The Laura Schlessinger stuff has been circulating enough that a brief comment is warranted. And because she is a public figure whose actions and comments touch on our values, it is halakhically proper for me to make these comments that, in a different context, would be forbidden as lashon hara and motzi shem ra’.
First, I have no comment on Shmuly Boteach’s commentary, attached with the Laura article. In the huge assemblage of those who deeply admire and respect Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, my presence is not to be found.
As for Laura, I was one of the very, very few who quietly hesitated to speak with pride about her adopting Judaism or veering towards Orthodox Judaism. I was bemused by her having converted to Judaism, to Orthodoxy, while still being married to a non-Jew. I did not understand how that works. How do you convert to Judaism authentically if you will be going to bed the next night with someone non-Jewish who is not converting with you? So it all appeared to begin all wrong. Maybe she was not having physical intimacy with a non-Jewish husband. But it was too quirky to run to the front of the line and to get proud. Too California. Too Valley.
Soon, I read that she was forging Jewish religious contacts with a Conservative Jewish temple in Woodland Hills. A Conservative affiliation does not accord with an “Orthodox conversion,” so that did not add up either. Too quirky to get proud. Too California. Afterwards, when a prominent Orthodox organization had her as a featured speaker, and lots of Orthodox people went down to hear her, I opted not to go, was not interested.
I suppose that, in a way, I really wanted to find a way to take pride in her – I like her gusto; I like her feistiness; I like her courage in certain situations. But too much was too quirky. How can someone really participate in the Covenant of Abraham and Sarah by linking with a Temple that denies the authenticity of the Word of the Living G-d? Or appearing to link with a man outside the Covenant? Too Valley.
There is much about her I respect. She took her stand on homosexuality, and that cost her mightily. She probably lost her television program because of that. She stood strongly for other morality issues and did not back down. I felt the maximum sympathy for her when that creep distributed nude photographs that she had allowed him to take decades earlier, when she was so-much younger and less focused on values she later adopted. I felt so bad for her. All her critics were calling her a hypocrite, ridiculing and mocking her. I felt so bad — cannot a person make real mistakes when young and later revise her path? For that matter, can’t a person make mistakes when in his 30s and 40s and 50s and 60s — and later reverse course to a more Torah-defined path? And maybe the life of mistakes allows someone a heightened insight into why the Torah path is better. She was a victim, blackmailed from her past to silence her now. And she weathered the outrage with grace and dignity.
Still, a bunch of her strong positions, her not backing down, are as much a part of her radio schtick as they are the manifestations of courage. So it did not cost her on radio to stand firm on morality issues, to issue tough love to her callers, because her core backing expects that of her. So I am not sure how much of her is about courage. And how much is schtick.
There are many, many quirks in the Dr. Laura persona, and she may be a great and wonderful person, but maybe not. I just do not know. And many things about her bothered me. She tells people to call their parents, but she told Tom Snyder on a TV interview that she had not spoken to her parents for decades. Now that does potentially evince an aspect of hypocrisy. He asked why, and she responded that she did not want to discuss it. Interesting, I thought. She discusses everything else. Not inhibited, she. And she encourages her callers to put their personal lives out front on radio.
Later, when her Mom was found dead a year or two ago, the papers reported that the Mom had died quite some time earlier, but nobody had known for a while that the deceased lay deceased in her Beverly Hills home. I guess Laura really did not call her Mom all that much.
Maybe it is my very modest roots and upbringing, as the grandson of immigrants who, on the paternal side, worked at a fruit stand and, on the maternal side, sewed doll’s shoes, knitted vests, and stocked eggs in the apartment living room to sell on street corners during the Depression. Whatever the reason, I have never been impressed by money, by the lavish spending of money, or by the wealth of those who have that money. Money is good to have, and I know the difference between having it and not having it. I work hard for it, spending most of my weekday time doing work that I would prefer not having to do, because that is the current economic lot that Hashem has put before me. So I respect the value of money. But I am not impressed by the rich, the famous, the wealthy. I am not impressed by the spending of money on lavish things. And no one else should be either. The rich are just like the rest of us.
