Monday, March 29, 2010

Eighteen Years, Five Books, One Torah, and Dennis Prager

Matthew Duda

A very significant event took place in the second week of February that received scant attention in the media —no news reports, no blogs, no TV coverage. On that Tuesday night, February 9, 2010, Dennis Prager concluded his 18-year, verse-by-verse study of the Torah at the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) in Los Angeles. Juggling his busy schedule of lecturing, writing, and anchoring his nationally-syndicated radio talk show, Mr. Prager had been offering his commentary on each and every verse of the Torah’s 5 Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) since 1992. What ironically began on the very night of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, ended on that day with a small reception with 80 or so of his students to celebrate the conclusion of a most remarkable journey.

Since I live in Southern California and have been a long-time Dennis Prager fan, I had the opportunity to attend his classes in person. So, in 2003, I finally took the plunge and went to my first class. By that point Mr. Prager had completed Genesis and Exodus and was near the end of Numbers (the book of Leviticus was saved for last even though it appears third in the order of Torah Books). For many Roman Catholics like me, in-depth Bible study was not part of our formal religious training. Although readings from both the Old and New Testament are integral to the Catholic Mass, I always thought that formal Bible Study was something that only Protestants, especially Evangelicals, and religious Jews did. Feeling somewhat ignorant about the Book that is foundational to my own faith, I thought a class like Mr. Prager’s would be an effective way to fill in those gaps. Over the next 7 years as we completed the study of Numbers and the whole of Deuteronomy and Leviticus I came to appreciate, along with hundreds of other students, the remarkable life-changing insights of Mr. Prager’s analysis. This Torah study deepened my own Catholic faith in an important way, but more about that in a moment.

Each calendar year, Mr. Prager would offer 3 sets of 4 weekly sessions. Each lecture was 90 minutes in length but often continued longer because of questions and additional commentary. Our lecturer would begin each class with a brief assessment of the attendees. Invariably, about half the students identified themselves as new to the course which always amazed our host, who would often comment that if all the students who ever took any of these courses gathered in one place, they would fill the Rose Bowl. Next he would ask for a show of hands indicating the religious affiliation of the students. Each class always had a healthy mix of Catholics, Evangelicals, Greek Orthodox, and Jews of all stripes–Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, or Secular. This eclectic mix of faiths in attendance each week greatly pleased Mr. Prager and was a testament to one of the central premises of his teaching, “Either the Torah has something to say to everyone, or it has nothing to say to Jews.” The universality of the Torah is critical—the idea that the Torah is only for Jews, Mr. Prager would point out, would be like saying that “Vitamin C is only effective for Mormons.”

Before turning to the text, Mr. Prager would introduce concert violinist (and accomplished photographer) Endre Balogh and Jim Smith, the head of the classical guitar department at USC, who together would play brief pieces in a wide range of styles to help set the mood for the Torah study to follow. These two remarkable musicians would treat each class to performances of Professor Smith’s arrangements for violin and guitar of everything from Bach to Dave Brubeck. From Villa-Lobos to Cole Porter. From Bartok to Elmer Bernstein’s film music from To Kill a Mockingbird. Mr. Prager would often say, “We start our Torah class with beautiful music. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Los Angeles Philharmonic started their concerts with a little Torah study?”

Since he believes the Torah to be a sacred work, Mr. Prager would place a kippah (or yarmulke) on his head and then turn to the reading of the text itself. He would follow the structure familiar to many Bible students—reading a few verses aloud (often translating from the original Biblical Hebrew) and then returning to them for commentary and analysis. He would supplement his own commentary with those from renowned Bible scholars such as Jacob Milgrom and Richard Elliot Friedman.

The 34 chapters of Deuteronomy (“This is Moses speaking,” Mr. Prager would remind us) offer countless avenues to explore including the Ten Commandments and other concepts such as blessings, curses, order, good vs. evil, family relationships and more. My favorite Prager insight into the Ten Commandments sprang from an analysis of the Fifth Commandment, “Honor your Father and your Mother” (5:16). He explained that the word “honor” in the Biblical Hebrew comes from the word “Kabad”, meaning literally “to make heavy.” We honor our parents not by loving them, but by making them “heavy”, i.e. making them people of substance and not “making light” of them. I was struck how even to this day we use the phrase “make light” of someone to mean a way of belittling or humiliating them.

Prager often pointed out that the worst sin of all is doing evil in God’s name—a violation of the Second Commandment (5:11). Taking the Lord’s name in “vain” does not mean, our teacher stressed, cursing, but rather doing evil in God’s name. Of course this concept resonates today in the evil done by to Muslims in the name of Allah by carrying out violent jihad against innocents. Those actions taint the very God they are worshipping. It would be simply inconceivable for Christians, for example, to stand by as evil against innocents was carried out in the name of Jesus. “If you want to know about a religion,” Prager would often say, “look not their dogma, but to their behavior in the name of their God.”

