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A response to Dr. Laura's abandonment of Judaism

by: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach - Last updated: 2003-08-21

As Arnold Schwarzenegger scrambles to convince voters that he is more than a muscle- man married to a Kennedy, he would do well to emphasize the realism of his Terminator films over the surrealism of California politics. For implausible as it may seem, humankind has come under attack by machines, just as depicted in his movies.

I used to believe terrorists were animals and monsters. But even ravenous beasts of the field have an instinct for self-preservation and a capacity for empathy and feeling. Arab terrorist murderers possess no such instinct. They are entirely bereft of any trace of compassion, sensitivity, pity, or even shame. In short, there is nothing human about
them. They are killing machines.

That Islam has created such inhuman Terminators is a filthy stain on the fabric of a once-great religion. If I were a Muslim I would weep for a faith, once lauded around the world for its civilizing influences, that has become a synonym for bloodthirstiness.

I revere Judaism because it will never condone the slaughter of innocents, whatever the provocation. Jews may take life only in the defense of life, never in revenge. Since Judaism is the ultimate safeguard of Jewish and Israeli morality, any assault upon its usefulness must be vigorously rebutted.

Such censure arrived recently, from the least likely of sources. In her August 5 radio broadcast Dr. Laura Schlesinger, one of America's most listened-to radio hosts and high-profile Orthodox Jews, publicly distanced herself from her adopted faith claiming that she no longer found Judaism fulfilling. She informed her 12 million listeners that while she still "considers" herself Jewish, "my identifying with this entity and my fulfilling the rituals, etc., of the entity - that has ended."

Of her conversion to Orthodox Judaism, Schlesinger said: "I felt that I was putting out a tremendous amount toward that mission, that end, and not feeling a return, not feeling connected, not feeling that inspired."

But she really turned the knife when she praised Christians at the expense of Jews.

"By and large the faxes from Christians have been very loving, very supportive. From my own religion, I have either gotten nothing, which is 99% of it, or two of the nastiest letters I have gotten in a long time. I guess that's my point - I don't get much back. Not much warmth coming back."

She added that she was envious of the Christian faith, and hinted at embracing it. "I have envied all my Christian friends who really, universally, deeply feel loved by God. They use the name Jesus when they refer to God... that was a mystery, being connected to God Time and time again" she was moved by listeners who wrote and described that they had "joined a church, felt loved by God, and that was my anchor."

Dr. Laura's repudiation of her Judaism ranks as some of the shallowest renunciations of personal faith in all human history. It is surely unworthy of America's self-styled moral advocate.

Here is what shook Elie Wiesel's faith, as discussed with bone-chilling emotion in Night: "Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust."

Had Dr. Laura witnessed such horrors, I could be sympathetic to her abandonment of the God of Israel. Had she been Oriah Pass, whose baby daughter, Shalhevet, was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper in Hebron, whose father was axed in the head by an Arab while walking to pray, and whose twin sister, Orital, was stabbed outside the Machpela Cave, I could understand her feeling alienated from the Hebrew God. But to give Judaism up for the shameful reason of not feeling sufficiently appreciated by the Jewish community?

Perhaps the good doctor, famous for telling people to stop whining and get on with their moral obligations, needs to be reminded that religion is not a popularity contest. Lord knows, if failing to be embraced by the Jewish community is a criterion for abandoning Judaism, Moses should never have come down from Mount Sinai, and the Lubavitcher rebbe should have moved to beloved Israel rather than organizing a global Jewish revival from a decrepit neighborhood in Brooklyn.

I have rarely received applause from the Jewish community for my work. But whether they love me or hate me, my people are my people, and my Jewish faith is the soul of my existence.

Could one imagine Mikhail Gorbachev, who garnered less than one percent of the vote when for the last time he ran for president of Russia, announcing that he is becoming an American because he feels more loved in New York than Moscow? And would anyone respect him if he did?

But there is the larger question: Dr. Laura's implying that Christians have a more intimate relationship with God than Jews. I suppose that, on the one hand, she is right. Christians get to visualize a human god - flowing blond locks and all - who once walked the earth and can appear to them in flowing robes at any moment. Likewise, Jesus is so much less
complicated than the Jewish God, promising a place in eternity through a simple act of faith rather than the much more demanding life of righteousness that the God of Isaiah decrees.

But for all my admiration of Christianity, I would rather rot in hell than go to a heaven I hadn't earned. How special could heaven be if one attained it through belief unmatched by moral courage?

WE'RE SORRY, Dr. Laura, if Judaism didn't always make you feel spiritual and fulfilled. You see, we Jews conceive of religion as challenging rather than calming, soul-searing rather than soothing. Judaism demands that we fight our illicit passions, end hunger by giving up our hard-earned cash, and refrain from gossip, no matter how good it feels.

To be a Jew is to pray three times a day even when it bores you to death, to starve in cities where there is no kosher food, and to go into the army to defend your tiny homeland even while American kids your age are partying in Cancun.

And for all that, your reward is to be hated by the other nations of the earth just for wanting to live.

So why do we do it? For the simple opportunity to walk with God, as Abraham did; brave tyranny, like Moses; and sing to God with harp and lyre, like David. These are privileges not to be squandered simply because we don't always feel all giddy inside. Even the most secular Jews have been prepared to be tortured and killed rather than be separated from so glorious a heritage.

Yes, we forlorn Jews have been saddled by a very exacting faith. It is a religion that demands the effacement of our egos and making God the center of our Universe, even if we are not always rewarded with a feeling of His benevolent presence and sometimes even feel positively abandoned by Him. It is a religion that promises no guaranteed rewards other than the satisfaction of doing right because it is right.

The late Yeshayahu Leibovitz pointed out that the quintessential symbol of Christianity is Jesus dying on the cross for the sins of mankind, indicating that God serves the purposes of humans. But Judaism's quintessential symbol is Abraham prepared to slaughter his son, Isaac,
by God's command. Man is created to serve the purposes of God, and not the reverse. God is not a drug by which we get high.

Fairweather Jews like Dr. Laura and my well-meaning Jewish Buddhist friends (Jew-boos) often opt out of Judaism because they feel more spiritual in rapture with Christ or chanting a mantra accompanied by the sweet smell of incense. Judaism's rewards are far more subtle and don't usually appeal to our inner narcissist. It says that the only true reward in life is being a conduit for the divine will.

Over the years Dr. Laura has advised thousands of women to divorce only in the case of the three three "A's" (adultery, abuse, alcoholism). What will they think now that she has essentially said: If you don't find your religion very fulfilling - well, then, just dump it and try another?

Met with the ferocious challenge of assimilation on the one hand and dead Jews on buses on the other, the Jewish people today is in need not of whiners and complainers, but of heroes, bold men and women who can rise to the challenge of renewing Jewish commitment in every age.

Before she turns her back, I would encourage Dr. Laura to reread Moses' words: "For [God's law] is not something empty from you," with the famous talmudic commentary: "If it is empty, it is from you."