Is Dr. Laura’s Message Really Good Medicine?
When Laura Schlessinger, radio talk show host and best-selling author, came out with her take on the Ten Commandments it was hard not to notice.
Not since Charlton Heston has a person with so much popularity been associated with the Decalogue. And many would say that this is a good thing for religion. Let’s face it, most would agree that those famous tablets would benefit from some positive PR today. In fact it is pretty obvious that God’s statutes seem to have gone out of style for some. Not only that, but absolutes and standards in general appear to be fading from the postmodern Western consciousness.
Enter radio talk show host Dr. Laura.” She is one of the most well-received and adamant voices for ethics and morality in the world today. A convert to Orthodox Judaism, Laura’s own recent spiritual awakening has had an influence on the 20 million people who regularly tune in to her radio show.
Loathed by the political left, and revered by the right, Dr. Laura inspires anything but indifference. To her credit, her call-in radio show has more listeners than any other, each of her books is a bestseller, and she is the recipient of numerous broadcast and humanitarian awards. Beginning in September of 2000, Dr. Laura will also be seen as well as heard on her own television show.
With such fame comes an equal dose of parody and criticism. Dr. Laura is both admired and disdained for her “preach, teach and nag” approach to advice, and her militant advocacy of moral absolutes.
Her show is not for the faint of heart or the easily offended; her listeners have heard Dr. Laura “tell it like it is.” The less-than-daring are often daunted by Dr. Laura’s unabashed criticism of their poor choices. A woman named Susan called in to talk about her boyfriend’s immature and manipulative behavior:
DR. LAURA: You live with him?
DR. LAURA: You got sexual too soon. You moved in too soon. You got engaged and you are looking square into your future—and saying “yuk.” But instead of making a judgment, you are asking little-girl questions about how you can make him over.
SUSAN: Yeah, I guess so.1
Dr. Laura has never offered her listeners a hand to hold, but instead, a challenge to change. For those unfamiliar with Dr. Laura, the titles of her books should serve as instructive of her approach: How Could You Do That?!: The Abdication of Character, Courage, and Conscience; Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives; and (of course) Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives.
In a time when the western mindset is often predicated by words such as “postmodern” and “pluralistic,” and when the concept of self-help has been divorced from the notion of personal responsibility, the popularity of “Dr. Morality” is an anomaly. The fact that upwards of 300,000 people attempt to call Dr. Laura each week to hear her tell them how they’ve messed up their lives is a story to the fact that people are starving for standards, that relativism and situational ethics just aren’t doing the trick. Dr. Laura has found her niche.
Her explosive popularity and the often controversial positions she takes on issues of morality, such as abortion and homosexuality, have been substance enough for a slew of articles, but it is her book on the Ten Commandments (The Ten Commandments: The Significance of God’s Laws in Everyday Life) that was the catalyst for this article.
Dr. Laura’s Spiritual Search
It was in 1998 that Dr. Laura’s own search for authority and justification for her views and advice culminated in her and her family converting to Orthodox Judaism. Before then, the Schlessinger family would have described their religious life as nominal. Born into what she terms an “interfaith-less” marriage between a Jewish father and an Italian Catholic mother, Dr. Laura acknowledges that she felt a “Jewish connection” all her life, but never a connection to God.
This all began to change one day in 1992 when she stumbled upon a Holocaust film while watching TV with her son. When Deryk demanded an explanation of what was happening to the people on the screen, Dr. Laura replied that they were being murdered because they were Jews. “Momma, who are Jews?” Deryk asked. “Deryk,” she replied, “The Jews are our people. You are a Jew.” He then asked, “Who is a Jew?” She answered, “You know, Deryk, I really don’t know. I’m going to study up and tell you as I find out.” The result was Dr. Laura’s “eventual movement towards God.”2
At that point, Dr. Schlessinger’s radio message became one not just of common sense morals, but of religion as well. The Ten Commandments, co-authored with Rabbi Stewart Vogel, is an unashamed espousal of biblical teaching as a basis for the morality that she has advocated all these years. Dr. Laura is as surprised as anyone at the fact that the book has enjoyed a honeymoon on the New York Times bestseller list.
The Ten Commandments
The Ten Commandments both deserves and demands a messianic Jewish response. Is Dr. Laura’s message really such good medicine? Many in both the Jewish and Christian communities would respond affirmatively. Televangelist Robert Schuller regularly turns his pulpit and program “Hour of Power” over to Dr. Laura, and she writes a weekly column in Jewish World Review. Dr. Laura acknowledges that she is most grateful for the tremendous support she has received from people of all faiths, especially Christians; “It proves that people sincere about their love and awe of God are ultimately of one mind,” she writes in the foreword to The Ten Commandments.3
Sounds very nice and ecumenical, but is it true? For those who consider the Torah to be God’s inspired Word, including religious Jews, Christians and messianic Jews, one would think that it would be more than appropriate to rally ’round Dr. Laura as she champions God’s Law as a standard by which the world should live. She seems to be going against a tide of thought that wants to find spirituality, but without responsibility. Are she and Rabbi Vogel not right in saying, “Ultimately, the modern New Age movements are simply placebos, feeling better without necessarily being better”?4 Perhaps. However, an analysis of Dr. Laura’s remedy for a better self and society reveals that, though her diagnosis may be correct, there is a key element missing from her prescription.
