ideas nearly as seriously as Prager thinks they should.
There is no lack of quick dismissals of Prager - most of them, predictably, from liberals. "You shouldn't treat him as a serious thinker," cautions a professor. "His ideas are superficial and simplistic and can be easily demolished," says another academic. "He's popular because people are looking for easy answers," opines an L.A. community activist. "His philosophy is oatmeal," carps a local writer. "A low-rent mind," says a rabbi. "Intellectually wooden," says a sometime radio listener. "An intellectual bully," says a former fan. "Tiresome and repetitive," says another.
But many more disagree. Reviewers have called Prager "probably the most perceptive Jewish thinker in America today" and "the most eloquent speaker of his generation." His admirers include rabbis such as Lawrence Kushner, authors, professors, clergy in all denominations (he has lectured often at the Islamic Center of Southern California) - everyone from actor Charlton Heston to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Reform Rabbi Mordecai Finley of L.A.'s Stephen Wise Temple, at whose Shabbat-morning minyan Prager is a regular worshipper, suggests that his critics confuse Prager's "lack of ambiguity" about what he believes with over-simplification. "He's not arrogant," says Finley. "He's sure of himself because he has thought the issues through."
Prager defends himself with some irritation against the accusation of simplistic thinking. "My views are very nuanced. I once wrote 'No act is ever wrong.' Simplistic is, 'Let a woman do what she wants with her own body.' I'm pro-choice, but I believe that most abortions are immoral. I take the nuanced middle ground."
Rejecting labels, Prager also refuses to characterize himself as a political conservative, despite endorsements of conservative political candidates and attacks on "liberals" so relentless that even he sometimes worries about "turning off" part of his audience. "I'm a passionate moderate," he claims.
Nonetheless, the Left, as he acknowledges, is a primary target for him. For one thing, he believes the Left over-emphasizes government policy in place of personal ethics. "Secularism is good for government but bad for you
," he says. "I want a secular government but a religious population." The Left's ambition to "secularize" all of society is anathema to him, a direct challenge to his own goal of a society permeated with religious values. And he fears a slide into totalitarianism through the Left's willingness to create huge governmental structures ("All the worst evils of the 20th century were created by large government; faceless bureaucracies scare me").
But in the end the labels, he says, don't interest him. "I don't care what I'm called, so long as I'm heard."
Prager is being heard increasingly. He has a national and even a burgeoning international reputation as a lecturer (usual fee, about $2,500). His quarterly newsletter, Ultimate Issues, which he writes himself, has a circulation of 9,000 opinion-makers around the country - more, Prager boasts, than just about any other Jewish publication "that you have to pay for." His long 1990 essay, "Judaism, Homosexuality and Civilization," which argued against accepting homosexuality as the equivalent of heterosexuality in Jewish life, won a $10,000 award from the Amy Foundation. His classes in verse-by-verse analysis of the Bible at the University of Judaism draw crowds of 350. And his Micah Foundation for Ethical Monotheism, founded "to make good and evil the central concern of society," funds such projects as a television miniseries on good and evil created by David Zucker (director of Naked Gun 2½
) and ongoing programs to combat "both religious and secular extremism" - the former identified with the Iranian ayatollahs, the latter with the ACLU. His book, Happiness Is a Serious Problem,
from Random House, makes the point, derived from Buddhism, that expectations are "the greatest impediment" to happiness. (But Buddhism, Prager cautions, says to drop desires, too, which Judaism "doesn't allow. If you drop desires, you'll never have a Salk vaccine.")
The master of talk radio has also negotiated for a TV talk show, shopping around a pilot for possible use in several areas, with the potential for a national hookup in the future. (One problem, say some Prager watchers, is that Prager's large physical presence, talkiness and love of being the center of attention may work against television's need, even in a talk-show setting, for motion and a bit of drama.)
All these operations - plus a brisk business in transcripts and tapes of his courses and lectures on everything from the excesses of the American Civil Liberties Union to "Why I Send My Child to a Jewish Day School" - keep eight secretaries and researchers busy in Prager's large suite of offices in Culver City. A dynamo of energy and ambition intent on changing society's values, Prager has become a one-man cottage industry.
Perhaps the essential question to ask about a moralist is whether his private life embodies the values he teaches. Prager doesn't deny having flaws, but he calls himself "deeply desirous" of matching his behavior with his rhetoric. "Morality is how you treat your fellow human beings - I walk around nearly all the time thinking that God is watching me and asking, 'What if this were videoed and the people who read Ultimate Issues were given the videos?'"
But he makes one important exception to traditional categories of morality, an exception that mightily disturbs some right-wing Jews and Christians who otherwise agree with him: He accepts and justifies "non-coercive" sex between unmarried adults.
Inventing his own category of permission within the traditional morality he espouses, Prager insists on the moral propriety of sex between unmarried adults "so long as there is no element of unkindness, dishonesty, or anything unethical - so long as it does not harm others."
Many ethicists and moralists, including the traditional Jewish authorities who provide his underpinning on other matters, would reject this separate distinction for unmarried sex, Prager acknowledges, especially since sex is an arena in which people can injure others emotionally even when they are, or try to be, totally honest.
But Prager (married to his second wife, Fran, and the father of a son, a stepdaughter and a newly adopted infant) compares the issue to the Jewish law that forbids asking a storekeeper the price of his wares if one has no intention of making a purchase. "You can't raise the hopes of a storekeeper for no reason," he explains. "Similarly, if you know you won't commit to a woman, you have to say to her, as you would to a storekeeper, 'I'm going to take a little time to look at your merchandise, but I'm not going to buy it here.' If you level this way, you can tell a woman, 'This is recreation, but I will not commit to you.' An adult woman has to be in charge of her own life, too."
While moralists, not to mention feminists, may be horrified at the comparison, the sentiments and the possibilities for emotional abuse that such a philosophy suggests, especially by a teacher, administrator or celebrity, Prager insists that he sees sex between unmarried adults as an issue, not of morality but of holiness. "I take holiness extremely seriously," he says reassuringly. "But whereas I want always
want to be ethical, there are moments of unholiness when, for the sake of my own sanity, I have allowed the lower side of myself to express itself."
He makes this confession, if that is what it is, simply to represent himself accurately, he says. Prager the moralist, even when he is preaching what others might argue is immoral, always remains in control. "I am a fanatic on the issue of truth," he says. "I don't want people to ever be able to say, 'He said one thing but he did another.' I want my life to be all of one piece."