Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dennis Prager, mystic activist

SUBJECT. This post surveys Prager's activism in its general characteristics. What motivates him? What forms of activism has Prager taken to disseminate his ideas? To whom is he speaking? What lessons has he learned from his experiences as an activist? The following is a preliminary sketch of the actions of a man who is extraordinary in at least one respect: his activism, which is an extension of his central purpose in life, is the core of his life.[1]

REVIEW. As explained in earlier posts, "Stephen Bourque analyzes mystic Dennis Prager" (Jan. 20, 2010) and "Prager on Reason and Mysticism" (March 13, 2010), Dennis Prager's worldview is the religion of Judaism. The metaphysics of his worldview is theism. The epistemology is ultimately mysticism in various forms, though he says of himself: ". . . I am cursed and blessed to be very rational." (pp. 2-3) The ethics of his worldview is altruism. (He has said [p. 90] that he has had a "lifelong interest in altruism.") The politics of his worldview is apparently the mixed economy of a conservative welfare state, but he describes it as "the American central value system with the free market, liberty, and basic Judeo-Christian principles." (p. 84) His ideology -- that is, his application of his universal worldview to dealing with the problems of his particular milieu -- is conservatism (valuing God, Tradition, Nation, and Family).

Prager uses "reason" to articulate and advocate for his ethical and political ideas. His mysticism -- faith, revelation, and so forth -- is always present in his discussions by implication, but occasionally it is explicit too. He spends most of his time advocating for or discussing ethical and political issues, but the flood of his activities carries with it occasional messages about reason and mysticism.

BACKGROUND. As explained in the March 13, 2010 post, Prager's central purpose in life is to propagate "ethical monotheism" -- that is, the ethics that comes (mystically, but with "rational" elaboration) from the one God. For Prager, spreading ethical monotheism is not a mere wish, nor even a sideline form of activism. It is the productive core of his life. His products include thousands of hours of recorded call-in talk-radio shows; lectures likewise recorded; instructional videotapes; and informative books. All are for sale.

Prager's central purpose is an application, to his individual life, of the purpose of Jews as a group. "The purpose of the Jewish people," he says, "is to bring the world to God," that is, to present to the world God and the ways God wants individuals to act. (p. 24)

Prager has designed his life so as to best fulfill his central purpose. For example: "Dennis has organized his life," notes Luke Ford (his informal biographer), "to say and write what he believes to be true without fear of repercussion. He has never wanted to be dependent on [any one particular] boss. Thus, he has earned money for decades from multiple sources (speeches, radio, writing)." (p. 5, minor edits here and elsewhere)

HIS LIFE AS AN ACTIVIST. Prager was born in 1948 into a "modern Orthodox" Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York, There he attended two yeshivas (Orthodox schools of religious and secular studies), from kindergarten through high school. He became fluent in Hebrew and began studying Russian. In school, he met Joseph Telushkin, who became Prager's best friend and, a decade later, a co-author. For Prager, as for so many others, networking paid unpredictable benefits in the years ahead.

"After school," Prager said, "I'd take a subway into Manhattan and go to museums and concerts and plays. I didn't do any homework." Academically, he graduated 92nd in a class of 110, but, because he was senior class president, he spoke at the graduation ceremony. (pp. 15, 16, and 18) His early public speaking was an element of his life that foreshadowed his career path.

A second element was his attitude toward the schools he attended. He said, "I hate to be told what to do unless it has a divine source. I don't want morons telling me what to do." (p. 19) Prager has also identified a third element. "The ability to read how others react to you is about as important a subject as there is in life. I think I am very aware of this. I think it is something I was aware of at an early age. . . . One of the reasons I was able to become an interesting speaker was that I was very aware even in private conversations in high school, whether or not I was boring the person I was with." (pp. 22-23) A fourth element emerged in his teen years: He was a fan of talk-radio, listening and calling frequently. "(p. 22) A fifth element was expecting reasons -- articulated explanations (even if they were ultimately based on something beyond reason) for any belief or action. He rejected some Orthodox Jews' "explanations" such as because God said so. "I left keeping kosher after [attending] yeshiva precisely because no reasons were given." (p. 23) "I believe you have to do things because God said so, but even if God said so, why did God give me a brain if not to understand why he said so?" (p. 24)