This is not to say she hasn’t come a long way. Having always thought of herself as a “rational” and “scientific” person, she eventually came to feel as though something was “missing personally and professionally.” She was beginning to question the authority behind her moral positions and answers, and found that authority based on such things as her popularity, intelligence, education, experience, or success, was “worthy” and “necessary” but “not sufficient.”5
Dr. Laura describes her reading of Exodus 19 as pivotal in her dramatic discovery of life’s meaning:
And Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.
Dr. Laura realized that there is a God who cares about what we do. “Realizing that I had a God-mandated responsibility to represent His character, love, and ethical will was the meaning I’d been searching for,”6 she writes. The Law was given so that Israel could be a reflection of God to the nations of the world.
Once I absorbed the significance of this religious purpose, my lifestyle, level of happiness, satisfaction, and state of mind and heart changed dramatically.…Being successful is something I’ve worked hard at and earned, and it is gratifying. [However,] going up a rating point is of little interest to me compared with the joy I feel when I meet a family in public who gives me some credit for their joy in staying home with the children, saving the marriage, or giving up a bad habit like drinking. That is my new nonsecular measure of success.7
Dr. Laura takes her responsibility as one of God’s chosen people seriously.
The Jews were to be role models, and their behavior in personal and public life, as commanded by God, would draw others to follow: ultimately resulting in God’s kingdom on earth.…The task of the Jews was not and is not to make Jews of all the world’s peoples but to bring to everyone the knowledge of the presence of God and the basic values commanded by God.8 [She then cites Genesis 12:3.]
An Objective Standard for All?
She states that the Ten Commandments are standards by which everyone, not just Jewish people, should be governed. Since all people are created in the image of God according to Genesis, then we are all accountable to him as our Creator.
Dr. Laura writes, “In ‘civil law’ things are right because they are commanded—by a legislature and judicial system. In ‘God’s law’ things are commanded; therefore, they are right. Man does not define virtue and vice; God is the arbiter of morality. To ‘be’ in the image of God is by God’s definition.”9
In God’s Law, Dr. Laura finally found a consistent authority for her advice to listeners and readers: God said it, so do (or don’t do) it. Period. So far, so good. There is a God and all people are accountable to him. For those who need further reason for such accountability, the motivation is described more than adequately in the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
So there is no greater motivation for obedience to God than gratitude for who he is and what he has done for us. On this point, traditional and messianic Jews can agree. Just how far this obedience gets us in the sight of God is the issue that begins to drive a wedge between the two groups.
According to traditional Judaism, Jews are in a partnership with God to perfect the world. “In Hebrew, this concept is called ‘tikkun olam.’ “Jewish thinking is that everybody is in cahoots with God to perfect the world. God didn’t give us heaven here but gave us an opportunity to try and create it,” Dr. Laura elaborates.10
In other words, after saving us from the bondage of slavery, and revealing to us his commandments, God left us to our own devices to create “Heaven on earth.” According to Schlessinger, after figuring out that God has a standard we are to follow, humanity is pretty much on its own to earn a place in God’s Kingdom. Now, one has only to take a cursory glimpse at the world around us to realize that this is far from taking place.
Dr. Laura would maintain that we have nobody to blame for this but ourselves. The Jewish prophets would agree with her diagnosis. Daniel wrote, “…for the Lord our God is righteous with respect to all His deeds which He has done, but we have not obeyed His voice.”11 Isaiah wrote, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray.”12 What Next?
God has lived up to his end of the covenant mentioned in Exodus 19. He has preserved our Jewish people, but over and over in the Hebrew Scriptures (Tanakh) and in life, we see how we have fallen short of the standards that God has placed before us to follow:
Cursed is the man who does not heed to words of this covenant which I commanded your forefathers in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt.…For I solemnly warned your fathers in the day that I brought them up from the land of Egypt, even to this day, warning persistently, saying, “Listen to My voice.” Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked, each one, in the stubbornness of his evil heart; therefore I brought on them all the words of this covenant, which I commanded them to do, but they did not.13
Even Dr. Laura concedes, “I always say that I’m a serious Jew, not a perfect Jew.”14
So, it’s our fault, right? The question then becomes, are we even capable of the task of becoming righteous enough to “perfect the world?”
Dr. Laura thinks so. She points out that [rabbinic] Judaism holds that God gave people the inclination to good and the inclination to evil along with the command to be holy as God is holy. How is this possible?
Dr. Laura’s prognosis for humanity seems overly optimistic. She maintains that we have the power within ourselves to achieve righteousness by our actions: “The Jewish tradition says: The righteous shall inherit the kingdom. Period. So, if there is an afterlife, I believe the righteous will be there.…”15
Tom Allen, author of A Closer Look at Dr. Laura, observes, “Dr. Schlessinger is radical in her belief that human beings have everything they need to cope with the many problems of life within themselves. According to her, we must rely on ourselves for the courage, wisdom and strength to manage our lives.”16
The question to be asked then is, if we really could do this on our own, what need would there be for a God at all? The change that Dr. Laura is advocating is an external one. She views righteousness in terms of outward expression.
