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An evening with Dennis Prager

A Jew and a Christian muse about goodness, loving God, and bacon

An evening with Dennis Prager

Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa via AP

I think it’s fair to say that anyone who has met Dennis Prager in person would have a hard time disliking the man. You can disagree with his politics, reject his Jewish faith, and criticize his decisions, but sit with the conservative pundit for an hour and you’ll find that he is a down-to-earth, humble guy who’s genuinely interested in people. 

When I asked Prager’s wife Sue if I could interview him for a story (she’s the strict gatekeeper of Prager’s schedule, since it’s his nature to say yes to everything), she invited me to their house. That evening, a crew from PragerU was also there to shoot an episode of “Fireside Chat with Dennis Prager,” a series of short live videos in which Prager sits by the roaring fire in his study and muses about anything from LeBron James to human nature to his favorite cigars. 

So there I sat on a couch, letting Prager’s pudgy, droopy-eyed bulldog Otto slobber over me, when Prager showed up and boomed in his baritone voice, “Well, hello!” He then held up two ties and asked, “Which one matches my shirt?” We decided on the crimson tie, and as he swung it around his neck, he suddenly remembered that he ought to shave. A few minutes later, he was sitting by the fire, cracking jokes as he ran an electric razor around his chin. 

Meanwhile, Otto had plopped down at the one spot where he got in everybody’s way. “Look at him,” Prager marveled, looking delighted. “He couldn’t have picked a worse spot!” Otto soon began snoring loudly with the tip of his pink tongue sticking out, and he was still snoring when the video went live, featuring Prager puffing a fat cigar and pondering the importance of college. (It’s only as important as you make it, he concluded.) 

Prager is a natural speaker—he needs no script, just an abstract thought in his mind that he’ll flesh out into something practical that you can grasp and use. Example: That evening, he challenged parents to ask their children, “What do you think I, your dad or your mom, most want you to be: smart, successful, happy, or good?” And then he said, “Very few parents get the answer ‘good.’ And that should be ... instructive. It means you have not communicated that that’s the most important thing you want your child to be. And the truth is, I don’t think most parents want their child to be good”—at least not as top priority, he said. 

Prager inhaled on his cigar, then continued, “But here’s the killer: Everybody wants everybody else to have ‘being good’ the most important thing in their life. ... But they themselves—that’s not their No. 1 priority!” He let out a wry chuckle and shook his cigar. “Now you know why the world is screwed up!” 

That evening after the shoot, Prager and I drove five minutes down to a family-run diner, where Prager ordered a salad. I ordered a dish with bacon, and when I apologized (Prager keeps kosher), he exclaimed, “Bacon is delicious, are you kidding? I still remember the taste!” 

Turns out, in his early 20s, Prager decided to break some of the Jewish religious laws. Not wanting to break his parents’ hearts, he broke the laws only when he was far away in England as a study-abroad student. He may have tried octopus and pork chops, but even then, Prager tried to keep the Ten Commandments. From the day he left his parents’ house till the day they died, he called them every week, simply because God had said, “Honor your father and your mother.” 

Now, at age 69, having written several best-selling books and created an immensely popular media platform, Prager still tries to keep the Ten Commandments. He contends that if everyone in the world were to accept and obey the Ten Commandments as God-breathed, God-mandated law, then people would be kinder to one another: Peace and justice and goodness would reign. The reason the world is so “screwed up” right now is because people would rather determine good and evil for themselves. “That’s their greatest religion,” Prager said. “Ultimately, they hate the idea that there’s an authority called God. And that’s what I fight against.”

While Prager chewed on his salad, I chewed on what he’d said. It’s not just “those people” who fail to follow the Ten Commandments. It’s me, too. When the Pharisees asked Jesus to name the great commandment, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This, Jesus declared, “is the great and first commandment”—yet it’s a commandment that I break time and time again by placing other things ahead of God in my thoughts and desires. 

Prager agreed: “The hardest law for me in the Torah is to love God.” Jesus said the second great commandment is to “love your neighbor as yourself”—but it’s difficult to love God when you love your neighbors, Prager said: “If you love human beings, how can you love a God who allows them to endure such suffering?” That’s why his favorite verse in Scripture is Psalm 97:10: “Let those who love the LORD hate evil.” In a way, it simplifies the commandments for him: To love God is to pursue goodness, because God is good and wants us to be good.

Though I agreed, I also felt that alone falls short of the commandment to love God with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my might. Prager is primarily preoccupied with the evil out there in the world, which makes it hard for him to love God, while I’m primarily grieved by the evil inside of me—the inability to love God with my whole being. 

But that’s why I so resonate with Psalm 42, where the author moans, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.” I’m in awe of the longing love in Psalm 27, when David sings, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.” And I understand the astounded, responsive love of Lamentations 3:22, when Jeremiah gasps, “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.”

Prager and I both agree it’s not easy to love God. We might differ on how to do so: Prager would probably say he strives to better observe the Law, while for me, the more I try to obey the Law, the more I discover that I can never live up to God’s standards—and that’s why I so desperately need Jesus Christ. 

Comments

  • Lowell W's picture
    Lowell W
    Posted: Tue, 08/14/2018 09:53 am

    I really appreciate Dennis Prager and what he's trying to accomplish in the realm of conservative thinking. His videos on PragerU are great. What Prager is missing out on, though, is believing the one thing that helps us love God above all else - the sending of his Son, Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for our sins, arose, and is at the right hand of the Father. How can anyone make sense of the evil and suffering in the world without understanding God's greatest act of love and grace toward us?

  • Bob C
    Posted: Tue, 08/14/2018 10:16 am

    I have to agree with you Sophia.  It is a whole lot easier to hate the evil that is around us, rather than be troubled by the evil inside of us and our inability to overcome it.  It if was not for Jesus, we would have no assurance of the saving grace, we so desperately need that He freely gives us.