I read The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism in 1989 and found it so persuasive that I converted to Judaism in 1993. Then I found out that it’s ideas are largely absent from Jewish life, even Orthodox Jewish life. Over the years, I moved from frustration that the ideas of Nine Questions were not more important in Jewish life to disillusionment with Mr. Prager and Rabbi Telushkin. For a while, I wondered if they’d sold me a bill of goods. Then I learned to accept that they’d presented an inspiring vision of Judaism.
Novelist Herman Wouk, an Orthodox Jew, called it: “The intelligent skeptic’s guide to Judaism.”
Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin are secondary text guys in the eyes of primary text guys (such as Rabbi David Hartman). Dennis and Joseph write popular stuff, not scholarship. They don’t advance original insights. Instead, they assemble the best work of others and present it in a uniquely engaging way.
Judging by their writing and lecturing, Dennis and Joseph seem to spend most of their Jewish study time with texts about the primary texts of the Jewish tradition. Thus, they are not regarded seriously by many, perhaps most, scholars of Jewish text.
“It’s not Judaism,” many rabbis (such as Danny Landes) told me about Dennis Prager’s presentation of their religion. “It’s Pragerism.”
I’ve always been struck by the awe that thousands of Judaic neophytes such as myself display towards Dennis Prager (we revere him for his ability to rationalize and simplify difficult topics such as Judaism and the meaning of life, etc) and the lack of awe displayed toward him by those who grew up with him, or those who’ve worked with him, or those literate in Jewish text.
It seems to me that those most in awe of Dennis Prager are the least likely to read Hebrew and those who can read Hebrew are the least likely to display awe towards Dennis.
Perhaps part of the explanation is the simple aphorism, “No man is a hero to his butler.”
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in awe of Dennis Prager at the Pico-Robertson Orthodox shuls that Prager once frequented, such as YICC or Aish HaTorah or Beth Jacob.
Is Dennis like Jesus Christ? Both came from non-prestigious communities (Nazareth and Brooklyn). Both started public speaking at a young age (Jesus in the temple at age 12, and Dennis at age 21 speaking on Soviety Jewry). Both preached a simplified version of Judaism that gave greater weight to ethics than ritual. Both were largely rejected by the Jewish leaders of their day. Both had devoted followings among the common people while the intellectuals, more often than not, despised them.
Or perhaps Dennis Prager is more like Paul Johnson, a prophet without honor in his own community?
In Britain, Johnson’s guileless name-dropping, his rages about the ”Church of Sodomy,” as he calls the Church of England, and a penchant for self-contradiction have made him a running joke in the press. In the satirical magazine Private Eye, he is referred to as ”Loonybins.” Everyone in London seems to have a Johnson horror story, many of them relating to what one of the English papers refers to as his ”long and barely secret struggle not to succumb to the bottle.”
On one occasion, a memorial service for his friend Kingsley Amis, Johnson became so apoplectic at a eulogy given by the leftish journalist Christopher Hitchens that he had to be escorted out. Johnson is said by some to have his temper and his drinking under control these days. His wife, Marigold, recently referred to him as ”far less barmy than he used to be.”
Part of the reason Johnson’s writing is not taken seriously in Britain is that there is so much of it. In the country that invented the term ”hack,” Johnson’s prolificacy is simply astounding. While turning out 1,000-page books every couple of years, he produces a weekly column for The Spectator and regular commentaries for The Daily Mail. On a good day he writes 6,000 words. ”I don’t know how many books I’ve published,” he says. ”I think it’s 34. It may be 35.”
In the United States, and particularly in Washington, where he will appear later this month at the Smithsonian with Gingrich, Johnson has a far statelier reputation. American conservatives know him only as a high-toned historian and intimate of Thatcher’s, not as a gassy columnist horrified by the Spice Girls.
…So seriously are his pronouncements taken over here by the right that two scholars at the Manhattan Institute even assembled a book of Johnson aphorisms, ”The Quotable Paul Johnson.” Among Republicans, his name confers instantaneous gravity and class.