April 2000 Vol. 81 No. 8
One on One:
Portrait of Joseph Telushkin
By Barbara Trainin Blank

At a time when sex, violence and inane humor dominate TV-land, there is a mini-trend in shows that offer doses of spirituality. One contributor is a rabbi who not only ministers to the stars but, through books and lectures, to the world at large.

As an ethicist Rabbi Joseph Telushkin doesn't take offense if you call him a late bloomer. He believes in truth tempered with hesed (loving-kindness).

Besides, he more than caught up. Married at 39, Telushkin and his wife, the former Devorah Menashe, had three children in four years. "Funny, I married late, but it was easy once I got married," Telushkin says, laughing. "I don't know why I didn't do it before." The couple is also raising Devorah's 20-year-old daughter from her first marriage.

Once shy, always serious, Telushkin, 51, was recently named by talk magazine as one of the "50 best talkers in America." He is a sought-after lecturer and part-time rabbi of the Los Angeles Synagogue for the Performing Arts, which caters to worshipers in the entertainment business.

Today an internationally known author of nonfiction works on Jewish themes and a handful of novels, Telushkin was an indifferent student who graduated in the bottom quarter of his high-school class. "I tended not to do well if I wasn't innately interested in something," says the rabbi.

Telushkin's best-selling Judaic books include Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History; and Biblical Literacy, a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.

His Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well became the motivating force behind the 1995 Senate Resolution No. 151, proposed by Senators Joseph Lieberman and Connie Mack to establish a "National Speak No Evil Day."

Due out this month is the work Telushkin considers his most affecting to date: The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-by-Day Guide to Ethical Living (Bell Tower). "A major concern of mine is that somehow the term 'religious' became exclusively connected with ritual," he says. "If someone eats nonkosher, no one would call him a religious Jew. But if he speaks lashon ha'ra [gossip] or is otherwise unethical, yet performs all the rituals, we do. This gives the impression that ethics are an extracurricular activity. I want to restore ethics to its central place in Judaism."

Placing Telushkin into a neat religious category isn't easy. His family was Modern Orthodox, but he wears a black velvet kippa. His semikha (ordination) is from Yeshiva University and he has studied at the religious-nationalist yeshiva Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel. Yet he does not consider himself an ideologue.

"[Rabbi] Yitz Greenberg likes to say that he doesn't care what denomination a person belongs to, as long as he's ashamed of it," Telushkin says. "But seriously, each movement is committed to tikkun olam."

A quest for justice and a love of "any kind of writing" led Telushkin into the realm of mystery novels. One of them, An Eye for an Eye, became the basis in 1997 for four episodes of the WABC-TV series The Practice.

Telushkin recently completed an episode for television's Touched by an Angel, which he wrote for actor Kirk Douglas, to air mid-March, and has been invited to write another. He was also cowriter and associate producer of the 1991 award-winning film The Quarrel.

A new project is what Telushkin calls "a kind of Dear Abby" general ethics column on the Internet as part of the Beliefnet Web site (www.belief net.com; check the morality section).

Telushkin's first two books-The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism and Why the Jews: The Reason for Antisemitism-were collaborations with talk-show host Dennis Prager, a close friend and fellow graduate of the Yeshiva of Flatbush High School in Brooklyn.

Early on, Prager discovered qualities for which Telushkin has become known and respected: intellectual strength and honesty as well as compassion. "We spent a lot of time in high school discussing massive Jewish and universal issues," Prager says. "That's what first drew me to Joseph. Of course, we also discussed the normal things-especially girls."

Devorah Telushkin says she had a "litmus test" to decide which man might make a potentially good father for her then six-year-old child. She would put both suitor and daughter in front of a checkerboard, reasoning that you can learn a lot about a person from the way he plays a game.

"Some guys would get angry if my daughter tried to double-jump, while others might gloat at winning," she recalls. "But Joseph taught her how to strategically beat him. She loved him right away."

Telushkin's relationship with Devorah, who in Master of Dreams wrote of her experiences as assistant to author I. B. Singer, had to overcome another major hurdle. At the time they met, Telushkin had been living in Israel for four years. He returned to the States only because his father was very sick, fully intending to return to Israel. Meeting Devorah made it an impossible dream, since custody arrangements for her daughter required residency in the United States. "I loved Israel," Telushkin says. "And I still think of going back. But as you get older, it gets harder and harder."

Telushkin peppers both his conversations and books with anecdotes, biblical and other quotations, as well as humor. "The rabbi was once asked by an elderly couple if they could accept money from their son in America who isn't observant," Telushkin says in his quiet way. "His answer was: the boy still keeps one law, which is to honor his father and mother, and you want to take it away from him?"

Telushkin also incorporates examples from everyday life. When he was Scholar-in-Residence at Temple Beth El in Harrisburg, many participants commented about one of those examples.

"Rabbi Telushkin talked about how most of us get annoyed when we hear a siren," recalls Eric Lankin, former rabbi of the congregation, now of Highland Park, New Jersey. "Instead, he suggested we should focus on the fact that a siren means someone is suffering and stop and say a prayer. Not only because God hears prayers but because praying connects us with the spirituality of the moment and with our fellow human beings. To me that was incredibly important. It cuts to the real challenge of human interaction, and it was real Torah."

Telushkin's humanity and self-definition as nondenominational help explain his broad appeal. When he spoke recently at a Conservative Long Island synagogue, the audience that flooded in was from the community's Orthodox and Reform congregations as well. One member of the local Young Israel called Telushkin's presentation "not only interesting but funny and full of fresh insights."

"It hadn't occurred to me, for example, that the only place the Tanakh expressly states that a woman loved a man occurs with Saul's daughter Michal and King David," he says. "Telushkin showed how the unkind words used by both of them, but especially David, during a quarrel destroyed the love and had tragic consequences.'

This year Telushkin was also a cohost with Rabbi David Woznica of the Forum on Contemporary Values series at New York's 92nd St. Y. In one lively session hundreds of people of all ages turned out to hear a dialogue with another popular preacher, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of Kosher Sex. The topic: Jewish approaches to sexuality.

Telushkin admits that being called an ethicist sometimes gives him pause. "I don't want my life to bear scrutiny," he admits. "That's what keeps people from advocating ethics, because it opens them to that scrutiny."

In a life full of achievement, what does Telushkin, an associate of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL), still aspire to? He has a dream: to write the equivalent of the Shulkhan Aruch (code book) for ethics. Only, in Telushkin style, it will include anecdotes.

Telushkin has grown used to surprises. Nine Questions People Ask began life as a pamphlet based on lectures given by Prager-with one less question and no publisher. It was only after the self-published work sold an astounding 30,000 copies that Simon & Schuster expressed interest.

Besides, when it comes to the future, Telushkin admits to "an oddity." He doesn't think about it.