One of the other central tenets of the Torah that Deuteronomy and Leviticus return to time and again is the concept of an ordered universe created by God. Prager would say amplify the text this way: “do not mix what God has made separate.” This idea is illustrated by examples such as the admonition not to wear garments made of a blend of linen (man-made) and wool (natural) (22:11); the prohibition for men of wearing women’s clothing (22:5); and the condemnation of homosexual sexual behavior (Lev. 18:22). The Biblical view of homosexuality is one that Mr. Prager has spent a lifetime thinking, speaking, and writing about (here for example) so I won’t go into great detail here except to emphasize his point that since the Torah promotes separation and order as an ideal, the separation of the sexes strives for that ideal. “Love the stranger,” the Torah admonishes, and no one is more of a stranger to us than a member of the opposite sex.

The Book of Leviticus explores the ways we enrich our relationship with God. It is steeped in the concepts of the holy and the sacred. The 27 chapters of the book comprise a remarkable journey and Mr. Prager led us through all of it–the sacrificial system, the dietary laws, the sexual prohibitions, the skin diseases, the bodily emissions, everything. He would often marvel at our desire to spend a Tuesday night studying “diseases of the skin and bodily discharges.” Of course the profundity lies beneath the examples and shows how a sinful people can become Holy and get closer to God through sacrifice. Although we generally think of a sacrifice as giving something up, Prager pointed out that the Hebrew word for sacrifice (korban) actually means “to get close; to draw near.” By offering sacrifices we are able to get closer to God.

The 37 verses comprising Chapter 19 of Leviticus took six classes to complete, so packed were they with wisdom addressing issues ranging from not holding back the wages of a laborer overnight (19:13b), to showing respect for the elderly (19:32). One of my favorites is the Torah’s admonition to avoid showing favoritism to the rich in court as well as not showing partiality to the poor. (19:15). Once Mr. Prager spent 2 hours on just 2 verses, (19:17-18), which contain “love your neighbor as yourself.” He pointed out that the original Hebrew implies a behavioral command (love “to” your neighbor, i.e. an active love) rather than an emotional one (as in the way we love God.) And before you can love you neighbor, he explained to us, you must take care to love yourself; only then can you love your neighbor “as if he were you.”

As we made our way through Leviticus we learned about the establishment of the rituals surrounding the various Festivals and Holy Days such as the Sabbath, Passover, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. Mr. Prager pointed out how for the first time in history, time itself was consecrated by the Torah’s institution of the Sabbath and making it holy (23:4). These discussions of the festivals and the importance of ritual really resonated with my Catholic roots, themselves steeped in the 2000 years of Church ritual. Our guide in our journey to discover the wisdom of the Torah emphasized again and again the importance of rituals in not only keeping alive the memories of those who came before, but essential to the very survival of Judaism itself. I realized how this applied to my own religion as well. When Prager described how the rituals set forth in Leviticus over 3500 years ago are still being practiced today, I can say I wasn’t the only one in the class who felt chills.

The climax of the study of Leviticus for me came in a discussion about how the holy is necessary to protect the ethical. Ethics without God are not lasting. In some ways all of Leviticus shows us how to be holy in order that ethical behavior might survive. “The death of the Holy will eventually lead to the death of the ethical,” Mr. Prager said in that very last presentation in which he summed up what his 18 years of what teaching the Torah had meant to him. After all, he continued, it is the Torah itself inside the Holy of Holies at the Temple, a literal demonstration of the Holy protecting the Ethical and the Law.

Obviously I can only scratch the surface of the countless topics we covered and the boundless wisdom that pours from these books. And even Mr. Prager’s classes had to eventually come to an end. And so on that brisk Tuesday night after some extra pieces of music from the musicians, a lovely cake, some gifts exchanged, he brought the curtain down on 18 years of studying this “instruction manual for life,” as he often calls the Torah. Its divinity is found in its honest depiction of its people. No society, Mr. Prager said, can point to a history of itself in which its people are presented in such an undistinguished manner while many members outside the group are presented heroically (Noah, Jethro, daughter of Pharaoh). The true genius of the Torah, he concluded, is in the values it puts forth. The values that could take an undistinguished people and make them worthy to be chosen by God. The values that were imbued in America’s founders. The values that caused those founders to include a verse from Leviticus to be stamped on the Liberty Bell as they wanted to “proclaim liberty throughout the land” (25:10). The values that were entirely new to the world when they appeared and have endured to this day. Values we call Judeo-Christian.

As I walked back to my car on that crisp February evening after the final class, I thought back on the 7 years I had spent studying this remarkable text. I felt a little sad it was ending but exhilarated in what I had learned about life, about Judaism and about myself.

For those not lucky enough to have been able to take the classes in person, Mr. Prager has recorded every one and makes them available at the store on his web site. There are also plans to publish a multi-volume set of his complete commentary. Now that will be something. So if you want to change your life for the better, I suggest that you get a study Bible, order some of Mr. Prager’s recorded classes, and immerse yourself in these most remarkable and blessed books. You may find that 18 years is not enough—a lifetime may not even suffice.

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