After his first year of Brooklyn College, he briefly toured Israel and Europe. (p. 26) At age 21, Prager was influenced by Rabbi Louis Jacobs's book, We Have Reason to Believe. "[W]e can use the faculty of reason to believe in God? Just the title alone changed my life," says Prager. (p. 27) Before his junior year and paid by an Israeli sponsor, he traveled to the Soviet Union for a month, smuggling in religious items and surreptitiously meeting Jewish leaders. He saw dictatorship first hand. (p. 28) Returning to the US, and still a student at age 21, he began speaking to U. S. Jewish audiences about his experiences with Russian dissidents. He donated his speaking fees to the Free Soviet Jewry movement. In 1970, he led conservative demonstrations at a United Nations World Youth Assembly, a convention dominated by socialists and others who hated Israel and the United States. That experience, he said, "cemented [my] ability to speak calmly in the face of hostility." (p. 30)

While in college, he later said, "[I was] very worried -- what will I do for a living? I was not prepared to abandon this sense of mission in life [bringing Jewish ethics to the world] but how do you make a living from that?" (p. 29)

In 1970, he graduated from Brooklyn College, with majors in history and anthropology. (p. 32) He studied next at the Middle East Institute and the Russian Institute of Columbia University's School of International Affairs. Graduate school was difficult because many of his professors were Marxists and he was not. "Since entering graduate school, I was preoccupied with this question: Why did so many learned and intelligent professors believe so many foolish things? . . . One day . . . [s]eemingly out of nowhere, a biblical verse -- one that I had recited . . . in kindergarten . . . -- entered my mind. It was a verse from Psalm 111: 'Wisdom begins with fear of God'." Prager said, "[The] verse . . . put me on a philosophical course from which I have never wavered." He sees the terrible consequences of "godless ideas," and that sight energizes his faith. (p. 34) "I have learned a lot in life because . . . [w]henever people tell me almost anything, I [ask] why." (p. 35)

At about the same time, 1970-1971, Prager taught Jewish history at Brooklyn College. (p. 34) His communication skills grew with each such experience.

In the summer of 1971, Prager toured communist Eastern Europe. Working from those travels, he wrote an essay and a book review for two national conservative magazines. (p. 35) In 1973, he dropped out of graduate school to work with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin to write an introduction to Judaism -- a book "that [unlike his highly specialized Master's thesis] would actually touch people's lives." (p. 36)

In 1975, Prager, age 27, and Telushkin self-published their book, The Eight Questions People Ask about Judaism. Prager wrote the book by drawing on his experiences in lecturing and answering questions on campuses and in discussions of Judaism in missionary work in the Soviet Union and its satellites. The book illustrates a lesson of successful philosophical and intellectual activism: The activist should state broad principles (such as, for Prager, belief in God and the necessity of having values) but also offer suggestions for thinking about those principles and applying them to daily life. (p. 36)

Prager and Telushkin had offered the book to the Jewish Publication Society, but the JPS rejected it as "too advocative." Prager notes, "Joseph and I published the book on our own and sold so many copies that we lived off the sales of the book at lectures for years." Prager explained that, outside some individuals in the Orthodox minority, few Jews advocated Judaism. One exception was the scholarly and mystical Chabad movement. (p. 37 and askmoses.com)

Prager and Telushkin added a ninth question to their book and a mainstream publisher issued it in 1976 as The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism. Aimed mainly at "secular Jews," that is, individuals born into Jewish culture but no longer following its faith-based customs, it became the most widely used introduction to Judaism. (p. 36)

Prager works for the long-term. He autographs copies of the Bible, and he believes "his contributions won't be recognized for a millenium," says biographer Luke Ford. (pp. 38, minor edit, and 90)

Also in 1976, Prager, at the age of 28, became the administrator of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, north of Los Angeles. Its purpose was to produce leaders for the Jewish community. When he gave free copies of his book to the camp counselors at the institute, he learned a lesson in dissemination. "By the tenth person, I realized what a terrible mistake I had made. I knew not one of them was going to read it and that none of them treasured it. Had I charged one dollar for the book, they would've appreciated it." (p. 38)

Later in the same year, the host of a local television program interviewed Prager for his first television appearance. (p. 40)

Prager was alert to judging the state of the culture in which he was speaking and he sought better tools for advocacy. The 1980 election of conservative Ronald Reagan led Prager to see that the fundamental difference between the left and the right is "philosophical and moral," not merely economic. (p. 40)