However, God does not command us just to be righteous but also to be holy: “I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.…”17 So what will it take?
Let’s recall Dr. Laura’s own words: “The Israelites were basically given an assignment. By their adherence to a unique way of life…the whole world would come to know, love and obey the One and Only God.”18 What would it take for the whole world to turn to the One and Only God? Our world today needs more than just a change in behavior; it needs a change of heart. As Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, “Send us the cure. We’ve got the sickness already.” What Dr. Laura offers is a placebo or a Band-Aid, not a cure. Redemption, the Missing Concept
What is missing from Dr. Laura’s antidote—and often from her attitude—is the concept of redemption.
The messianic Jewish perspective holds that in order to obtain moral righteousness, one first needs to be redeemed. This requires an act of God. In the same way that it was the Lord who delivered us from Egypt, it must be the Lord who makes us holy. Without an inward change in people, there can be no real healing, “…for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”19 And, “For as he thinks within himself, so he is.”20
The Lord spoke through the prophet Jeremiah, and said he would bring about this change:
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel.…I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”21
Note that God is the one who does this for his people. The people have no part in this action. While God commands obedience, he expels the notion of self-reliance. What does this have to do with the Ten Commandments and our responsibility to do good works?
Enter Jesus (Yeshua) and the messianic Jewish understanding. He did not claim to abolish the Law or the teachings of the prophets, but to fulfill them.22 He believed the Law was good and that it is right for us to do mitzvah, but he knew that none of us were able to keep the Law perfectly. And that is what God requires for us to be redeemed.23
Yeshua satisfied the Law for us in his sacrifice. Yeshua claimed to be the Messiah, the Redeemer of Israel.24
Paul, a first century rabbi, was so convinced of the truth of Yeshua’s claim to be Messiah that he wrote:
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his [God’s] sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith.…25
Paul was talking about faith in Yeshua.
For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us.…26
Just as in the days of our ancestors in Egypt, our motivation for obedience is our personal redemption from slavery—slavery to sin. Our response should be the same as it was in Exodus 19:8: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!”
What Dr. Laura articulates on her show and what the Law teaches is the reality of such a thing as unrighteousness. The Law sets before us a noble but rather unattainable standard so that we are forced to recognize our total dependence on God, and our absolute need, not just for morality but for redemption.
At Shavuot and year round, we, like Dr. Laura, should rejoice over the giving of the Ten Commandments to our people. King David said of the blessed person, “His delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law he meditates day and night.”27 But as we meditate on the Law, we should all the more rejoice if Jesus (Yeshua) is the righteous One who fulfilled it, for in him, we have a way to meet that standard.
As a messianic Jew, I look forward to the day when the law is written on the hearts of all of God’s people, as Jeremiah foretold,
“And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their sin and their iniquity I will remember no more.”28
Of course, that will pretty much put Dr. Laura out of a job.
Works Consulted Goetz, Dave. “Dr. Morality.” Leadership Journal 19(1) (Winter, 1998): 113.
Schrof, Joannie M. “No Whining.” US News and World Report, (July 14, 1997): 48.
“About Dr. Laura.” Taken from the Internet: www.drlaura.com Schlessinger, Laura. How Could You Do That? New York: Harper Collins, 1996.
End Notes 1Laura Schlessinger, Ten Stupid Things That Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives (New York: HarperPerennial, 1995), 103.
2Laura Schlessinger and Rabbi Stewart Vogel, The Ten Commandments (New York: Cliff Street, 1998), xx-xxi.
3Ibid., x. 4Ibid., xxviii. 5Ibid., xx. 6Ibid., xxii. 7Ibid., xxiii-xxiv. 8Ibid., xxiii. 9Ibid., 19.
10“The Conscience of America” Interview by Craig Hamilton. What is Elightenment? Issue 12, online version, published by Impersonal Enlightenment Fellowship, 1997 http://www.wie.org/j12/laura.html
11Daniel 9:14 (NASB) 12Isaiah 53:6 (NIV) 13Jeremiah 11:3,7-8 (NASB)
14The Ten Commandments, xxv.
15Mary Mohler, “Are There Really Angels?” Ladies Home Journal (April, 1998): 43.
16Tom Allen, A Closer look at Dr. Laura (Camp Hill: Horizon, 1998), 89.
17Leviticus 11:44 (NIV)
18The Ten Commandments, xxiii.
19I Samuel 16:7 (NASB) 20Proverbs 23:7 (NASB) 21Jeremiah 31:31-33 (NASB)
22Matthew 5:17 (NASB) 23James 2:10 (NASB) 24John 4:26 (NASB)
25Romans 3:20-22a (NIV) 26Romans 8:3-4a (NIV) 27Psalms 1:2 (NIV) 28Jeremiah 31:34 (NASB)