In the end, one should not be Jewish because Dr. Laura has a passing moment of interest or, as happened during a craze during my college years in the 1970s, because Bob Dylan suddenly was taking an interest in his roots. One day Bob Dylan is meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and a few years later he is meeting with Christian theologians and recording a Grammy-winning Christian Gospel album. One day Madonna is studying Kabbalah, and the next day she is publishing a book of pornographic photographs. One day Dr. Laura is the featured speaker at an Orthodox Jewish group, and one day she is getting love-bombed by Christians hoping to get their hands on a new Jewish convert . . and she is loving it, loving the attention, loving the acceptance.
It sure is nice to be accepted and love-bombed. Definitely. I could use it, too. Plenty. But the only reason to be Jewish is that G-d gave the Torah to His Chosen People at Mount Sinai. We are that ChosenPeople. If we follow that Torah — not picking and choosing the parts we like, but really follow that Torah – then we are where we should be. As long as we still are picking and choosing, we need to ask ourselves whether we are on a journey. If we are on a journey to increase our Torah core, our Torah knowledge, our observance, to learn more Torah so that we may respect and observe more, that is where we should be. But if we are on a journey, rudderless, doing it merely because we were born into it by accident and do not really have a spiritual source to our motivation — if we are doing it because it just seems the thing to do, and not rooted in a deeper spirituality at the root source — then either we are no different from Dr. Laura (just less famous and wealthy) . . . or we are the kinds of people who helped give her an excuse to veer away from whatever Judaic path she had begun to walk.
Why are we Jewish? Why do we do it? These are real questions to ask. “Just because”? Perhaps that kind of answer is not good enough. There has to be a spiritual core. For example, Shabbat needs to be spiritual, not just ritual rote. Sure, the Shabbat table needs to be a place where people eat kosher food. But that is not enough. The oven and stove with which the food is prepared need to be kosher. But that is not enough. The dishes on which the food is placed have to be kosher and permissible for use. But that is not enough. Because the discussion at the Shabbat table has to be rich, substantive. It has to be about ideas, not things. If one must talk about things, the discussion must not be about people. Then the Shabbat table is healthy and rich.
Too much of Dr. Laura’s livelihood is about people. Yes, she tries imbuing her show with ideas, but she knows that her listeners are not all drawn by the drama of ideas, not by the drama of things, but by the drama of listening to schmutz, to gossip, to people talking about people, to hapless individuals calling in for seven minutes of drive-in therapy. That is why she gets the Arbitron ratings. For that matter, that dynamic is why Jerry Springer draws higher ratings than did Dick Cavett or than does Charlie Rose.
And that is where the problem with Dr. Laura always returns. Because there is a modesty in speech, a modesty in behavior that kind-of conflicts with the drama of the mass-media persona. The public figure gets so caught-up so deeply with her self-promotion and with mass adulation that she loses touch with Emes, with truth. People fawn, and the public figure becomes accustomed to the fawning. Then, when she joins a group that does not fawn with sufficient consistency, she is disappointed. Why don’t they fawn?
Now she has new religionists – from a different faith community — to fawn. So be it. If they cannot win over converts from Judaism among those who studied in yeshiva, they at least can focus on winning those higher in profile.
Ultimately, the lessons that Laura teaches us through this escapade are powerful if we learn them. Ersatz Judaism is not the Torah. The Torah is not merely the Five Books of Moses. Rather, Torah is about a Written Law, an Oral law, and associating and affiliating with a community of observant Jews who, by their practice, live by the words and practice the laws. There is plenty of slack, plenty of room for evolving commitment. It is rare that someone normal would, overnight, accept and successfully practice all the Torah. Indeed, arguably the more stable personality needs time to evolve and to accept. But when too much Valley glitz is sprinkled, and things just do not make sense, there often is good reason for wondering whether the quirkiness belies, well, quirks in the story. And here they do.