In 1982, Prager became the host for a Los Angeles radio program, "Religion on the Line," featuring an interfaith dialogue. Prager said later that his first (trial) appearance on the program produced one of the happiest moments of his life because he "ached to get [his] ideas out." He began as host of the two-hour program on Sunday. (p. 41)

"I opened radio to Muslims. . . . I deliberately sought them because it's a major religion. I had Muslims on so often . . . that they invited me to various mosques to speak. . . . The first public demonstration I organized was on behalf of Muslims in [Russian-occupied] Afghanistan." (p. 41) "It was their failure to organize demonstrations against Islamic terror [after August 2000, the Second Intifada in Israel] which caused a certain breach." (p. 45)

In 1983, Prager resigned from his seven-year directorship of the Institute, and, again with a co-author, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, published his second book, Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism. (p. 42) In the same year, his radio appearances expanded to four days each week. He also wrote a regular column for a Los Angeles newspaper. (p. 44) Thus, Prager by this time had multiple channels for communicating his ideas: lecturing; teaching university courses; hosting a radio talk show on religion and its applications; and writing newspaper columns, national magazine articles, and books.

In 1985, perhaps partly to avoid being edited by others whose views he didn't share, he began publishing a journal for his own writings, Ultimate Issues. Prager continued the journal, with its nearly ten thousand subscribers, for fifteen years. Catholic conservative William F. Buckley praised the journal. As another instance of attempting to support himself through sales directly to his readers and listeners, Prager began selling audiotapes of his lectures. "It was actually the Ayatollah Khomeini [who led the Islamic revolution which overthrew the Shah of Iran] who made me aware of the power of tapes," said Prager. (p. 44)

In 1986, in a house of Chabad at the University of California at Los Angeles, he lectured to students and others. The topic was happiness. "I record all my talks . . . ," Prager says. "I am misquoted often and then I have proof . . . . " From around 1970, he had sold recordings of his lectures to subscribers. His tape of the 1986 lecture on happiness sold well. His experience with this lecture illustrates two points for activists. First, activists cannot always accurately predict market response. Some lectures and books sell much better or worse than the authors predict. Second, a small, short-term project can unexpectedly grow into a larger or more long-term project. Six months after Prager originally presented his lecture, "Happiness is a Serious Problem," it led to an essay for Redbook magazine and then a condensed essay for Reader's Digest. (p. 49)

However, before he committed to writing a book on happiness, he tested his expanded material (for sufficiency and interest) by presenting a course (eight 90-minute sessions) at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. That succeeded, so next he presented a longer course, sixteen 90-minute sessions. When that went well, he agreed with a publisher to produce a book, but he did not complete it until 1998, 12 years after the original lecture. (p. 49) The progression shows the value of small projects. They can be both experiments and "seed capital" for larger projects.

Throughout all of these public activities, Prager also continued influencing individuals one by one. For example, in 1989, he spent an hour and a half discussing marriage, divorce, and children with a doctor who asked for help. The doctor became an Orthodox Jew. (p. 52)

"In late 1991," says biographer Luke Ford, "Dennis launched the Micah Center for Ethical Monotheism. The purpose of the activist education center is to have a 'place of activity' devoted to his life's mission of spreading ethical monotheism through every available means." (p. 54) The Center has produced training videos about ethics, such as the comedic "For Goodness Sake." (p. 55)

In April 1992, Prager began teaching the Torah, the first five books of the Bible , by lecturing on the twenty percent of the verses that most intrigued him. He taught, on average, about sixteen nights per year, at the University of Judaism (now called the American Jewish University). He finished the series of Torah commentaries eighteen years later, in 2010. The lectures are recorded on more than 300 CDs. Prager has said that the project was the most important of his life and the least well known of his major projects. (pp. 57-58) The effects of an activist's projects are not automatically proportionate to his investment of time.

