Dennis Prager is so well-known among English-speaking audiences that he needs no introduction. For those who are not followers, or are unfamiliar with his writing and lectures, there are his videos on YouTube; a popular radio show; Prager University – whose five-minute courses were viewed a billion times in 2018; and numerous bestsellers he has authored, including The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, Why the Jews? The Reason for Anti-Semitism, and Happiness Is a Serious Problem. His websites are www.dennisprager.com and www.PragerU. com.
Exodus is the first volume of Prager’s examination of the Five Books of Moses, a project, which he calls The Rational Bible. He began his commentary with Exodus rather than Genesis because as he explains, Judaism – ethical monotheism – is based on the Ten Commandments that were given by God to the Jewish People at Sinai. Belief in God, the essence of Judaism, he asserts, is meaningful only as part of a moral code and as it defines the mission of the Jewish People to mankind.
Similar to Rabbi Moses Maimonides who wrote almost a thousand years ago, Prager challenges his readers to reexamine Torah rationally as a moral structure, and holiness as a moral imperative. His inquiry references not only Torah scholars, but a wide range of prominent thinkers, peppered with thought-provoking questions and enticing essays. His inquiry, moreover, not only offers a deeper understanding of Judaism, and the link between faith in One God and the Ten Commandments, but he warns against the potential moral collapse of societies, civilizations and individuals as they abandon God and the Bible. A sense of holiness is necessary to protect an ethical structure that in turn protects who we are, as individuals and groups. Without it, we are lost.
For Prager, Judaism is about teaching values to the world. As he explains, the consequence of emphasizing faith without a moral/ethical system and ethics without a belief in God leads to confusion, chaos and devastation. The implications of his analysis are profound – controversial and disturbing to some, they are, I believe, critical to our survival as a civilization. When morality and ethics are not based on a belief in God, there is no longer anything which can be objectively called “good” or “evil.” “The existence of a moral God is necessary for morality to objectively exist.” Specifically, that is, “… the God of Creation and of the Ten Commandments.”
As Prager explains, “The God introduced by the Torah is the first God in history to have been entirely above and beyond nature. And one of the first things God tells humans is to exercise dominion over nature. This liberated humanity from believing it was controlled by nature, a revolution that made moral and scientific progress possible.”
The Torah’s concept of God “brought universal morality into the world. Only if a moral God is universal, is morality universal. Morality was no longer local or individual.” And it introduced “holiness – the elevation of human beings from animals to creatures created in the divine image.”
God is not only the source of life, Prager reminds us; He is the source of Goodness and a moral/ethical life.
“The God introduced by the Torah gives every individual unprecedented self-worth. Since all humans are created in God’s image, each of us is infinitely valuable.” It proclaimed “human brotherhood” and “human equality,” it led to abolishing slavery, it “opened the mind to abstract thought” that “the physical is not the only reality,” and that “there is ultimate meaning to existence and to each of our lives.”
In a fascinating analysis of the Torah chapter devoted to the Ten Commandments, he demonstrates how many nuanced meanings can be drawn from a simple phrase. Although most literate people in the world know the Ten Commandments, they (and I admit myself included until I read this book) take it for granted and fail to appreciate and understand its significance. Prager’s examination and questions are intended to stir critical thinking.
Why do the Ten Commandments begin with God recounting the Exodus? Why didn’t God introduce Himself as the Creator of the World? What are the “false gods” of our time? Does God really get “jealous?” What’s so bad about using God’s name in vain? Why are not stealing and bearing false witness so important? Why is “coveting” the only private thought prohibited in the Ten Commandments?
If you would like to invite a first-rate intellectual and scholar to become part of your Torah discussions, Prager’s book will be a welcome guest. The line-by-line format is easy to follow and packed with insight. Prager’s book is meant for inquiring minds, such as yours. Enjoy! ■
Moshe Dann is a PhD historian, writer and journalist living in Jerusalem
God, Slavery, and Freedom
God, Slavery, and Freedom
The Rational Bible
Regnery Faith, 2018
520 pages; $27.19 (Hardcover)