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Orthodox Group Honors Dr. Laura


Bucking liberal objections to the country's top-rated radio host and her critical remarks about homosexuality, a leading Orthodox Jewish organization is set to honor "Dr. Laura" Schlessinger this weekend for her "traditional American moral values."

This Sunday the National Council of Young Israel is expected to present Ms. Schlessinger with the organization's Heritage Award. A convert to Judaism, the multimedia powerhouse is best known for berating advice-seeking callers to her radio program about their moral shortcomings as parents, spouses, children and people.

The executive director of Young Israel, Rabbi Pesach Lerner, said Ms. Schlessinger was chosen because of her success "in changing the moral compass of this country," on issues such as abortion, abstinence and homosexuality. He also cited her personal religious journey that eventually led her to adopt an Orthodox lifestyle.

Young Israel's decision to honor Ms. Schlessinger is sure to jolt liberal and traditional Jews alike: With 20 million listeners and a tendency to present her conservative views as an outgrowth of her Orthodox Jewish faith, Dr. Laura may well be Judaism's top ambassador to middle America. At a time when Americans are displaying an ever-increasing interest in all things Jewish — from kabbala to Senator Joseph Lieberman to "Kosher Sex" — Dr. Laura is the most popular source for a healthy dose of Jewish nagging, guilt trips and what she presents as lessons in good old-fashioned Torah values.

The problem, according to her liberal critics, is that Ms. Schlessinger pushes a conservative, pro-life platform that is out of touch with the mostly liberal American Jewish public. Worse, they say, is that her "sanctimonious" moralism and harsh style are more a reflection of American Puritanism than the ancient rabbinic tradition.

"It's sad that with all the outstanding individuals doing great work, the National Council of Young Israel has chosen someone whose comments have been so divisive within and outside of the Jewish community," said Rabbi Douglas Kahn, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco.

Rabbi Kahn said he was referring in particular to the controversy sparked by Ms. Schlessinger's claim that homosexuality is "deviant" and a "biological error." Last year gay rights organizations and other liberal groups organized a boycott of Ms. Schlessinger's new television show, which was eventually cancelled due to poor ratings.

More than a dozen Jewish leaders signed a critical letter to Ms. Schlessinger, including Rabbi Paul Menitoff, the executive vice president of the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis.

In a failed attempt to deflate the brouhaha, Ms. Schlessinger took out an ad around the time of Yom Kippur in the special "Gay Hollywood" edition of Daily Variety. "On the Day of Atonement, Jews are commanded to seek forgiveness from people we have hurt," she said in the ad. "I deeply regret the hurt this situation has caused the gay and lesbian community."

Since the controversy over Ms. Schlessinger's statements first erupted, one Jewish institution, the Hebrew Academy of San Francisco, withdrew an invitation for Ms. Schlessinger to speak at its annual medical ethics conference, held this month.

The Anti-Defamation League declined to join the national boycott effort, but sent Ms. Schlessinger a letter last year conveying the organization's worry that her remarks could be used to "justify acts of violence or discrimination against gays and lesbians." Despite these concerns, Abraham Foxman, the national director of the ADL, told the Forward this week that he had no problem with Young Israel's decision to honor Ms. Schlessinger.

"She's not in the ilk of a Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, guys who on all issues go to the extreme. We happen to think that on the issue [of homosexuality] what she said was offensive to people and brought it to her attention, period," Mr. Foxman said. "Certainly the Orthodox community shares a lot of common language with her, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that they invited her to speak and decided to honor her."

Orthodox Jews base their objections to homosexuality on the prohibition against homosexual acts found in Leviticus. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements ordain homosexuals and allow for religiously sanctioned same-sex unions; the Conservative movement does neither, but has been debating both issues in recent years.

Ms. Schlessinger was born to a Jewish father and an Italian Catholic mother, but was raised without religion, she has said in interviews. Prompted by questions from her son, Derek, while they watched a Holocaust documentary, Ms. Schlessinger began to research her Jewish roots and ended up converting under the auspices of Conservative Judaism. She later joined the Chabad-Lubavitch of Conejo in the Los Angeles area and underwent an Orthodox conversion two years ago.

The Chabad congregation's rabbi, Moshe Bryski, said Ms. Schlessinger regularly attends and "fits in just like every other Jew."

"She davens and socializes," Rabbi Bryski said. "She's just a normal person here, and that's the way she likes it."

Rabbi Lerner said he first made contact with Ms. Schlessinger via Rabbi Bryski. She attended a smaller Young Israel event in June, at which she challenged the group and the rest of the Jewish community to speak out in favor of traditional morality.

"I can't tell you that she has smicha [rabbinical ordination] or that I vouch for everything that she says," Rabbi Lerner said. "But, if after listening to her, people understand the moral values of Judaism and respect Judaism, then all the power to her."

In an e-mail message to the Forward, Ms. Schlessinger said she was "disappointed" but not "surprised" that more Jewish groups had not supported her fight for traditional values.

However, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, one of Conservative Judaism's leading scholars, said that Ms. Schlessinger misrepresents the Jewish tradition.

"She takes on the stance of being holier-than-thou when in point of fact the Jewish tradition understands that people make mistakes," said Rabbi Dorff, the rector at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

Rabbi Dorff acknowledged that traditional Judaism offers a coherent message about the importance of family, ethics and responsibility. However, he added, Ms. Schlessinger ignores the fact that even some of the most revered codifiers of Jewish law worried that people would wrongly view the Jewish tradition in black-and-white terms or misapply traditional teachings.

"It's precisely because she has such a big audience that the damage is all the worse," said Rabbi Dorff, who signed the letter protesting Ms. Schlessinger's remarks regarding homosexuals. "I just hate to see Judaism misrepresented that way to so many people, both in tone and substance."

Rabbi Lerner countered that one can take issue with her brash style, but not her results in promulgating traditional Judaism's commitment to "family values."

Another Conservative scholar, Rabbi Shaul Magid, said the whole controversy surrounding Ms. Schlessinger underlines the inherent dangers of "outreach Judaism."

"Religious communities have sold themselves out to kiruv," said the Jewish Theological Seminary professor, referring to the Hebrew term used to describe outreach efforts. In the current edition of JTS Magazine, Rabbi Magid lamented the downside of efforts by "Kosher Sex" author Shmuley Boteach, an Orthodox rabbi, and others to "popularize" Judaism. However, he told the Forward, "Shmuley is a tzadik [righteous man] compared to Dr. Laura."

"Jewish leaders are just diving to get out any Judaism that can go out on the airwaves," Rabbi Magid said. "I think there are going to be consequences."

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