For decrying a Muslim congressman who wished to take a ceremonial oath of office on a Quran instead of a Bible, should KRLA-AM radio host Dennis Prager be punished?
Specifically, should he be kicked off the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council? That is what a diverse range of Prager critics — from the Council on American-Islamic Relations to former New York Mayor Ed Koch — have demanded.
Someone outside the Jewish community might not grasp what serious business this is. In our crazy, mixed-up Jewish world, with the Holocaust being the object of veneration that it unfortunately has become, to be elevated to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council is the equivalent of honorary knighthood.
However absurd the symbolism, revoking Prager’s Holocaust credentials would be a way of revoking his status as a communal leader. Which would be a sad mistake.
For Prager is one of a handful of America’s most valuable Jews. Why? Because of the role he has taken as a foremost Jewish spokesman for the Bible. I don’t mean he’s some sort of radio preacher. But when appropriate, in his daily discussions with callers on political and cultural subjects, he often brings in a scriptural perspective — without apology, always with a light touch, as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
That is what it means to be a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), as God commanded us to be. However, it’s rare indeed to hear a Jew on the radio or on TV invoking actual Jewish values before the world.
This explains the Quran controversy, in which Prager has objected less to Rep Keith Ellison’s (D-Minn.) photo-op swearing-in on the Muslim holy book than to his not swearing on the Bible.
Admittedly, Prager’s emphasis on the Bible has a downside. For one thing, strangely, he argued that even a Jewish officeholder should swear on the holy Bible, including the Christian Bible. But while Muslims revere the personalities in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, Jews do not revere the principle figure in the Christian Bible, Jesus.
Equally eccentric, Prager’s personal biblical theology holds the five books of Moses to be God’s word, while relegating the ancient oral Torah that explains Scripture to the status of mere rabbinic opinion.
Recently, at the Orthodox Union’s West Coast convention in Los Angeles, he participated in an amiable debate with a local Orthodox rabbi. Prager detailed those Jewish laws deriving from oral tradition that he finds irrational or irrelevant. The rabbi responded graciously but, alas, in piecemeal rather than philosophical terms. I’d love to debate Prager on this myself. I would show that the very essence of Judaism is not the written but the oral Torah.
And yet, Prager’s emphasis on Scripture may work to his advantage as a Jewish “priest.” It helps him clarify and simplify the important debate going on in American culture about the authority of biblical teaching.
Another highly valuable Jewish radio commentator, Michael Medved (who likewise may be heard on KRLA), has admirably summarized that debate. It turns upon the question of whether secular culture should be the gauge by which biblical religion is judged or the other way around.
Apart from these general considerations, Prager also makes a defensible point about the Quran. Again, we come back to the Bible. Prager, in effect, asked if the Quran deserves positive recognition of the kind it would receive in a swearing-in ceremony, the same way the Bible does. The answer is no. The Muslim scriptures do not deserve that recognition.
That is because what has made America so special, so attractive to immigrants of all faiths and nationalities, may be traced back to a unique blending of Christian and Jewish beliefs. In one’s personal spiritual life, combining traditions may be suspect. It certainly is in Jewish theology.
But in American history, it resulted in something wonderful. For about 12 centuries, from the time Christianity entered into political power with the rule of Emperor Constantine until the founding of the British colonies in North America, Christianity was not notable as a force for moral good in the world.
That changed with the coming of American democracy, a most enthusiastically Christian country with a secular government. Goodness seemed to reenter the history of Christianity on the public stage. Since then, morally speaking, Christianity has been getting better and better.
What changed in the religion to produce the miracle of the American founding?
Answer: American history has consistently highlighted Christianity’s Hebrew heritage. As historian Robert Royal writes in his excellent book, “The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West” (Encounter, 2006): “The Puritans who fled the king’s persecution in 17th century England arrived in America and consciously compared their freedom in the New World to the [Jews’ in] the Promised Land…. When the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, the first modern democratic constitution, were written in 1638, they did not refer to Greece, Rome, John Locke’s works (he was only 6 years old at the time), the Enlightenment (a century in the future) or any of the other commonly cited sources for the idea.
“They were inspired by Thomas Hooker, a preacher, who pointed out to the Hartford General Assembly God’s commandment in Deuteronomy that having left Egypt and now being about to enter the Promised Land, the Israelites choose their own judges…. References to the Jewish Exodus as parallel to the American situation were frequent in the writings of the American founders over the next two centuries.”
The precious gift of America was determined by a fusion of Christian and Jewish ideals, the Christian Bible with the Hebrew Bible. The Quran played no role whatsoever.
No one — including Prager, as he has since clarified his position — would want to see a congressman legally forbidden from swearing on any holy book he may choose.
However, the spectacle of Ellison with his Quran is at best confusing, at worst an affront. It should be recognized as such.
Prager merely reminded of us these truths. In the almost total absence of other prominent Jewish voices of any denomination defending the relevance of the Hebrew Bible to our public and private lives, I’m proud of and grateful for him.
David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a columnist for The Forward and author of “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).