Also in 1992, he completed ten years of hosting his call-in radio program, "Religion on Line" -- over 500 shows. (p. 53) His radio career continued but the hours and breadth of audience varied as opportunities arose or dried up. When Prager faced difficult career problems, he asked himself, "[W]hat does God want me to do?" (p. 85)

How does Prager conduct himself in debate? In November 1996, Prager wrote an article for the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles. The subject was ordaining homosexuals as rabbis, an action Prager opposed, according to biographer Luke Ford. Prager held the view that the Bible had introduced a "heterosexual revolution" into the world and that it deserved defense. The editor of the Journal, which is heavily left-wing according to Prager, published his own rebuttal alongside Prager's essay. (Ford, pp. 64-67)

In subsequent issues, the Journal published readers' letters on the subject. Most of the letters rejected Prager's position and attacked him personally (calling him "homophobic" and so forth), but "not one dealt with the issues I actually raised," Prager said in his own publication, The Prager Perspective. (pp. 65-66) He ignored all but one of the letters that maligned him. The one letter to which he responded was a letter signed by sixteen rabbis, some of whom had been Prager's friends. He addressed their charges one by one, Prager says. Most disappointing to him, however, was the public silence of other rabbis whom he knew personally to support his position. (p. 66) Such experiences are a painful part of advocacy, for some advocates.

"The only thing I ever lose sleep over," Prager says, is when I am misquoted. It drives me crazy for idealistic reasons. I live so that I can have a good influence on people. If people change what I say, they undermine my ability to do good . . . . If people call me names, that truly doesn't bother me." (p. 68) This is another example of an activist using his central purpose in life as a razor to lop off the unimportant so that he can concentrate on the important. A dedicated advocate continues his advocacy despite attacks and disappointments.

In the Spring of 1998, Prager brought DennisPrager.com online. At that time, it was mainly a sales outlet for Prager's various products. (p. 67) In 1999, Prager's radio show was broadcast to a national audience, but the syndicator dropped him in late 2000. A Christian group, Salem Communications Corporation, added his show to their syndicated network (Salem Radio Network). His radio-show income is about one million per year. (p. 71) In 2009, Prager created Prager University online. It offers five-minute videos on topics such as "The Case for Marriage." (p. 55)

PRESENT ACTIVITIES: DENNISPRAGER.COM. Now that we have quickly examined key points of Prager's work life over the last fifty years, let us look at a cross-section of his work as an activist today. The simplest way to do that is to briefly tour his website, DenisPrager.com.

Start with three elements in the banner at the top of the home page. First, you can listen to his radio show when it is transmitting. To hear earlier shows, up to three weeks old and without the interruptions of commercials, you can purchase membership in "Pragertopia." A second element in the banner is a block containing a phone number and an email address for listeners who want to make a point for discussion on the radio show. This feature allows interactive activism, that is, the activist, Prager, offers an opportunity for his supporters (and detractors) to ask questions and offer their own viewpoint. The variety and the clash of viewpoints in discussion and debate make the activist's presentation more entertaining and informative, thus drawing (and keeping) an audience and thereby helping disseminate the activist's ideas. A third element in the banner of the homepage is a button ("Shop Now") that gives access to the products sold through the store: videos, DVDs, recorded lectures, Bible study courses, and books by Prager. The last item in the banner is an advertisement for courses in Hebrew and Bible study.

The left side of the website lists buttons for such topics as "The Dennis Prager Show," which has subtopics such as "What author/expert did Dennis have on?" Prager interviews authors on a wide range of subjects. On July 8, he interviewed William Rosen, the author of The Most Powerful Idea in the World: The Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. On July 13, he spoke to David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, and author of In Defense of Faith: The Judeo-Christian Idea and the Struggle for Humanity.

Also in the list on the left is "Denis's Columns." They appear to be articles written weekly, and perhaps published only on the website. Under "Meet Denis" is a tab labeled "Books That Most Influenced Dennis." This list, and much of the work that Prager does, implies that Prager sees that ideas are a cause of history. He is a religious activist, intellectual activist, and political activist who puts that view of history into action.

CONCLUSION. Dennis Prager is a mystic in the foundation of his ethics. His intense and sustained activism is devoted to disseminating Judaic ethics, with occasional references to that mysticism carried along in the stream of discussion and debate. He works in a variety of communication channels and addresses a variety of audiences. He knows ideas move history and he is working for the long-term. Dennis Prager is a formidable advocate.

Burgess Laughlin, author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] I have two sources for this sketch. First is the frequently updated collection of biographical notes written by Luke Ford, an admirer of Prager, at http://www.lukeford.net/Dennis/indexp2.html. It was 92 pages long when I printed it out on Aug. 12, 2010. The second source, as a back-up, but not cited in this post, is the Aug. 12, 2010 Wikipedia page for "Dennis Prager." I have not independently verified either source.

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